When the Toronto Globe & Mail announced that in future only medical doctors would be accorded the title ‘Dr’, it probably wasn’t expecting this news to cause much of a stir. But then a historian with a Ph.D objected:
This tweet provoked an avalanche of criticism–directed not to the Globe & Mail‘s new style-rule, but to the arrogance and conceit of Fern Riddell. And as she later told the BBC, she couldn’t help noticing that her critics were mostly men. A lot of men seemed to be outraged by a woman claiming the status of an expert and expecting others to acknowledge her as such. ‘Humility Dr Riddell’, tweeted one. ‘There’s no Ph.D for that’.
But why should women humble themselves when other people are there to do it for them? As I explained in an earlier post, the treatment of women in professional and public settings is demonstrably affected by a ‘gender respect gap’: while this disrespect takes multiple forms, one salient manifestation of it is the withholding of professional and respect titles. It doesn’t just happen in academia: a 2017 study showed that women hospital doctors are less likely than their male counterparts to be referred to by male colleagues with the title ‘Dr’, and in 2016 women lawyers in the US campaigned for the American Bar Association to make the use of endearment terms like ‘honey’ a breach of professional standards. Meanwhile, British school teachers have complained for decades about the convention whereby men are addressed as ‘sir’ while women of all ages get the rather less respectful ‘miss’.
Among the women who responded to Fern Riddell, a common complaint was that when titles are an issue there’s a relentless focus on women’s marital status. Some said they used their academic title as a way of dodging the dreaded ‘is that Miss or Mrs?’ But they also said that the answer ‘Dr’ was often met with a pained look or a sharp intake of breath. One woman tweeted that she had recently attended a ceremony honouring her for her academic work, and found that because her husband has the title ‘Sir’, she’d been listed as ‘Lady X’ rather than ‘Professor X’. Others pointed out that some airlines still won’t let passengers who tick the ‘female’ box select ‘Dr’ from the title menu–though women doctors, both medical and academic, existed long before there were online booking forms.
When women’s professional credentials are so routinely ignored, telling them to pipe down about their Ph.Ds just adds insult to the original injury. But in this case what motivated the insult wasn’t only disrespect: something else was also going on. And there’s a clue to what it was in the hashtag Riddell created as a riposte to the men who attacked her: #ImmodestWomen.
The word ‘immodest’ was an apt choice. What Riddell’s critics found most objectionable clearly wasn’t the fact that she had a Ph.D, it was her insistence on drawing public attention to that fact. Her sin was not to be an expert but to say in so many words, ‘I am an expert’. That was what prompted slap-downs like the sniffy ‘if you need to tell people you’re an expert you probably aren’t’, and the sententious ‘humility, Dr Riddell!’ Lurking behind these comments was the culturally-ingrained belief that a ‘good’ woman is by nature modest. However exceptional her talents, she does not give herself airs or seek applause. Even Marie Curie, noted one commenter, was content to be known as ‘Madame’. Who did Fern Riddell think she was, showing off about her qualifications and demanding to be referred to as ‘Dr’?
Historically modesty has been seen, along with chastity, piety and obedience, as a quintessentially female virtue, a quality women should cultivate not only as evidence of their goodness, but also as a mark of their femininity. Today the concept of modesty is most strongly associated with religious dress-codes, but in the past it regulated every aspect of a woman’s conduct: its demands dictated not only what she wore, where she went and how she spent her time, but also–and for my purposes most significantly–how she spoke.
The association of female speech with immodesty is a theme that goes back to antiquity. Particular concern was expressed about women speaking in public places or to strangers: Plutarch maintained that a virtuous woman ‘should as modestly guard against exposing her voice to outsiders as she would guard against stripping off her clothes’. In many contexts what modesty required of women was silence; if they were called upon to speak they were told to make their contributions brief, quiet, measured, discreet and dignified. Whereas men of high social rank were expected to cultivate eloquence, women were praised for their reticence.
Similar ideas figured prominently in advice books written for bourgeois Protestant readers in early modern England. One popular example, entitled ‘A Godly Forme of Household Gouernment’, instructed husbands to ‘be skillful in talk’ while exhorting their wives to ‘boast of silence’. This commandment, grounded in Biblical authority (notably St Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians to ‘let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak’), would be repeated for the next several centuries. As late as 1837, a group of Christian ministers in Massachusetts issued a pastoral letter denouncing women like the Grimké sisters, abolitionists who lectured publicly on the evils of slavery. Such immodest and unnatural behaviour, the letter warned, could only end in disaster: the women who engaged in it would ‘not only cease to bear fruit, but fall in shame and dishonor into the dust’.
Modern secular advice texts for women, like the etiquette books and ‘guides for brides’ which were widely read during the 20th century, turned away from the religious language of modesty and shame, but they continued to give substantially the same advice: don’t talk too much, don’t talk about yourself, don’t try to compete on men’s turf with ostentatious displays of knowledge or wit. The prevailing wisdom is summarised succinctly in Emily Post’s bestselling Etiquette, first published in 1922:
The cleverest woman is she who, in talking to a man, makes him seem clever.
