Immodesty becomes her?

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 3660635trouble 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.


Mind the respect gap

There’s a woman I know who does a lot of broadcast interviews, because she’s an expert on something that’s often in the news. And she’s noticed something annoying: the interviewers she talks to—not all of them, but quite a few—are in the habit of addressing her with just her first name, whereas the male experts on the same programme are typically given an academic title. ‘Thank you, Dr Jones. Now Sarah, if I could turn to you…’.  ‘I’m not usually precious about titles’, she says, ‘but I’ve got a Ph.D too’.

Sarah’s experience is not unusual. I regularly get emails from students which hail me as ‘Ms’ or ‘Mrs’ Cameron, though my official title (‘Professor’) is on everything from my office door to the university website. Do the same students address my male colleagues as ‘Mr’? I have no way of knowing, but I doubt it happens very often. The writer and university teacher Rebecca Schuman agrees, reporting that she often hears male faculty members referred to as ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ by people who routinely address her as ‘Ms Schuman’. ‘It happens all the time’, she emphasises, ‘and I often hear a sneer in the “izzzzz”’.

This isn’t just an issue in academia. It’s also been noted in another titled profession, medicine. In a study published earlier this year, researchers analysed video-recordings of a medical ritual known as Grand Rounds—a sort of regular mini-conference where hospital doctors present recent cases to their colleagues and medical students. They focused on the part of the proceedings where presenters are introduced by a colleague, and recorded, for each introduction sequence, whether the introducer named the presenter as ‘Dr X’, ‘Joe/Joanne X’ or ‘Joe/Joanne’. Then they crunched the numbers to see how the choice was affected by the sex of the introducer and the presenter. They found a clear pattern: in a context where every speaker is by definition ‘Dr X’, women were significantly less likely to be referred to by that title.

Actually, that wasn’t the only noteworthy finding, so let’s just unpack some of the details. The researchers found that women performing introductions at Grand Rounds nearly always introduced presenters, of both sexes, as ‘Dr X’: they used first names in just four cases out of a total of 106. Male introducers had a much lower overall usage of ‘Dr’ (which suggests that in general they favoured a more informal style), but the sex of the presenter made a significant difference. Men used ‘Dr’ far more frequently when introducing other men (72%) than when introducing women (49%).  DQYiq1EUMAEOlaL.jpg largeIt’s true that factors other than sex might play some part in this: we know, for instance, that the use of titles is influenced by age and professional status/seniority (variables which unfortunately this study did not investigate). But while those variables might account for some proportion of the male/female difference, at this point in the history of medicine it seems unlikely they could explain it all. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s a tendency for men to withhold professional recognition from women, because subconsciously they don’t regard women as equals.

The pattern revealed by this study is reminiscent of some other patterns I’ve discussed in earlier posts, like the tendency for men to dominate discussion in professional contexts and their habit of using endearment terms like ‘honey’ and ‘sweetheart’ to female co-workers. It’s more evidence of what we might call, by analogy with the gender pay gap, the gender respect gap: other things being equal, women get less respect than men. But what I want to talk about in this post isn’t just the title-vs-first naming pattern itself–I’m sure that will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog. It’s also my own (and I think, many other feminists’) ambivalence about it.

When I first read the Grand Rounds study, I thought: ‘yes, that’s happened to me’—and then I thought, ‘and actually I’ve been complicit in it’. I don’t think I’ve ever asked a media interviewer or the person introducing me at a conference to use my academic title rather than my first name. If students send emails to ‘Ms Cameron’ I normally let that pass too. And if I do ever feel moved to say something, I have the same impulse Sarah had to preface my complaint with a disclaimer: ‘I’m not usually precious about titles, but…’.  I don’t think this is because I suffer from that much-discussed female malady, impostor syndrome (‘don’t mind me, I shouldn’t really have this title anyway’). It’s more that, on the question of professional titles, feminists are caught between a political rock and a hard place.

As I’ve explained before, what address terms convey depends not only on which terms you choose, but also on whether or not they’re used reciprocally. Reciprocal usage of titles signals mutual respect between equals, along with a degree of social distance and formality; non-reciprocal usage (e.g., you call me ‘Professor’ but I call you ‘Susie’) suggests a status hierarchy in which one person must defer to the other. With first names and endearment terms, reciprocal usage signals intimacy or solidarity, whereas non-reciprocal usage, once again, implies a hierarchy. This dual-axis system (status versus solidarity, hierarchy versus equality) is what makes professional titles potentially a difficult area for feminists to negotiate. We may resent being addressed as ‘Sarah’ when the man beside us is ‘Dr Jones’, but we also tend to be uncomfortable demanding deference from others. We’re in favour of equality and reciprocity, not hierarchy.

This isn’t just a feminist thing. For people of my generation (I was born in the late 1950s), the use of first names rather than titles was one symbolic expression of the egalitarian values championed by progressive social movements in the 1960s and 70s. By the time I went to university in 1977, our teachers divided neatly along generational lines. The old guard maintained the traditional etiquette of distance and deference (we called them Dr/Professor, they called us either by our given names, or in some cases Mr/Miss), while the young Turks marked their cool, lefty credentials by telling us to call them ‘Bob’ (obviously they weren’t all named Bob, but they were, almost without exception, men).

