The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Referring to female PhDs as ‘Dr.’ promotes equal treatment and values women’s work

Female professionals have long been taken less seriously and denied the status given to their male peers

Dr. Jill Biden speaks to reporters while campaigning for her husband, Joe Biden, on Nov. 3 in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Chris O’Meara/AP)

Since Joseph Epstein published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Friday suggesting that first lady-elect and education specialist Dr. Jill Biden — who holds an EdD — should drop what he calls her “fraudulent” title, female academics and their supporters have been in a furor, calling out the sexism driving such statements.

Female academics — who are now changing their Twitter names to include “Dr.” and have the hashtag #damnrightimadoctor trending — understand the significance of such demeaning statements about their expertise. Indeed, the prevalence of “manels,” all-male panels at academic conferences, has prompted the creation of new professional networks, such as Women Also Know History and Women Also Know Stuff, to call attention to women’s expertise.

More than a century ago, two pioneering female PhDs, Sophonisba Breckinridge and Edith Abbott, did the same in their efforts to achieve professional recognition and status. Their fight reminds us that dismissing women’s expertise is nothing new. Women have long had to fight for their credentials to matter. And this is not a “minor issue,” as Wall Street Journal opinion editor Paul Gigot claims. Acknowledging women’s credentials helps not only to promote professional women’s status and equality in professions, but also to recognize the value of women’s work.

Breckinridge earned her PhD in political science at the University of Chicago in 1901, the first woman to do so. Her partner, Abbott, earned her PhD in economics in 1905. Both women experienced gender discrimination in their chosen fields. Breckinridge, who studied political science and political economy, recalled in her memoirs: “Although I was given the PhD degree magna cum laude no position in political science or economics was offered me,” while “the men in the two departments … went off to positions in College and University faculties.”

Even after earning her JD from the University of Chicago in 1904 — again, the first woman to do so — Breckinridge was able to find only part-time work there as an instructor in the Department of Household Administration. Breckinridge made the most of her limited opportunity. As a former Wellesley classmate described the teaching post, “It was not the work for which she was best fitted, but she broadened the department by offering courses on the legal aspects of the household, on public institutional management, [and] on the public care of children.” In addition, Breckinridge offered a course on “The Legal and Economic Position of Women,” one of the earliest courses in women’s studies.

In that course, Breckinridge met Abbott. After earning her PhD at the University of Chicago in 1905, Abbott won a fellowship at the London School of Economics and published her dissertation, a pathbreaking study of women’s paid employment. But she was able only to gain a part-time position teaching statistics at her alma mater, although she briefly held a faculty position at Wellesley College before returning to Chicago in 1908.

Breckinridge’s and Abbott’s lack of job prospects had little to do with their abilities. A male political science professor who had studied with Breckinridge called her “a very capable expert” in the fields of law and political science. He suspected that she had entered social work because “she could not get the opportunities she deserved in pursuing her earlier fields of specialization in Political Science and Law.” He was right.

Confronted with a lack of opportunity commensurate with their expertise in the male-dominated fields of political science, economics and law despite sterling credentials, Breckinridge and Abbott launched a new female-friendly field — social work. They worked together to establish a social science research program at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy (CSCP), a private social-work training school, from 1908 until 1920.

In 1915, Abraham Flexner, MD, claimed that the new field of social work, which was dominated by women, was not a profession. Breckinridge and Abbott were determined to prove him wrong.

In 1920, they transformed the CSCP into the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Social Service Administration (GSSSA), the nation’s first social work program associated with a major research university. Insisting that the goal of social work education was “not merely the training of routine case workers but the larger and more constructive policy of working with the social agencies to develop the science of public welfare,” they wrested control of the school away from its founder, Graham Taylor, a minister who did not share their commitment to social science.

The pair insisted that the new profession of social work should have the same status as the traditional professions of medicine and law. As a “condition” of moving to the University of Chicago, they demanded that “the university give to the School the status as a graduate professional school that was enjoyed by a law school.” As they explained: “The very name of the school, containing the word graduate, shows that this branch of our work is being conducted in accordance with the long accepted policy of the University. It is a graduate professional school and not a technical training school.”

Breckinridge and Abbott prided themselves on the rigorous standards of scholarship they established at the GSSSA. Their emphasis on social science research as a basis for social welfare programs made the school a public policy think tank that guided federal policy, including the programs established under the Social Security Act of 1935, which established the national welfare state.

Despite these achievements, Breckinridge and Abbott still struggled with sexism. Taylor, stung at his exclusion, complained that social work was being “academicized to death” under their leadership. The male chair of the sociology department (which competed with the GSSSA for funding and students), denigrated Abbott and Breckinridge as “do-gooders” and “old maids.”

Breckinridge and Abbott understood that gender determined authority — “a pair of trousers is a real asset,” the former noted wryly in a 1913 speech. Yet initially, neither woman routinely insisted on her title. On campus, the two were known as “Miss Breckinridge” and “Miss Abbott” — or, because of their close association, simply as “A and B.”

However, both women were determined to gain respect, both for themselves and for the profession of social work. Initially the GSSSA operated under the aegis of the School of Commerce and Administration, whose male dean showed little interest in it. Although Breckinridge and Abbott had been appointed associate professors, they lacked administrative authority — or even office space — at the business school. Breckinridge described them as “homeless,” pointing out that “nowhere is there a spot, not a sign indicating our right to be and to work.”

Philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, a longtime supporter of the CSCP and GSSSA, as well as a trustee and benefactor of the University of Chicago, stepped in. He wrote to the university president to urge him to put the two “gifted women,” who were “recognized authorities in their fields,” in charge.

Marion Talbot, dean of women at the University of Chicago, also campaigned on their behalf. Before her retirement in 1925, she left a generous bequest to the university on the condition that both Breckinridge and Abbott — who, she pointed out, were far more qualified than many male professors on campus — be promoted to full professor status.

In 1925, the Graduate School of Social Service Administration finally attained independence, and Abbott and Breckinridge achieved full professorships. At Breckinridge’s insistence, Abbott was named dean of the school. Breckinridge became the Samuel Deutsch professor of public welfare administration in 1929.

After decades of discrimination, Breckinridge and Abbott insisted on proper recognition of their professional status. In 1928, when an International Labor Organization pamphlet about immigration societies listed the women as “Miss” and their male counterparts as “Professor,” Breckinridge objected and demanded an immediate correction. “I shall be grateful if you would see to it that where we are named in any lists of this kind we are given our appropriate academic rank,” she wrote. “Whether you call us doctor or professor is unimportant, but that you should indicate that we have scientific qualification is very important,” she emphasized. “We cannot afford to have any questions … as to the qualification we have taken the pains to acquire.”

Breckinridge admitted to going on “somewhat of a rampage lately about these matters of giving academic titles to women if they are given to men.” But she did so because she understood the meaning that titles conveyed. Denying women titles demeaned their expertise and diminished their authority. Discrediting female professionals also devalued female-dominated fields of endeavor. Breckinridge knew that women had to claim their titles to announce their qualifications and establish the importance of their work. And they still do, explaining the fury over Epstein’s piece and why it was so problematic.