For women in academia, the Wall Street Journal op-ed about the future first lady’s title struck a nerve.
Originally published by The 19th
Editor’s note: The 19th largely uses the AP Stylebook, which only uses “doctor” for people with doctoral degrees within medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine. In this piece, we have decided to use the title for anyone holding a Ph.D.
When Dr. Glenna Matthews saw an opinion piece arguing that Dr. Jill Biden should drop her title, it brought back a flood of memories for the 82-year-old.
Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal published a column by Joseph Epstein, who took issue with the fact that the future first lady — who earned two master’s degrees and one doctoral degree in education — uses a title that he believes should be reserved for medical doctors. Epstein, who began the piece by referring to Biden as “kiddo,” said that Biden’s usage of doctor felt “fraudulent” and “comic.”
Matthews called the op-ed “infuriating.” She earned a doctorate in American history from Stanford University in the 1970s, which she said had never had a tenured woman on the history faculty. Matthews said when she got her first job at Oklahoma State University, she was the only woman working in the history department and the only woman in a tenure track position within the school of social sciences.
Still, during her decades teaching history, she dealt with rude male students who did not address her as Dr. Matthews. She also faced challenges when attempting to access research materials at public facilities, which she wonders if she would have faced as a man.
“I’ve had to fight to be taken seriously,” said Matthews, who completed her studies while balancing research and her kids’ Little League games and doctor’s appointments.
The opinion piece prompted immediate rebuke from other women in academia, a field that is already fraught for women. Though women earn more doctorate degrees than men, a smaller percentage of them are tenured professors.
Dr. Rachael Robnett, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, studies women’s experiences with sexism in academia, particularly in science-related fields. She understands why the op-ed sparked a reaction among women: Empirical research shows women have their credentials questioned in ways that men do not and are taking on a greater load with child care and family responsibilities during the pandemic.
“I think that the piece would have struck a nerve no matter what, but on top of the pandemic and on top of other things that are going on in society, it might be striking even more of a nerve,” she said.
Dr. Zyer Beaty, 28, graduated this past May from the University of Georgia with a doctorate in counselor education and supervision. But as she acclimates to her new title following a virtual graduation, Beaty said she doesn’t usually correct people at work when they call her “Ms. Beaty” instead of “Dr. Beaty.”
“Sometimes it’s hard for me to identify as a doctor,” Beaty said. “People don’t always respect the work that you do or understand the work that you do.”
Beaty — who worked full-time as a high school counselor while working toward the degree for four years — was the first member of her family to earn a Ph.D. The op-ed reflected a sentiment that Beaty said she has heard time and time again: She doesn’t belong.
Whether it’s because of her gender, race or age, Beaty, who is Black, said it was hard to know why she felt like she needed to constantly validate her work and expertise. At the same time, people are trying to “make light of” pursuing higher education as more and more Black people and women earn master’s and doctorate degrees, she added.
“I do think the men that I’ve encountered will correct people and make it known that they hold doctorate degrees,” Beaty said. “Women don’t feel like they can ask for certain things or deserve certain things.”
Robnett said it’s not surprising that some women face imposter syndrome.
“From an early age, girls are socialized to downplay their accomplishments,” she said. “They receive backlash that boys do not receive when they talk about themselves with pride and when they talk about their accomplishments.”
Dr. Natalie Jackson, 36, the director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute, called the op-ed “insulting” and “uninformed.”
“Basically anyone who is not traditionally male has faced problems with having their expertise recognized — regardless of education level,” said Jackson, who received a doctorate in political science from the University of Oklahoma in 2011.
Dr. Cheryl J. Fish, a professor in New York City with a Ph.D in English, said the last lines of the op-ed, in which the author implied Biden should be grateful to be first lady, upset her the most.
“It’s about keeping women in their place and not acknowledging the hard work they’ve done and the success they’ve had and the achievements,” she said. “It’s this kind of intimidation or fear of powerful women, whatever form the power takes.”
The article highlighted all the ways that women in academia deal with additional challenges in teaching and doctoral research, Fish said. Decades into teaching, some of Fish’s students still won’t use the title she earned.
“Maybe it’s not on their radar really to think about, ‘Well, this person had a long training and had to do all this research and is a well-published writer,’” she said. “Maybe some of them don’t have that perspective of what was involved for some of their professors.”
Fish — who has taught her courses at Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY virtually since the beginning of the pandemic — said she has long been interested in Biden’s trajectory, especially her plans to continue teaching once her husband is in the White House. She looks forward to Biden elevating the role of educator into policy.
“She’s an English professor at a community college, which is what I am,” Fish said. “She’d have similar students that I have, she’d be concerned about helping people from communities of color and people who have had less access to education. She’d be interested in how we can help them and how we can make more opportunities.”
Biden, for her part, responded to the op-ed in a tweet on Sunday: “Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished.”