Jill Biden holds a doctorate in education, but her insistence on being referred to as “Dr. Jill Biden” has touched off a political and media uproar over whether that makes her a courageous feminist role model or a pretentious credential snob.
Her title became a cause celebre after Joseph Epstein suggested Sunday in the Wall Street Journal that she lose the “Dr.,” telling her it “sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic” — a puckish piece of advice that has been heatedly decried as sexist, offensive and patronizing.
Heatedly, but not universally. Conservative writers and intellectuals are sticking to their long-held posture that with few exceptions, those who insist on being referred to “Dr.” for anything other than an M.D. — Mrs. Biden’s degree is an Ed.D. — deserve to be taken down a peg.
“Joseph Epstein had it exactly right in his Wall Street Journal article,” said Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars. “He had the temerity to say aloud what almost every academic, and lots of other people, know but seldom say.”
Mr. Epstein’s column began, “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?”
National Review correspondent Kevin D. Williamson said that Mr. Epstein “made the perfectly obvious point that ‘Dr.’ Jill Biden is showing bad form,” while RedState’s Nick Arama said it was “generally considered pretentious” for Ph.D.s to use the “Dr.” title outside academic settings.
“Faculty members who have Ph.D.s sometimes use the title but typically they use it ironically among friends,” Mr. Wood said. “A few stuffed shirts insist on it but are ridiculed behind their backs for their pretension. When I was the provost of a liberal arts college, I had to warn a few naive young faculty members to avoid making fools of themselves by wearing the doctor title openly.”
Such arguments run counter to the wave of invective directed at the Wall Street Journal and the 83-year-old Mr. Epstein, a longtime conservative essayist and holder of a bachelor’s degree whose name has since been removed from the website of Northwestern University, where he taught English for years.
Leading the outrage was the Biden camp. Jill Biden transition spokesperson Michael LaRosa called for the newspaper to apologize for the “disgusting and sexist attack” and “repugnant display of chauvinism.”
“What patronizing, sexist, elitist drivel,” tweeted Kate Bedingfield, communications director for President-elect Joseph R. Biden. “Dr. B earned a doctorate in education, so we call her Doctor. The title Mr. Epstein has earned here is perhaps not fit for mixed company.”
Doug Emhoff, Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris’s husband, and Chasten Buttigieg, husband of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, also blamed sexism, with Mr. Emhoff saying: “This story would have never been written about a man.”
Previous White House occupants joined the fray. “Her name is Dr. Jill Biden. Get used to it,” tweeted former first lady Hillary Clinton.
On Instagram, former first lady Michelle Obama said that “right now, we’re all seeing what also happens to so many professional women, whether their titles are Dr., Ms., Mrs., or even First Lady: All too often, our accomplishments are met with skepticism, even derision.”
Some female professors argued that women academics need to insist upon the “Dr.” honorific in part because they frequently fail to receive the same respect as their male counterparts, and urged women with doctorates to add the title to their Twitter handles.
MSNBC “Morning Joe” host Mika Brzezinski said the Epstein article “hit a dubious trifecta: an attack on Jill Biden’s doctorate that managed to be petty, elitist and misogynistic all at once.”
In a statement, Northwestern University said that “we firmly support academic freedom, and freedom of expression,” but that the school “strongly disagrees with Mr. Epstein’s misogynistic views.”
Conservatives were unbowed. City Journal writer Bruce Bawer struck back with, “In other words, we support academic freedom and freedom of expression, but — well, not really.”
Independent Women’s Voice senior fellow Lisa Boothe called it a “fake controversy” on Fox News, while Mr. Wood of the National Association of Scholars dismissed the sexism charge as “the sort of personal attack indulged in by those who have no real argument. Epstein satirized the pretension of Jill Biden, not her sex.”
A few right-tilting troublemakers took it upon themselves to post on social media sentences from Mrs. Biden’s 2006 dissertation at the University of Delaware, where “Jill Jacobs-Biden,” as she was then known, earned her Ed.D., as posted by Twitchy.
Meanwhile, Fox News host Tucker Carlson took a jab at the Ed.D. degree. “Dr. Jill Biden has the very same degree as Dr. Bill Cosby does, which is one degree from Dr. Pepper,” he said.
The “Dr. Biden” references also have confused at least one public figure: ABC’s “The View” co-host Whoopi Goldberg, who declared in March that Mrs. Biden should be named U.S. surgeon general because she was “a hell of a doctor,” before being corrected by her co-hosts.
Dr. Biden and Mr. Carson
The uproar also has fueled the sneaking suspicion that politics may be at play. Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot said as much in his Monday op-ed defending the Epstein piece, describing the outcry as a pre-inaugural shot over the bow by the Biden camp.
“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 prepared to take power,” Mr. Gigot said. “There’s nothing like playing the race or gender card to stifle criticism.”
Indeed, the debate over who should use the “Dr.” honorific goes back decades. Even the kerfuffle over “Dr. Biden” isn’t new: She used the title during her husband’s eight years as vice president, which National Review contributing editor Jonah Goldberg called “kind of silly” in a 2013 column.
In 2009, Mr. Biden attributed his wife’s quest for a doctorate to her frustration with being treated as an afterthought in their mail.
“She said, ‘I was so sick of the mail coming to Sen. and Mrs. Biden. I wanted to get mail addressed to Dr. and Sen. Biden,’” Mr. Biden told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s the real reason she got her doctorate.”
Mr. Biden also refers occasionally to his wife as “kiddo,” which was apparently the reason Mr. Epstein used it in the article.
If the president-elect’s wife isn’t always referred to as “Dr. Biden” in articles, however, the blame may lie with the nation’s copy editors. The Associated Press style is to use “Dr.” on first reference for medical doctors.
The Washington Times also uses the “Dr.” honorific only for medical doctors, and then only in relation to their primary profession. Sen. Rand Paul, for example, is an M.D., but he’s “Mr. Paul” on second reference in any story about his political role.
More flexible is The New York Times’ style, which also uses “Dr.” for medical doctors, but allows those holding doctorates to choose whether they want the honorific, hence the newspaper’s references to “Dr. Jill Biden.”
“The New York Times’s house style allows for anyone with an earned doctorate, such as a Ph.D. or Ed.D., to be identified by the title on subsequent references, provided it is ‘germane to the holder’s primary current occupation,’” the newspaper said in a Dec. 12 article.
As a result, a 2015 analysis by R Street’s R.J. Lehmann found that Mrs. Biden was three times more likely to be called “Dr.” than Ben Carson, a famed pediatric neurosurgeon who currently serves as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.