Image courtesy of Ralph Alswang/Center for American Progress
The Wall Street Journal came under fire last week for publishing an op-ed by writer Joseph Epstein, who suggested that incoming First Lady Jill Biden drop the prefix “Dr.” since she is not a medical doctor.
Referring to Biden alternatively as “Madame First Lady,” “Mrs. Biden,” “Jill,” and “kiddo,” Epstein offered his advice on what “may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter.”
“Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr.’ before your name? ‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic,” Epstein wrote. “A wise man once said that no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child.”
Biden holds two master’s degrees from Villanova University and West Chester University, as well as a doctor of education degree from the University of Delaware.
In a column in the Washington Post, style reporter Monica Hesse called Epstein’s piece “exceptionally bad” and noted that he cited himself as an example of someone who actively avoided being referred to as a doctor. However, Epstein’s highest degree is a bachelor’s, earned from the University of Chicago. Although a recipient of an honorary doctorate, Epstein’s piece states “just about all honor has been drained from honorary doctorates.”
“It seems he would like Jill Biden to deny herself what she earned, because he denied himself what he did not,” Hesse wrote.
Epstein also drew criticism from his former employer, Northwestern University, where he taught for decades. The university recently removed his profile from its site, where he was previously tagged as an “emeritus lecturer,” and clarified in a statement that he had not taught there since 2002, and was never a tenured professor.
“Northwestern is firmly committed to equity, diversity and inclusion, and strongly disagrees with Mr. Epstein’s misogynistic views,” the university said. The English Department at Northwestern, where Epstein was on faculty, issued its own statement rejecting the op-ed for casting “unmerited aspersion on Dr. Biden’s rightful public claiming of her doctoral credentials.”
The Journal also received widespread backlash for publishing the column on social media, notably from women with doctorates.
Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania, tweeted she had been invited to serve as an expert answering audience questions for the Journal’s “Diversity + Business” newsletter.
After the op-ed’s publication, however, she said she withdrew her involvement with the newsletter.
“This article should never have been published. It is highly offensive to all of us who have earned doctorates,” Creary said. “As a result, I am unwilling to support any diversity initiatives backed by the WSJ – it would be hypocritical for me to do so.”
She also responded to critics suggesting she not punish the Journal’s news section for the perceived misdeeds of the opinion section.
“Differentiating @WSJ and @WSJopinion in order to protect ‘real’ journalism from the taint of that writer’s misogynistic and elitist dribble is absurd,” Creary said. “A room in the same house is burning.”
Melissa Korn, a higher education reporter at the Journal, called the op-ed “disgusting” and said it made her reporting more difficult.
“There is a thick wall between the news and opinion operations of @WSJ, but it still saddens me that they’d print it,” she said. “Pieces like that make it harder for me to do my job.”
Michael LaRosa, a spokesperson for Biden, lambasted the Journal and one of its editors in charge of the opinion section, James Taranto, for publishing “this disgusting and sexist attack on [Dr.] Biden.”
“If you had any respect for women at all you would remove this repugnant display of chauvinism from your paper and apologize to her,” LaRosa said in the tweet.
Another spokesperson for the Biden campaign, Kate Bedingfield, who will also be serving as White House communications director, tweeted a similarly harsh rebuke of the op-ed.
“What patronizing, sexist, elitist drivel. Dr. B earned a doctorate in education, so we call her Doctor. The title Mr. Epstein has earned here is perhaps not fit for mixed company,” Bendingfield said.
The Journal, declining to issue an apology or a retraction as was widely demanded, later published an article composed of several reader responses to Epstein’s piece under the headline, “The ‘Dr.’ Is in—the Next First Lady Earned It.”
“Mr. Epstein’s article comes across as a put-down, an attempt to diminish the achievements of a woman who is to be respected and admired,” one reader wrote.
On Sunday, the Journal’s editorial page editor, Paul Gigot, defended the column in a response piece. He pointed to the statements from LaRosa and others within the Biden transition, and suggested their rage was part of a coordinated political campaign to draw attention and support for Biden.
“Why go to such lengths to highlight a single op-ed on a relatively minor issue?” Gigot wrote. “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.”
Gigot also hit back at the claims the piece was misogynistic, stating that Epstein’s arguments about dropping the prefix applied to all genders.
The op-ed is the latest in a series of controversies the Journal’s opinion section has been embroiled in this year. The most prominent one came in July, when hundreds of reporters and employees from the news division sent a letter to the Journal’s publisher claiming a “lack of fact-checking and transparency” in the opinion desk.
In response, the Journal’s editorial board published an op-ed criticizing the letter for embodying “progressive cancel culture.”