Voices: What’s wrong with saying Dr Jill Biden?
On Sunday afternoon, a sportscaster spotted the first lady in the stands at the NFL playoff game in San Francisco and referred to her as “Dr Jill Biden.” This totally appropriate use of Biden’s title seems to always churn up the right’s outrage machine.
This time it was Megyn Kelly, who shared the following on Twitter: “Announcers for this Eagles-49ers game just spotted the First Lady in a box and of course call her ‘Dr. Jill Biden.’ Wonder if she realizes what a wannabe she looks like insisting on this fake title. Get a real MD or just work on your self-esteem.”
Perhaps Kelly doesn’t understand the history of the word “doctor.” It was originally used to identify academics as early as the Middle Ages. Until the 1800s, the proper titles for medical professionals were “physician” (diagnosed patients) “surgeon” (performed operations), and “apothecary” (dispensed medication), with the university-trained “physicians” considered the most elite. Eventually, the term “Doctor” came into wider use in medicine. So MDs were the latecomers, with the university professors by far the first to be called “doctor.”
But maybe that’s not what’s really bugging Kelly. Maybe it’s the fact that Jill Biden, a successful woman in her own right, has strayed from her proper lane. President’s wives, after all, have traditionally served primarily as their husband’s helpmates and cheerleaders. The work they did was always connected to the office of the President, from Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign to beautify America, to Nancy Reagan’s well-meaning but ineffective “Just Say No to Drugs” initiative. These pursuits were generally acceptable, and non-threatening to men.
Those who became too prominent were harshly criticized. Hillary Clinton, for example, was lambasted for working closely on healthcare legislation with her husband the President. With Melania Trump, the nation saw a return to first lady as executive accessory, and that pleased a majority of those on the right.
Now, with Dr Biden, we have a university professor who has continued to work in her profession during her husband’s vice presidency and now presidency. Perhaps the greater sin is not the “Dr” attached to a female academic’s name, but the independence and success that honorific implies. If that is still a problem in 2023, that is a real shame.
Megyn Kelly has plunged into these waters before, and one would hope by now she’d think before she typed. Kelly is entitled to her opinion, but her hypocrisy is stunning. Seems pop psychologist “Dr Phil” of TV fame is A-OK in her book (she was a guest on his show). She also consistently calls former Trump administration official Sebastian Gorka, “Dr Gorka.” Gorka, like Phil McGraw, does not use a literal scalpel (though figuratively, Gorka has eviscerated those who criticize his troubling history of supporting antisemitism). One can also imagine that Kelly’s fine with Dr Seuss (who only had an honorary doctorate) – and may even have read his books to her kids! Yet Kelly thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to demean an actual “doctor,” as long as she’s a Democrat, and first lady of our country.
The damage Kelly’s remarks do to our society is in their reinforcement of stereotypes that to this day consider women’s professional contributions as “less than.” In the current political climate, a significant percentage of the population seems to agree with initiatives and policies that are designed to strip women of their rights, including their bodily autonomy. Men in power are doing a fine job of sidelining women. We don’t need women joining them.
Additionally, teachers, who play such a vital and formative role in the lives of our children, are quitting the profession in droves. Their struggles to educate young people in the face of constant criticism from entitled parents, alarming censorship of teaching materials, the ongoing pandemic, and the contact fear of gun violence in their classrooms, are proving to be too much for too many. As the teacher shortage becomes a crisis, and fewer people choose this difficult profession, is this really the time to mock someone who uses her title of professor proudly?
Kelly, a very successful female media figure, could better use her megaphone to champion Dr Biden, instead of aiming ridiculous criticism at her. As someone with a PhD, who is also a college professor, Jill Biden has earned the right to be called “doctor,” which, like “Democrat,” is actually not a dirty word.