To that end, Post suggested that the most appropriate strategy for any woman who found herself making conversation with a man was ‘to ask advice’. ‘In fact’, she went on, ‘it is sage to ask his opinion on almost anything’. What we now call ‘mansplaining’ is evidently nothing new: generations of our foremothers were explicitly taught to encourage it.
Emily Post was not the kind of anti-feminist who disputed that women could be clever: her point was rather that a woman who did not trouble to conceal or downplay her cleverness was failing in her feminine duty to appear modest and self-effacing, and that this failure was socially disruptive. It threw a spanner into the well-oiled machine of ‘social usage’ (that is, the rules and rituals of the educated middle classes) by challenging basic assumptions about the roles of men and women.
When I read some of the comments addressed to Fern Riddell, I couldn’t help thinking about this long tradition–one which flourished for many centuries, and was still going strong during my own teenage years–condemning the immodesty of the woman who refuses to efface herself. Today the older forms of this advice have become material for comedy (a classic example is Harry Enfield’s 1930s-style parody ‘Women, Know Your Limits’) but in subtler forms its spirit lingers on. And as I also noted in my ‘respect gap’ post, the pressure for women to display humility is no longer coming only from conservatives who feel men’s traditional prerogatives are being threatened: it is also coming from progressive movements, including feminism itself.
Feminists’ reactions to #ImmodestWomen were not uniformly positive. Some accused Riddell of elitism, pointing out that the credentials she was encouraging women to display are not equally available for everyone to earn, and that the knowledge acquired in academic institutions is not the only kind that deserves respect. These feminists saw the addition of ‘Dr’ to women’s Twitter names less as a celebration of women’s collective achievements and more as a flaunting of some women’s privilege. There were also feminists who did add ‘Dr’ to their names, but who noted as they did so that the gesture made them uneasy. Celia Kitzinger, for instance, tweeted:
I feel v uncomfortable at having changed my Twitter name to support #immodestwomen + wondering how long I can hold out before I change it back again! …I was brought up Quaker + learned to address/refer to everyone by first name (+ surname if I didn’t know them well). No titles or honorifics.
Kitzinger included a link to a blog maintained by the Society of Friends to answer questions about Quaker beliefs and practices. In this case the question was whether the Quakers had abandoned their old rule against using titles: having noticed a reference to a ‘Dr Nelson’ in a Quaker publication, the questioner wondered why the writer had departed from the strict egalitarianism of the past.
After acknowledging that this was a hotly debated issue among Quakers themselves, the respondent Chel Avery pointed out that the practice of avoiding titles was not originally, in the modern sense, egalitarian:
“Equality” as a principle was not much on the radar screens of early Friends. They believed in every person’s capacity to be enlivened by the spirit of God, they believed everyone had a soul (even women and non-whites, to the shock of many other Christians) … They also believed in humility as a quality necessary to be at one with the Divine Spirit. So social customs that contained flattery were objectionable to Friends because they were insincere. These customs were also seen as harmful, because to flatter someone would encourage vanity, not a healthy thing for their souls.
The Quaker rejection of titles was more about affirming the spiritual value of humility than the political value of equality—though some early Quakers clearly believed in both, and the second became more important over time. But in any case, as Avery went on to explain, in modern conditions it may be argued that prohibiting titles isn’t always the best way to express a commitment to equality. Consider, for instance, the elderly woman in a nursing home who is constantly addressed by her first name–even by people who have never met her before–because of the habit of treating old people as if they were children. In that situation, would it not be more in keeping with the principle that all humans are equal in worth and dignity to address her as ‘Mrs Peters’ rather than ‘Annie’?
Though they are clearly not identical, there is a parallel between this case and the case of women who want their professional qualifications to be acknowledged. Elderly people and women are both groups whose subordinate status is revealed by, among other things, a systematic tendency to patronise and belittle them. And in both cases one form this takes involves the withholding of linguistic tokens of respect. In that context, it could be argued, asking to be addressed by the title that applies (whether that’s Dr, Mrs, Captain, or whatever) is not an act of self-aggrandisement, and acceding to such a request is not sycophantic. If someone has been routinely disrespected, addressing them with a respect title is not endorsing inequality, but on the contrary, refusing to perpetuate it.
As always, though, the meaning of the gesture depends on the context. I don’t use my own academic title in non-academic settings, because I don’t think my status as a professor should give me an advantage over other people in contexts where that status is irrelevant. But when women with Ph.Ds ask students, colleagues or the media to call them ‘Dr’, what they’re asking for isn’t special treatment, it’s equal treatment. And we’ll know we’re getting closer to that objective when people stop reacting to any mention of a woman’s talents, achievements or qualifications with a lecture on the importance of being modest. If they really believe in the value of humility, perhaps they should try showing some themselves.