Essayist Joseph Epstein recently wrote a letter-style op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he suggests Dr. Jill Biden should drop her title as she prepares to become First Lady of the United States.
Epstein spends the letter giddily elaborating on the reasons he feels Biden’s title is an unnecessary indulgence. Despite the fact that anyone who holds such an advanced degree earned their title through years of labor, Epstein — who holds only an honorary doctorate and admits he barely scraped through his bachelor’s program — suggests Biden’s degree is insufficient. Fraudulent. Comedic, even.
Because a woman who holds an advanced degree is, in his eyes, a joke. Only a man who delivers a baby can hold the title of doctor — by implication, not a woman who has merely birthed one.
Misogynistic overtones and condescending language aside, Epstein spends considerable space in the letter discussing his own credentials as a professor at Northwestern University. Except, he was actually just a lecturer and hasn’t work there since 2003, according to Northwestern’s public statement. The fact he cites the prestigious four-year university so often seems purposefully designed to contrast with Biden’s experience working for two-year schools.
Not only does he frown upon her dissertation on community college students’ needs, but his constant reminders of his association with Northwestern bring Biden’s own popular role as a community college professor to mind, perhaps in an effort to subvert her.
Certainly in his tedious paragraphs despairing how easy it is to get an advanced degree these days (despite the fact he doesn’t really have one), he aims to show she’s somehow inferior to him. It’s easier for him to accept the title of First Lady, a reminder that she’s still second to her husband the President, than address a woman with a degree in education as doctor.
And that’s the thing. The fact Biden studied education — which has so long been women’s role in society, a field beneath men — but attained a degree that comes with a title of respect is threatening. It’s a threat because it makes women in educational fields legitimate instead of the way too many people perceive them: glorified childcare.
It reminds me of the time I was seventeen and my dentist, an old man with outdated values, asked me what I planned to do after college. I told him I wanted to be a professor, maybe even president of a university. In response he asked, in the sour tone men use when a woman is too ambitious for their taste, aren’t you more suited for working with children?
From Epstein’s perspective, he likely thinks little of Biden’s work uplifting the status and resources of community colleges in the United States. You know, those supposedly terrible two-year schools that men like him would never stoop to associate with. Those junior colleges that let anyone get a degree. Anyone.
Do you see what I’m getting at? There’s more than misogyny going on here. Biden, by asking people respect the title she earned, is subverting an entire academic system that places accessible, inclusive education at the bottom. Men like Epstein want to keep enjoying the exclusivity of their ivory towers, their boy’s clubs, as long as possible. The moment that women and other marginalized groups break through, attain advanced degrees, and arrive to smash the ivory tower, these kinds of men move the bar. They insult the system. It’s too easy now, Epstein argues:
“The Ph.D. may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in university education generally, at any rate outside the sciences. Getting a doctorate was then an arduous proceeding,” he writes. “Dr. Jill, I note you acquired your Ed.D. as recently as 15 years ago at age 55, or long after the terror had departed.”
Because that’s the thing. As soon women and people of color break through the barriers people like Epstein hope will keep them out, they will say the system is broken. It’s too easy now, they argue. The terror has departed, Epstein says, but what he means is you didn’t earn the right.
Of course, the truly ironic thing — what made me laugh out loud at the pitiful drudgery produced by yet another insecure, small-minded man — is that he’s the one with the honorary degree he so despises.
In his own words, “Such degrees were once given exclusively to scholars, statesmen, artists and scientists,” but now, men like Epstein can get them. He doesn’t include himself in the list of people with honorary degrees he so disdains, but readers can still see a comparison.
Biden, however, holds a degree she earned. She studied, took the classes, wrote and published the dissertation. She did the work — she didn’t just write snarky essays about other people she resents. And that’s all Epstein is: an ornery old essayist with nothing better to do than disparage the accomplishments of others.
Addressing someone by their appropriate title shouldn’t even require you to respect them. It’s just being polite. But Biden rises far above the belittling remarks. She’s too busy using her degree to fight for community college students — students like me.
Community colleges serve underrepresented communities at an unprecedented rate compared to bigger, more prestigious four-year universities. They make higher education accessible to low-income students, who continue to perform demonstrably after transferring to university.
I, for one, am proud that my country will soon have a first lady who is willing to fight to make education more equitable. I am sure that’s a scary prospect for someone like Epstein who is so eager to protect the ivory tower of academia which welcomes mediocre men like him.
Of course, he must not have realized that whether or not Biden continues to use her title throughout the rest of her successful career, as I’m sure she will, the dominoes have already toppled. The ivory tower is coming down next.
Sarah Olson Michel is a science writer and proud community college transfer student. She was an undergraduate science journalism fellow with the National Association of Science Writers in 2018 and won an award for two-year college students the same year. Her writing has been published in the New York Times, Science Magazine, POPSUGAR, and elsewhere.