Don’t drop the doc: Jill Biden and performative outrage

Last week The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Joseph Epstein headed ‘Is there a doctor in the White House? Not if you need an MD’ . This header suggested that what followed would be a rehash of the perennial debate on whether ‘Dr’ should be reserved exclusively for medics (cue 300 indignant tweets from academics reminding us that the title was given to the learned when medicine was still the province of barbers and quacks); but while that was certainly in the mix, it turned out to be buried in a steaming pile of sexist condescension aimed at a high-profile, topical target. In case anyone hasn’t seen it, here’s the opening paragraph:

Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name? “Dr. Jill Biden” sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.” A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.

Whether women who have doctorates should be permitted to use the title ‘Dr’ is also a perennial question. British feminists may recall the case of the historian Fern Riddell, who was deluged with abuse on social media in 2018 after she expressed the view that she, and other academic experts consulted by the media, should be given their professional titles. Accused of lacking humility, Riddell created the hashtag #ImmodestWomen.

Joseph Epstein, similarly, thinks Jill Biden should ‘drop the doc’. Addressing her as ‘Mrs Biden’, ‘Jill’ and ‘kiddo’, he informs her that her title sounds ‘fraudulent’, though he evidently knows it isn’t, because his next move is to suggest that her degree, an Ed.D from the University of Delaware, is academically worthless. (This disparaging assessment is itself an indirect manifestation of sexism: in the US, more women earn doctoral degrees in education than in any other discipline.) Only then do we get the ‘leave Dr for the medics’ argument, which he attributes—of course—to a ‘wise man’ (though a wiser man might have chosen a different procedure as his litmus test for Dr-worthiness, given how many millions of children throughout history have been delivered without the assistance of an MD).

Epstein’s piece attracted numerous complaints, and two days later the Wall Street Journal responded by suggesting that a campaign had been orchestrated by (Joe) Biden’s media team. The criticism, it noted, had only really taken off following a tweet from Biden press spokesman Michael LaRosa, who called the article ‘a disgusting and sexist attack’. ‘If you had any respect for women at all’, he added, ‘you would remove this repugnant display of chauvinism from your paper and apologize to [Jill Biden]’. The Journal’s line was that the Biden team had seized on this ‘relatively minor issue’ as an opportunity to score culture-war points through a display of performative outrage. Though it came from a different ideological direction, this bullying of the press, it said, was uncomfortably reminiscent of Trump.  

Does this response stand up to scrutiny? I’d say, yes and no. I do think Michael LaRosa’s tweet was an instance of ‘performative outrage’: he must have known that any self-respecting newspaper would resist, on principle, calls from a member of the president-elect’s staff to take down or apologise for an article that criticised the president-elect’s wife. I also have some sympathy for the Journal’s own interpretation of the offending piece: ‘Mr. Epstein criticized the habit of people with Ph.D.s or other doctorates calling themselves “Dr.” as highfalutin, using Jill Biden as Exhibit A’. In other words, the point of it wasn’t (just) to attack Jill Biden. If you can drag your eyes away from the appalling first paragraph, that isn’t an unreasonable summary.

That is not to say, however, that Epstein’s criticism of Jill Biden was incidental or peripheral. It was the peg for his op-ed, which would otherwise have been just a generic rant about falling academic standards and professorial self-aggrandisement that could have been written at any time in the last 60 years. It certainly wouldn’t have generated the kind of controversy which drives lots of extra traffic to a newspaper’s website. In a media economy where outrage pays dividends, the performative outrage of the Biden team was a gift to the Journal, and its complaint about orchestrated bullying was just more performative outrage. And amid all this outrage, we began to lose sight of what’s actually at stake when women are accused of being over-invested in titles like ‘Dr’.

I don’t want to lose sight of that issue, especially since I’ve now seen several feminists online suggesting that even if Epstein made it in a gratuitously insulting way, he actually had a point. Is it not absurdly self-important of Jill Biden to insist on being referred to as ‘Dr’ in any context other than the strictly academic?

I understand where that view comes from—as I’ve written before, the question of titles is one a lot of feminists are conflicted about. On one hand we believe women should be treated with the same respect as men, but on the other we are uncomfortable with the overt marking of status differentials. Many of us (including me, as I admitted in my earlier post) choose not to challenge people who first-name us or call us ‘Ms X’ while addressing our male colleagues as ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’, because we don’t want to be seen as elitist, old-fashioned, vain, insecure or unapproachable.

But there are also good arguments for the opposite approach. After I blogged about #ImmodestWomen, I heard from a number of women with PhDs who said they used ‘Dr’ outside their professional lives—for instance, when filling in forms at the dentist’s surgery or booking flights online—not because they expected their status to get them better service, but because it liberated them from the eternal question ‘is that Miss or Mrs?’ A man with a doctorate who chooses to go by ‘Mr’ rather than ‘Dr’ in private life is not in danger of being treated as someone’s appendage: for women it’s a different matter.

