Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
On Friday, The Wall Street Journal had the audacity to publish an op-ed arguing that incoming First Lady Jill Biden should not use the title “Dr.” in the White House. The piece, written by Joseph Epstein, a man who has not earned an advanced degree (though he was given an honorary one), argues that it would be “fraudulent” and “comic” for Dr. Biden to use the Doctor of Education, or Ed.D., title that she has earned.
As a woman who holds a Ph.D., I was seething before I finished his first paragraph. But I wasn’t surprised. It’s commonplace for women with expertise in this country to be expected to deny it – which is exactly why it’s so important that Dr. Biden use her “Dr.” title in the White House, prominently and with pride.
Epstein gives away his sexism immediately by opening his op-ed with the advice that “no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child.” In other words, part of his problem appears to be that Dr. Biden is not a man.
Epstein also argues that it has become easy to get a doctorate degree these days. He makes this inaccurate and offensive claim despite never having managed to earn one himself. Yet he devotes the most paragraphs to making the claim that honorary degrees are given out to undeserving celebrities – even though Dr. Biden is not using her title because she has received an honorary degree. She earned an actual one. I can only guess, therefore, that his nonsensical argument is intended to generally cast aspersions on the incoming first lady.
It is the sort of attack which is depressingly familiar to many female academics – including me. In 2018, when Dr. Julia Baird earned her Ph.D. and changed her title on Twitter, she ignited a firestorm of complaints – mostly from men. The discussion that ensued among academics revealed that women are routinely ridiculed for using the titles they earn, while the expertise of men doesn’t seem to meet with the same level of skepticism and censure. One man who holds a Ph.D. responded, “I had no idea doctorate-shaming was even a thing!”
Further evidence of the phenomenon of minimizing female expertise comes from the medical community for which Epstein seems to reserve his respect. A 2017 study found that when men introduced female medical doctors at a professional event, they used their titles 50 percent of the time – but when men introduced fellow male doctors, they used their titles over 70 percent of the time.
This is all part of a broader phenomenon, of course, that denies women the respect and authority we have earned. As Cornell philosopher Kate Manne writes in her 2020 book “Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women,” when women make claims, their credibility is questioned much more than that of men. In fact, Rebecca Solnit wrote an entire book entitled “Men Explain Things to Me” after suffering through a man explaining one of her other books to her at a party. Scores of female academics have taken to Twitter to describe similar experiences of men explaining their own publications to them. I had this experience at an academic conference in 2016, when I sat next to one of the most senior practitioners in my field at a lunch, who proceeded to tell me about a New York Times piece I had written about my work the previous weekend.
America needs to stop lecturing and start learning from women who have expertise. By using her “Dr.” title in the White House, Dr. Biden would show by example that women shouldn’t deny their rightful authority. She would also show other women and girls what’s possible for them. Indeed, I don’t recall ever meeting a woman with a Ph.D. until I went to college.
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In 2017, Dr. Biden spoke at the commencement ceremony at Hofstra University, where I teach. The president of our university told her that one of my colleagues, a university administrator, had just earned her graduate degree but was not planning to walk in the ceremony. Dr. Biden insisted that my colleague put on a robe and go up to the stage with her classmates because it was important to recognize all the work that had gotten her there.
Given the misogyny we’re up against, this is a message that other women clearly need to hear. And Dr. Biden is uniquely positioned to send it from one of the most powerful places on earth, simply by using her rightful title.