The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As critics blast a ‘misogynistic’ op-ed on Jill Biden, a Wall Street Journal editor blames ‘cancel culture’

Jill Biden is seen in East Lansing, Mich., in October. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The Wall Street Journal published a weekend op-ed that opened by addressing incoming first lady Jill Biden as “kiddo,” and argued she should drop the honorific “Dr.” from her name because she’s not a medical doctor.

The piece swiftly went viral, with critics bashing it as sexist and Northwestern University distancing the school from the lecturer emeritus who penned it. Dozens of Biden supporters, academics and activists hurled barbs at the newspaper’s opinion section on Saturday and Sunday with one Journal news reporter calling the piece “disgusting.

“The @WSJ should be embarrassed to print the disgusting and sexist attack on @DrBiden running on the @WSJopinion page,” Michael LaRosa, a spokesman for Biden, said Saturday on Twitter. “If you had any respect for women at all you would remove this repugnant display of chauvinism from your paper and apologize to her.”

On Sunday, though, Paul A. Gigot, the editorial page editor and vice president of the Wall Street Journal, doubled down on the piece, calling the attacks a bad faith example of “cancel culture.”

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“Why go to such lengths to highlight a single op-ed on a relatively minor issue?” he wrote in a letter to readers. “My guess is that the Biden team concluded it was a chance to use the big gun of identity politics to send a message to critics as it prepares to take power. There’s nothing like playing the race or gender card to stifle criticism.”

The rancorous debate this weekend echoed a much longer-running conversation about Biden’s use of an honorific, a discussion ongoing since she became second lady in 2009, two years after the community college professor earned her doctorate in education from the University of Delaware.

Joseph Epstein, who wrote the op-ed, taught English at Northwestern as an adjunct lecturer for three decades, but stopped teaching in 2003. He earned a bachelor of arts in absentia from the University of Chicago, and once received an honorary doctorate, but has no higher academic credentials.

He argued it is misleading for Biden to use the doctor title, at least while her husband is in the White House, because it is considered “bush league” in academic circles for nonmedical doctors to claim the honorific. Epstein also argued that an attachment to the title is silly because once-prestigious doctoral degrees have lost their value because of “the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards” at universities, in part because of an abundance of honorary doctorates like the one Epstein received.

Biden responded to the op-ed without addressing it directly on Sunday.

“Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished,” she said in a tweet.

Many people blasting the piece argued that the same standard would never be applied to a man in Biden’s position, and even listed men who have claimed it without medical credentials in the past.

Doug Emhoff, who will become the nation’s first man married to a vice president when Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) takes office next month, made that case.

“This story would never have been written about a man,” he said on Twitter.

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The highest-profile defense came from former first lady Michelle Obama, who on Monday shared a photo of the two via Instagram and praised Biden’s ability to manage the demands of her professional role and her official obligations as then-second lady along with her personal relationships.

Obama lamented how even the accomplishments of women like Biden are too often diminished.

“I’m thrilled that the world will see what I have come to know — a brilliant woman who has distinguished herself in her profession and with the life she lives every day, always seeking to lift others up, rather than tearing them down,” she wrote.

Some other critics of the piece said the real problem wasn’t the content of the argument but the tone. Epstein compared Biden’s doctoral credentials to an honorary degree that requires no academic work and said her doctorate thesis had an “unpromising” title. He also suggested his choice to eschew the title, even though he taught English courses at Northwestern for three decades with no more than a bachelor’s degree, should set an example for Biden.

On Saturday, Northwestern distanced itself from Epstein’s commentary, which it called “misogynistic” in a statement. The college’s English department also denounced his op-ed.

“The Department is aware that a former adjunct lecturer who has not taught here in nearly 20 years has published an opinion piece that casts unmerited aspersion on Dr. Jill Biden’s rightful public claiming of her doctoral credentials and expertise,” the department said in a statement. “The Department rejects this opinion as well as the diminishment of anyone’s duly-earned degrees in any field, from any university.”

Following the outcry, as the Wall Street Journal’s opinion section has done many times this year, the editorial page editor staunchly defended the op-ed on Sunday.

“If you disagree with Mr. Epstein, fair enough,” Gigot wrote. “Write a letter or shout your objections on Twitter. But these pages aren’t going to stop publishing provocative essays merely because they offend the new administration or the political censors in the media and academe.”

Although debate over the op-ed reached a fever pitch this weekend, discussions about whether Biden should claim a “Dr.” before her name are far from new.

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In 2009, as Biden became the second lady, the Los Angeles Times noted that White House announcements referred to her as “Dr. Jill Biden,” and spoke with journalism experts about whether news publications should use the title. (The Washington Post does not use the honorific for anyone, including those with a doctor of medicine.)

Some critics have long argued it is “pompous” for academics to insist on the title after earning PhDs or other doctorate-level degrees. Others have suggested “Dr.” has become too liberally applied to people with honorary doctorates.

But even some people who scoff at nonmedical doctors who don the honorific have noted that a different standard seems to apply to men who claim it largely without fuss and women, like Biden, who are mocked for the same choice.

“Society seems to have allowed for these designations for men, without debate or complaint,” Gina Barreca, a feminist scholar who holds a PhD in English literature but does not go by “Dr.,” told The Post in April, when Biden’s title was being debated again as Joe Biden campaigned for president. She then listed several men who used “Dr.” despite lacking a medical degree, including Henry Kissinger and Martin Luther King Jr.

That is not to say no man has ever been criticized for deploying the title without a medical degree. Celebrity psychologist Phil McGraw, more commonly known as Dr. Phil, has been scrutinized for deploying the title to sell his daytime TV show and lend legitimacy to his nonmedical opinions on health. Sebastian Gorka, former deputy assistant to President Trump, has also attempted to adopt the title, citing his PhD in political science from Corvinus University of Budapest, but few media outlets have complied with his requests.

Throughout the weekend, many women with their own doctoral degrees took to social media to praise Biden, with many adding “Dr.” to their Twitter handles.

“I’m disappointed by the unvarnished sexism of the @WSJ op-ed that minimizes @DrBiden’s academic accomplishments,” Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) said on Twitter. Adams has her own PhD in art education/multicultural education from Ohio State University.

“I doubt a successful man with a doctorate and two masters degrees would be treated with the same level of condescension,” she said. She signed her message: “Yours truly, Dr. Alma S. Adams.”