That WSJ Column…

There has been a very vigorous blowback triggered by a Wall Street Journal column by one Joseph Epstein, counseling Jill Biden (or, as he patronizingly referred to her, “kiddo”) to forego use of the title “Doctor.” (I am not linking to that column; if you want to read it in its sexist entirety, Google it.)

Now, there are legitimate issues about the use of titles. When I was married to a medical doctor, I was frequently embarrassed by his compulsion to insist on being called “Doctor” in venues where it was clearly unnecessary; I ultimately realized that it was a crutch–a way of reassuring himself of his superior status.

People in my generation did tend to reserve it for medical doctors, not those of us holding other types of doctorates.That convention has dissipated, however. My students either call me professor or doctor, and I answer to either. (Or sometimes, just to “hey”!)

No matter what your opinion about the social propriety of its use, the sneering, dismissive tone of the column made it abundantly clear–as many others have noted–that it wouldn’t have been written about a male with a doctorate. About Dr. Kissinger, for example.

I think the personality of Mr. Epstein–who holds a BA, and proudly reports that he doesn’t use “Doctor” despite the fact that he was once awarded an honorary doctorate–is pretty amply telegraphed by the self-satisfied tone of the column itself, but if we needed any confirmation, it came in a post from a FB friend of my sister:

I’ve briefly noted this on some friends’ threads, but it’s worth posting a full account: when I was a Northwestern undergraduate, I took a required class with Joseph Epstein. He constantly jingled the change and keys in his pockets, and told us not to bother complaining about it as all his students did. He didn’t care. He told us rather proudly that he never lay awake at night worrying about the future of the blue whale (?). He NEVER called on the women in class, and spent most class time talking about how amazing he is. I imagine he would use the verb ‘regale’, clearly thinking he would have been welcomed at the Algonquin Round Table. There was one brave woman who insisted on talking. He ignored her. He rang me in my apartment on a weekend, after we turned in our final essays, demanding to know who had written the essay for me. He asked me several questions about Joyce, about whom I’d written, and kept asking how I knew this or that. When I started to cry, he said I was getting hysterical and hung up. I asked a couple of professors who knew me and my work to intervene. He got back to me to say I seemed to have gotten my little boyfriends (??) to speak to him. I was younger than my years and terrified, ignorant of how to stand up for myself. I got the paper back, with a ‘C’, and a one-sentence comment: ‘This is an A paper, but you and I know why I can’t give you an A.

Apparently, he is also an “out and proud” homophobe.

When the offensive column triggered huge criticism, the Journal’s editor dismissed the blowback by insisting that it was part of “cancel culture” and a co-ordinated effort by Democratic Party strategists.

I beg to differ.

That highly critical response was the spontaneous voice of thousands of women (and men who aren’t threatened by them), telling entitled and clueless old White guys to shove it where the sun doesn’t shine.


  1. First, thank you to Carol Frances Johnston and Terry Munson for explaining the what and where of “doctor”.

    For what it’s worth, I am Doctor Farber – that MD is just a physician – sorry had to get snarky – I had a friend who worked at a research institute attached to Ford Hospital in Detroit, who was told she couldn’t use “doctor”. A research scientist with a PhD usually has equal, or longer training, and post-doctoral time that is as long or longer than the typical residency – more training and an original contribution to scientific knowledge.

    With my freshly minted PhD, it was seemed odd when people would address me as “doctor”, but the departmental secretary had it right – she referred to me as “Doctor Farber” in public, and called me Len when we talked — as it should be.

    When I was in high school, I knew that when I went to college, I would address my teachers as “doctor” or “professor”, but would be called “mister” in return. When I got to college, everyone was on a first name basis, but many of us still called our instructors “doctor” or “professor”. It was the late ’60s.

    When I was teaching, I would Introduce myself thusly. “I am your instructor, Len Farber. The title is doctor, but that is pretentious, so call me Len.”

    I use my title when appropriate. Doctor Biden earned her right to be called “doctor”. It is that simple. If you earn a doctorate in any field, you have earned the title that goes with it (although I never have heard my brother being called “doctor” – he has a JD, although many schools awarded an LLB in those days).

    Mister Epstein – I have a name for him too – “earth food” – in biblical times, the earth would have opened up and swallowed him. He makes me wish that would happen again.

  2. Jill Biden not only has her doctorate but two masters degrees as well. She’s probably the best educated First Lady we’ve ever had. (She may be better educated than any President.) Her title is one for which she’s worked long and hard. She’s so committed to using that education for its intended purpose that she plans to continue working as a professor while first lady – something she also did as second lady. She is REALLY committed to teaching and being the best she can be at it.

    The Wall Street Journal as a journalistic home for the business community which has pushed college prep instruction on every child – some of whom would benefit far more from career preparation to which the business community gives only lip service – has taken leave of its senses and its customer base. The editors should never have published that insane column. And the author can please go back to his stone-age cave.

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