On December 11, 2020, an Opinion article was published in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) titled, “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” Writer Joseph Epstein requested that Dr. Jill Biden drop the prefix “Dr.” because not only does it sound fraudulent, but comedic as well.
Are you just hearing about this?
Epstein considers Dr. Biden’s doctorate of education, or Ed.D., to be less than when compared to an M.D. His parting words were a piece of advice for Dr. Biden: Drop the Dr. and enjoy living in the White House as the First Lady.
Have you read this article, and not sure why folks are angry?
Joseph Epstein writes with deliberative succinctness, an ability to make covert sexist comments with an underlying prejudicial tone not completely apparent to the reader. The overall message was even condoned by a top WSJ editor, Paul A. Gigot. According to Gigot, Epstein was only riffing and bringing to light the relaxed and eroded seriousness of higher education standards for professional degrees. Gigot believes the lengths in which to highlight an article with such a minor issue is only a political strategy.
Have you heard about this, and are angry?
The article may seem but a mere eight paragraphs, but much damage was done and sparked outrage online. In the words of Sunny Hostin, this article “reeks of misogyny.” To define misogyny: The hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women and genders beyond the binary; or prejudice against women and non-binary individuals. Epstein’s advisement to be content with being First Lady also illustrates sexism, which is prevalent in almost every facet of our society. Particularly for Dr. Biden, the idea that her role is only of support for the President. Sexism is the sociocultural, institutional, and individual beliefs and practices that privilege men and denigrate all other genders.
Have you read this, and are not surprised?
To those who have experienced misogyny and sexism, this perspective isn’t new. This disrespect is not found in a silo; it impacts staff, faculty and administrators alike. As a PhD student myself, I have had the privilege of taking courses like Women and Non-Binary in HESA where I was able to better understand the responsibility yet challenge that come with pursuing and attaining a higher education degree. Once you reach a higher-level position, instead of focusing your energy to make actionable change for future generations, you are forced to deplete your energy to prove your worth and value day after day. Michelle Obama put it best, “And 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. We’re doubted by those who choose the weakness of ridicule over the strength of respect. And yet somehow, their words can stick—after decades of work, we’re forced to prove ourselves all over again.”
In those eight paragraphs written by Joseph Epstein, a lot of hurt was done, and that hurt must be acknowledged. Yet, fortunately because of those sparks of outrage, an outpouring of support and empowerment to those and by those who have received doctoral degrees: PhDs, EdDs, etc. were made in the proceeding days. Still, this is not a single identity issue. Who is feeling outraged, why now, and how can this offensive article act as a bridge to address not only sexism, but also cissexism and racism? I have experienced misogyny as a female-identified doctoral student. My pursuits have been questioned because of norms that have been placed on me by society, and therefore reinforced by those in my communities. And yet, I still hold privilege as a white woman. We have seen Vice President Kamala Harris, who identifies as a biracial woman, questioned about her credibility beyond her education. Her personal and professional accolades were mocked and discarded while on the campaign trail. We saw an uproar, but did it receive the same level of attention? When addressing problematic incidents such as the article written by Joseph Epstein, we must acknowledge that dismantling a system of oppression needs to be intersectional. The challenge and responsibility faced by women becomes even greater for those who hold under-represented identities and/or identify outside the gender binary.
When prejudice plus power is present, voices need to be heard and that is what has happened. A conversation has begun. A conversation in the media, amongst colleagues, and even at UNC has started. Misogyny, (cis)sexism, and racism are alive, yes, even at UNC. But this is where change happens. When I asked if you had read the article and to reflect on how you are feeling, all feelings are valid. If you don’t understand the outrage, that is okay. If you are outraged, that is okay. The important thing, though, is to recognize your feelings and do something with them. Processing from your own experience is necessary. Ask questions, get involved and be on the lookout for ways to engage in the conversation. Staff and faculty have been asked to lead these conversations to create real and tangible change in our campus community. And intersectionality must be at the forefront.
Words are words, but action is what is most important. Prior to the article being disseminated, Dr. Jill Biden already announced her plans to continue serving as an educator. Before taking a leave of absence to support Joe Biden’s political campaign, Dr. Biden was an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College. Although, I do not know in what capacity, Dr. Biden plans to teach within higher education while in the White House. Dr. Biden tweeted on December 13, “Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our [children] will be celebrated, rather than diminished.”
Note: As a member of the Center for Women’s and Gender Equity (CWGE) and Stryker Institute collective, I hope this article promotes the importance of dialogue and recognition that we are all in different places on our social justice journey. As a mission, the CWGE honors gender as a central identity and engages critical women’s and gender issues, while challenging systems of inequity and advocating for change at the University of Northern Colorado. To accomplish our mission, we host various opportunities for learning and dialogue throughout the academic year. Check out our website for details regarding future events such as student consciousness raising sessions and a book club.
Morgan (Bradford) Diaz
Leadership Coordinator, Stryker Institute
PhD student, Higher Education & Student Affairs Leadership