Misogyny and Language: You Can Call Me Doctor

Recently, there was a controversy surrounding the title “doctor” as applies to Jill Biden, Ed.D. The author of an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal described her title as “honorary, fraudulent, and even comic.” He notes that he taught for thirty years without any advanced degree and that those who earn such academic degrees do so only because the PhD has been diminished due to an erosion of standards in the academy.

Well, as we say in New Jersey: Mr. Epstein, hold my beer.

Except I do not actually drink beer, but you get my drift.

There is so much to unpack here and as such, it took me a bit of time to step back and really give thought as how to best approach this topic. Because I feel that a measured, well-thought-out response is the best rebuttal. But the truth is, I cannot be measured because I am genuinely angry.

I am mad that he wrote this and equally upset that the WSJ elected to publish it without remorse, given their vigorous defense of the piece. And I am further outraged that pundits debated her earned degree title and then quickly and quietly, the issue disappeared.

Because it is okay to criticize a woman when you yourself cannot meet her standards.

I am a historian with a doctorate from Temple University. Let me say unequivocally, my program was extremely rigorous; I earned that degree with a lot of pain. Birthing a child was easier and less painful, despite what Mr. Epstein alleges in his piece. For starters, it took me a long time, mostly because I was working full-time, sometimes adding in part-time teaching. Plus, I did all this while raising a son who has multiple learning disabilities, requiring a great deal of remedial assistance. His medical expenses were why I added on extra teaching jobs, atop my primary job. I read, I wrote, I attended classes, I received academic and research fellowships, and I raised a fine young man. I juggled a lot, by choice, to say the least.

In other words, Mr. Epstein, I did what you simply could not do. And I did it well.

I do not care that you sat in on dissertation defenses, nor do I care that you seem to think that the defense experience has become a “kaffeeklatsch” (personally, I wanted to vomit throughout both my comprehensive exams as well as my dissertation defense). Your allegation says more about the institution you worked for rather than the degree itself. I worked under incredible historians with multiple publications, all of whom are/were full professors and leaders in their subject areas.

I am proud of my degree. I am proud of my fellowships. And I am proud of all the conferences and scholarly talks I have given.

But the larger question is why do I feel the need to explain and defend myself? Especially to someone I will never meet and who, quite frankly, is of little consequence?

Because his piece intertwined gender, but also elements of class. And for those of us who did not come into this world as men of privilege, good luck climbing up the ladder. Especially in academia, but also in life. So many of my colleagues had parents who either held a JD, an MD, or a PhD that their entrée into academia was a given.

Not so for a working-class from New Jersey. A girl that people have spent a lifetime talking down to and who simply cannot comprehend that I, with my electrician father and retail-working mother, hail from parents every bit as smart as theirs. That they gave the three of us the opportunities they did not have, and they continue to cheer our accomplishments, regardless of what path we selected.

In Epstein’s piece he pointedly devalues Dr Biden’s degree from the University of Delaware, a state university. So, strike one, she is a woman. Strike two, she did not attend Yale. And yes, she did so while working and taking care of her family as well, but why place any value on women’s work?

And why place value on a state school? Well, I have a BA and an MA from Rutgers — also a state university, and my doctorate is from yes, another large, well-respected state university. Do my degrees count? Or do I remain in the category of those who earned their degrees the easy way?

In 2021 I find it abhorrent that men still talk over us, personally and professionally. Whether we are in the workplace, outside of it, or even in some of our personal relationships, it happens daily to women from every walk of life.

Professionally, we are too often dismissed and passed over for promotions and opportunities. Personally, some men want to tell you how much worse off he is in comparison to you; he is working harder, more, or whatever else, and you must be there for him. Even if he is not there for you. Plus, there are (unfortunately) those women who follow suit who will also treat you poorly because you are an educated woman, absorbing the patriarchal standards rather than rejecting them.

And I have had enough.

For not only did I earn my degrees, I taught, advised, and mentored college students for over twenty years. I taught subject matter, but also skills. And with that I included a hefty dose of “you can be anything you want to be” along with my lessons.

Especially the young women I mentored and taught. I knew instinctively that if they did not encounter the negativity within their immediate circle, the world was going to try to beat them down. Somewhere along the way, they would be too ambitious, too driven, too intelligent, too bossy, therefore too uppity for someone who would seek to quash their spirit and squelch their ambitions. I wanted so badly to help them prepare for it and instill the same confidence my parents gave me.

I knew that men and sometimes women would be intimidated by their education and would find ways to diminish their voices. Like the city councilman who referred to my degree as a “BS PhD” at a tourism summit or the man who yelled at me “Leave it!” in the middle of a conversation when I was discussing something he simply did not want to hear. Or the female coworker who would sigh deeply, purposely, every time we spoke because she wanted to believe that I had not understood whatever point she was making, when in fact I understood and jumped ahead of her in the conversation.

In each of these examples I was somehow the problem just by being myself and needed to be brought down a peg or two.

Yes, I have been there, Dr. Biden, more times than I care to admit. As I am sure you have been as well. And while I feel I am tough enough to handle it, my heart breaks for you and all my wonderful students who are facing the same thing.

Because I believe like me, you also wanted to work within education to help our girls see their value and to fulfill their dreams. Big or small dreams, difficult or arduous career choices, women should decide their best future without feeling like they are stepping out of line or that they are constrained in any way. I want women to excel in science, architecture, law, medicine, humanities, construction, anywhere they wish to go.

This piece in the WSJ encapsulates all the vitriol and bias we as educated, determined women face. And while I tried my best to ensure my students would be able to withstand the onslaught, this piece indicates that it is still ongoing, which saddens me a great deal for subsequent generations of women.

I am angry that this opinion was purposely run in one of our country’s major newspapers without much blow back, I see it for what it is: a shallow piece written by a small man whose accomplishments hold little value. It should have never seen the light of day.

It was published because it remains publicly acceptable to denigrate women and their accomplishments.

For me personally Mr. Epstein, your opinion is nothing. Because in addition to being incredible smart and well-read, my parents instilled in us a strong sense of self that your flimsy sticks, stones, and names cannot diminish. They may leave a nick here and there, but after a career and a lifetime of dealing with men just like you, I am good with my choices and who I am.

The truth is, I rarely use my title. Never in my personal life and only in certain circumstances professionally, primarily to indicate that I am a professional. I do not think that my doctorate defines me; it is one part of what makes me who I am. I am a girl from New Jersey with a few letters after her name. But that does not give anyone the right to mock, denigrate, talk down to or belittle me for my education or anything else.

So, Mr. Epstein, perhaps instead of holding my beer that I do not actually drink, why don’t you go make me a nice sandwich?

Genoa salami on good New York rye bread. I prefer mayo over mustard, hold the pickle.

And be sure that when you deliver it you include my title, noting that the order is for Dr. Pfeuffer-Scherer.

Thanks, sweetheart. Keep the change.

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