Of course, this didn’t mean there was no hierarchy—the Bobs were marking our exams, not vice versa—but we liked the idea that they were treating us as equals, and encouraging us, as we also used to say, to ‘relate to them as people’. So when I became a lecturer myself, I found it natural to ask my own students to use my first name. As I saw it, insisting on a title meant you were old and out of touch, not to mention self-regarding and/or socially conservative. I wanted to make clear that I was none of those things.

The trouble is that, like so many symbolic gestures, this one doesn’t work for women or minorities the same way it works for white men—a point made forcefully by the Australian academic Katrina Gulliver, who explicitly takes issue with the young Turk tendency:

In most departments there is the species of (white) male professor, who wants to be seen as “cool” (you know the one, who shows up dressed like he’s come to mow the lawn), who invites all the youngsters to “call me Dave,” resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority. If you’re one of these guys: you are not helping the rest of us.

Gulliver got a lot of flak for this, with many commenters telling her that she just didn’t understand Australian culture (she mentioned in the piece that she had previously worked in Germany). We’re more relaxed here, they said, we don’t go in for all that stuffy formality. But while it’s true there are cultural differences, we should be suspicious of the claim that first-naming is just about informality. Findings like the ones reported in the Grand Rounds study show that this isn’t the whole story: there really is a gender respect gap, and the ‘let’s not fixate on titles’ argument is too often trotted out on autopilot by people who don’t want to acknowledge that or to think about its real-world consequences. People like Will Miller, whose response to Gulliver was this:

I worry about making sure I deserve the respect of my students rather than expecting my title or position to simply demand it. I want students to respect me as an individual, not solely for my role, title, or degrees.

This pious sentiment is hard to argue with, because today it is a truism that people should be respected for what they do rather than who they are, what they wear or what title they go by (whether that’s ‘Lord Muck’ or ‘Professor Miller’). But while in principle feminists also subscribe to this belief, we have reason to know that in practice respect, like money, is not distributed purely on the basis of individual merit.

Rebecca Schuman’s answer to Miller was scathing: ‘It takes a particularly privileged individual’, she commented, ‘to insist, though he commands unearned respect when he walks into a room (even in jeans), that respect must be earned’. Her point was that the Bobs, Daves and Will Millers can have their cake and eat it too. As members of the social group that provides our cultural template for authority, they can expect to retain students’ respect while also getting extra credit for not insisting on the deference to which their status in theory entitles them. Women, on the other hand, have often discovered that a symbolic display of humility from them is interpreted less as principled egalitarianism and more as a confirmation of their assumed inferior status. When it comes to authority, Katrina Gulliver suggests, a woman must either use it or lose it:

So, I’ll keep insisting on formality from my students, even if they make comments about my being pedantic or bossy on their student evaluations.

But that ‘if’ clause points to a further complication. A woman who is—in Sarah’s words—‘precious about titles’ does risk being labelled bossy (not to mention arrogant, unfriendly and uncool). She can easily be cast as one of the stereotypical ‘nasty women’—the schoolmarm, the nagging nanny or the hideous old battleaxe—who turn up with such monotonous regularity in cultural representations of powerful women. All her options have costs as well as benefits; for her there is no magic ‘get out of jail free’ card. So what, in practice, should women do?

What I do myself is what I’ve always done: I ask students to use my first name, and—since language is my subject—I take a moment to discuss with them what this might communicate in the specific context of higher education (not that I want to be their friend, but that I recognise them as fellow-adults and expect them to act accordingly). I have never, personally, had much trouble with students being openly disrespectful: the sexism I’ve encountered has been more the ‘she’s a scary old battleaxe’ variety. At my advanced age and career stage, I can live with that (which is not to say I like it or think it’s fair). But when I read about other women’s experiences, I do wonder if I’m doing a disservice to my colleagues—especially the young women and women of colour who are likely to encounter a more extreme version of the respect gap.

I’m under no illusion that language on its own can close the gap. As I’ve said more than once on here, patterns of language-use do not arise in a social vacuum: ultimately I don’t think there is any kind of sexism which can be effectively addressed using purely linguistic measures. But language is part of the bigger picture. Is it incumbent on all of us to be ‘precious about titles’ so that the larger message about equality comes across more clearly and consistently? So that a title like ‘professor’ will stop automatically conjuring up a picture of a middle-aged white man in a tweed jacket?

I’m not sure what the answer is, and to be honest I can’t see myself changing the professional habit of a lifetime. But writing this has prompted me to make one new resolution. The next time I hear a woman expert being treated like Sarah—first-named by a media presenter who uses formal/deferential address terms with the male experts on the programme—I’m going to complain. And before you ask, yes, I’ll be signing the complaint ‘Professor’.

The comic book image in this post shows the 1940s character Jill Trent, Science Sleuth.