In Jill Biden’s case, anyone who thinks she should use ‘Dr’ only for academic purposes is essentially saying that for all other purposes she should be ‘Mrs’, i.e. defined by her status as a wife. I don’t, of course, know Jill Biden, but it seems fairly clear that she resists being defined in that way. She’s the first US president’s wife in history who has declined to make First Ladyhood her fulltime occupation, instead declaring that she will continue to teach at a community college in Virginia. It’s at least plausible that her preference for the title ‘Dr’ has less to do with intellectual self-importance than with symbolising her commitment to maintaining some measure of independence.

The other thing we should remember before we criticise women like Jill Biden is that even in their professional lives women are frequently denied professional titles. This manifestation of what in an earlier post I called ‘the gender respect gap’ is the subject of many anecdotal complaints among women in academia, and it has been documented systematically in medicine. A study which looked at doctors introducing other doctors at ‘Grand Rounds’ discovered that men introducing women only referred to them as ‘Dr X’ in 49% of cases, whereas the figure for men introducing men was over 70%–and women almost always used the title when introducing colleagues of both sexes.

The media are also regular offenders, persistently addressing or referring to male guest experts as ‘Dr This’ and ‘Professor That’ while their female counterparts are first-named. In this Year of the Plague, when scientists and medics have been constantly on our screens, there has been ample opportunity to witness this tendency in action. Here’s a case in point:

The two people in this image are Donna Kinnair, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Nursing, and Hugh Pennington, a virologist. The caption gives each of them an institutional affiliation, but only Pennington gets the title ‘Professor’. Which would be one thing if he were the only professor in the room, but in fact Donna Kinnair is a professor too. She’s also a DBE: a fully accurate caption would have called her ‘Professor Dame Donna Kinnair’.

This example is particularly bad because it involves captioning, which there is time to check, as opposed to being an error made inadvertently in a live interview. I say ‘error’ because in most cases I don’t believe the media intend to treat men and women differently; I think it’s more likely to be a product of unconscious bias. Or in this particular case, intersecting biases: Kinnair is a woman, she’s Black, and her field is nursing, and all those things are at odds with our cultural prototype of a professor. The older white man beside her, by contrast, fits the prototype perfectly.  

Maybe Donna Kinnair thinks there are more important things to worry about than whether the captioners gave her the correct title, and if so we might think that’s to her credit. But there’s more to the problem of gendered disrespect than just the feelings of the individual women on the receiving end. Every time we tolerate the titling of a male expert and the non-titling of the female expert alongside him, we are effectively reinforcing the beliefs that are the root of the problem—for instance, that professors look like Hugh Pennington and not like Donna Kinnair. And that has knock-on effects. If it’s true that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’, then there’s a reason to insist that women’s status should be made explicit which is not just about flattery or self-regard.

I don’t think the answer is performative outrage (in hindsight I regret having performed my own outrage about Joseph Epstein’s piece on Twitter). If the aim is to change things, as opposed to just getting people briefly riled up about them, a better strategy might be quiet, dogged, civilly phrased complaint. ‘Dear TV programme producer, I noticed tonight that your captions identified the two experts in your Covid-19 item as Professor Hugh Pennington and Donna Kinnair. Perhaps you were not aware that Donna Kinnair is also a Professor. I’d like to suggest that in future you adopt a general policy of checking these captions to ensure they provide viewers with accurate information about each guest’s expert credentials’.  

Of course, it’s harder to call out bias when you yourself are at the sharp end, and when the disrespect is coming from your colleagues or your students. That does feel petty and it can feel self-regarding. We all have to choose our battles, and if a woman chooses not to fight this one she’ll get no argument from me—except for the one I’ve made here, and in other posts on this subject, that the granting or withholding of respect titles is not the trivial concern it’s often made out to be. If it’s so trivial, why do so many men become so enraged when a woman expresses the desire to be known as ‘Dr X’?  What impels them to respond with such extraordinary condescension (‘humility, Dr Riddell!’ ‘Mrs Biden—Jill—Kiddo: a bit of advice’)?

At some level I think these men must see the move women like Riddell and Biden are making as an attack on the ‘natural’ (aka patriarchal) order in which men rank above women, and women should defer to men. Hostility towards women who insist on professional titles may also reflect the (conscious or unconscious) belief that whatever else women may do, their most important roles are still the traditional ones of wife and mother. Women who decline to take their husbands’ last names when they marry elicit similarly hostile reactions, and for the same reason. They aren’t just defying convention, they’re challenging assumptions that patriarchy takes for granted. That’s why the gesture isn’t trivial; and that’s why it deserves feminists’ support.