As a child, I was instructed to address individuals with Ph.D. degrees as “Dr.” or “professor.” To do so otherwise would have been disrespectful.
All through college, I felt confident knowing that I was speaking to my professors appropriately and professionally. Then, in medical school, we code-switched. Our senior residents might be “Amanda” and “Tom” in the on-call room, but in front of patients, they were always “Dr. Smith” and “Dr. Jones.” We were especially careful to do this for female physicians, whose patients were reluctant to see them as professionals. Those women were constantly subjected to comments like, “You’re too young/pretty to be a doctor,” and, with a glance at the name tag, “Amanda, when is the doctor coming? Can you get me a soda?”
This weekend, Dr. Jill Biden was the target of “first-naming,” the behavior many women who hold professional and terminal academic degrees are subjected to. The egregious example was laid out in an essay that seemingly escaped editorial review, landing in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. It 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? 'Dr. Jill Biden' sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic."
The author, Joseph Epstein, was once fired from a publication for expressing extreme views about homosexuality, so it’s not like his callous cluelessness is a new feature. He is simply demonstrating how many men treat women after they succeed.
Educated women are threatening to men like Epstein, and using their first names unravels the ladder they have woven to get closer to independence, prestige, money and power. Dr. Biden is distasteful to Epstein. Not only does she come packaged with a Democratic president, she outranks the Democratic president in Epstein's (sort of) former field of academia. She, therefore, must be diminished. Epstein and many like him can’t stand to see a woman command respect.
[F]irst-naming destabilizes a woman’s ability to achieve the status and rank normally associated with her degree
Epstein's own biography is a familiar case study in men's achievement of status and rank without the hoop-jumping expected of women. His playing field has been lanugo-smooth. He writes that people called him “Dr.” even before he had an honorary doctorate. How nice.
Since preventing women from obtaining higher education is now illegal, the practice of first-naming destabilizes a woman’s ability to achieve the status and rank normally associated with her degree. On a daily basis, academic women I know — department chairs, deans — will, in private, complain that they are introduced by their first names at conferences, while lower-ranking men are called "professor" or "Dr." The messaging has a wide array of implications across professional settings. Think about it: "Jill" will take and type up the meeting minutes. Jill will shorten her speech to accommodate the next speaker. Jill will give up some of her hiring budget. It is harder to ask "Dr. Biden" to do all of those things.
The one exception to using the “Dr.” title is in settings involving medical education or medical care, because “Dr.” in these settings implies an M.D., D.O. or M.B.B.S (the equivalent degree in countries outside the U.S.). The difference? These are professional, not academic degrees, and they imply the learning of a highly-skilled trade.
In a cardiology clinic, then, it is inappropriate for a medical assistant with a Ph.D. in history to be referred to as "Dr." because of the medicolegal risk that a patient would construe her advice as informed by an M.D.’s training and experience. Stand-alone clinics run by doctors of dentistry, chiropractic or acupuncture — as long as they do not purport to provide “primary care” or other medical specialty care — are also settings where “Dr.” can be used correctly. Because "Dr." carries such valuable social currency, the impersonation of true medical doctors is an ongoing concern.
But Dr. Biden is claiming none of these things. Rather, she earned her prestigious degree, after years of hard work. No one should diminish her accomplishments.
Michelle Obama could have chosen to have her designation to be “Esq.” had she been practicing law while in the White House. Dr. Biden, importantly, will be teaching in her capacity as a professor during Mr. Biden’s term (or terms) and folksifying a professor with “Jill” is actually more ridiculous than her keeping her honorific, to use Mr. Epstein’s chosen terminology.
Maya Angelou, when she toured on the speaking circuit, insisted she be called “Dr. Angelou.” She was awash in honorary doctorates. Now I realize why she did that — it was a call to other women, and especially Black women. This too, can be yours, she was saying. Conservative publications at the time boohooed aplenty; just like Epstein is doing now.
Should we be so lucky, Dr. Biden will double down and dig her heels in, and we will see a rise in the number of woman applicants to doctoral programs. Maybe we’ll call it the Biden Effect.
In any case, Epstein would do well to honor the advice I give journalists, patients and medical students. It’s the same advice Emily Post gives her readers: “If, when meeting people with doctorates, you're unsure how to address them, ‘Dr.’ is always correct. If they'd rather the title be dropped, they will let you know.”