Translation: Tom Atkins
On December, an offensive Wall-Street Journal op-ed starred in traditional and social media alike. Joseph Epstein, a well-known, respected, vain, and privileged man, used his platform to patronize and mock Dr. Jill Biden, which just happens to be the wife of then President-elect Joe Biden, for preferring to be addressed as Dr.
In the column, Epstein writes:
“Kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but i thing 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.”
Later in the column, Epstein derided Biden’s Doctorate, mentioning that her dissertation had the “unpromising” title of Meeting Students Needs.
An interesting response came from The Atlantic’s Greme Wood. She writes, rightfully, that the title “might seem worthless for… Epstein, who get[s] university appointment without it,” but means much more to those who, unlike him, are not privileged white men. Minorities who do not insist on their title are often assumed to be common thieves.
Wood isn’t exaggerating. I once talked to a Black professor from Yale’s Department of Music, who told me he moved to New York City, a two-hour’s train ride from his work, because he got tired of being arrested when walking the streets of New Haven at night. As a Black man, he never felt safe.
Wood writes that the title is important for Dr. Biden, too. Epstein dismissed her dissertation without even reading it, true to the tendency to disregard women who stand by their husbands as “mere housewives,” an invisible job that has become a demeaning term for women.
Both articles, by the way, were sent to me by my daughter, a Doctor herself, who added a request: “Mom, you also earned your doctorate at a later age. Please write about it.”
“Mom, You Also Earned your Doctorate at a Later age. Please Write About it.”
Dr. Jill Biden and I come from the same generation, and I know from experience, Wood is right. Although my husband and I studied together for our bachelors’ degrees, with time the gaps between us grew: in education, in responsibility and in earning power. When he wrote his master’s thesis, I typed it on a typewriter, to save money. When he wrote his doctorate, I was still labouring over my master’s. And when he found his first academic position, I was busy raising two little girls. While he was an active father and supportive partner, I shouldered most of the responsibility at home.
Both Dr. Jill Biden and I taught at college. She earned her doctorate in 2007, at the age of 55. I was 51 when I got mine. I went back to university after my daughters grew up, and was older than most other students. University studies are aimed at young people and aren’t very friendly for older women, who are often considered tiresome. But I didn’t care. I had a goal, and I feel my doctoral research, and the writing process itself, greatly increased my intellectual capacity. Perhaps they even made me a better college professor.
When my doctorate was finally approved, I felt the title boosted my self esteem. It was also an opportunity for me to be a positive example to my daughters, who also pursued advanced degrees, but at a much younger age.
I’m not sorry and don’t regret my choices. But it is undeniable that they had a cost. Women like Dr. Jill Biden and me, who for years gave precedent to their spouse’s career, putting our own aspirations aside, didn’t have glorious careers of our own. But Dr. Jill Biden does have an important position in a college (where there’s no retirement age) after completing her doctor’s degree. She undoubtedly deserves the title of Dr. Biden. She waited years and worked hard to earn it.
Headline photo: a screencap from Late-Night with Seth Meyers