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Explained: The outrage over a WSJ piece asking Jill Biden to drop her ‘Dr’ title

The WSJ piece sparked massive outrage on social media with people calling it sexist, misogynist and emblematic of the ways men question women’s credentials.

Written by Surbhi Gupta , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 21, 2020 3:04:49 pm
Jill Biden, wife of President-elect Joe Biden, helps to prepare care packages for American troops deployed overseas during the holidays, at the DC Armory in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. (AP Photo)

An opinion piece by writer-editor Joseph Epstein, 83, in the Wall Street Journal that urged educator and incoming First Lady Jill Biden to stop using the ‘Dr’ title led to outrage on social media. Many, including public figures and women in academia, found the suggestion sexist. A doctorate in education from the University of Delaware, Biden has been a professor of English at the Northern Virginia Community College since 2009. Called “Dr B” by her students, she is also the first Second Lady to hold a paying job during her husband’s tenure and plans to do the same for the next four years.

What did Epstein say in the opinion piece?

Published on Friday, Epstein opened his piece by addressing Biden as: “Madame First Lady — Mrs Biden — Jill — kiddo”. Many found the latter patronising. He asked her to drop the ‘Dr’ before her name, for he thought Dr Jill Biden “sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic”.

He also called the title of her dissertation — ‘Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs, “unpromising”. He goes on to tell Biden to “forget the small thrill of being Dr Jill” and settle for the “larger thrill” of being the “First Lady Jill Biden”.

President-elect Joe Biden walks offstage with his wife Jill Biden after speaking after the Electoral College formally elected him as president, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. (AP)

What response did the piece receive?

The WSJ piece sparked massive outrage on social media with people calling it sexist, misogynist and emblematic of the ways men question women’s credentials. Many women with PhDs added Dr to their names on Twitter in solidarity and used the hashtags #MyTitleIsDr and #DrJillBiden to talk about their experiences. A number of medical doctorate holders came out in Biden’s support, crediting it “as valid as it gets”, and tweeted about how difficult it is to get a PhD.

Michael LaRosa, a spokesman for Biden, called Epstein’s piece a “disgusting and sexist attack” and urged the publication to remove it and apologise, while Biden responded indirectly in a tweet, saying: “Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished.”

Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr, recalled that her father also used the title Dr despite not being a medical doctor. Former First Lady Michelle Obama wrote on Instagram: “For eight years, I saw Dr Jill Biden do what a lot of professional women do — successfully manage more than one responsibility at a time, from her teaching duties to her official obligations in the White House to her roles as a mother, wife, and friend.” Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff wrote on Twitter: “Dr Biden earned her degrees through hard work and pure grit. She is an inspiration to me, to her students, and to Americans across this country.  This story would never have been written about a man.”

How did the Wall Street Journal respond?

The editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, Paul A Gigot, accused the strategists of President-elect Biden of instigating a coordinated response to the op-ed article, adding that the complaints that began as a “trickle” became a “torrent” after the Biden media team elevated Epstein’s work “in what was clearly a political strategy”. “Why go to such lengths to highlight a single op-ed on a relatively minor issue? My guess is that the Biden team concluded it was a chance to use the big gun of identity politics to send a message to critics as it prepares to take power. There’s nothing like playing the race or gender card to stifle criticism,” he wrote. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

How is Jill Biden different from previous First Ladies?

It is unusual for a First Lady in the United States to hold a paying job with official duties. Biden had broken the mould by teaching at a community college when she was the Second Lady, and has announced that she will continue to do the same as the First Lady.

History of the title doctor

Responding to the controversy, Merriam Webster published the “English language history” of the word doctor. First used in the early 14th century, the word was applied to select eminent theologians who had a special approval from the Roman Catholic Church to talk about the doctrines of the Church. They were teachers of a kind, and the word’s origin makes this connection. Doctor comes from the Latin word for teacher, from docere meaning to teach. By the end of the century’s, it was also used for accomplished academics and medical practitioners.

In the 19th century, the title was widely contested, and people were sued for using doctor on calling cards or advertisements if they hadn’t graduated from a recognised medical school. Since then the title has been used by both doctorate holders and medical professionals. However, the expansion of professional doctorates in clinical fields has led to further disputes between physicians and other medical professionals over who can use the title in a clinical context.

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