I’m a Kansas Dr. — and an expert on the sexist treatment of women in politics

It's been heartening to see so many defending Jill Biden's use of the prefix "Dr." No one told Henry Kissinger he should not use Dr. when he was Secretary of State, nor did anyone call him "kiddo."


December 22, 2020 - 9:51 AM

Jill Biden, wife of President-elect Joe Biden, at a campaign event in October. Photo by (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

My niece, who grew up in Florida, spent part of every summer shuttling between Topeka where I lived and Frontenac where my parents lived. She would go to the University of Kansas campus with me when I checked my mail or met with a student. One day, after hearing several people call me “Dr. Carlin,” she looked at me with six-year-old irritation that included a “humph” and hands on her hips.

Dr. Diana Carlin,
The Kansas Reflector

“Aunt Diana,” she asked, “if you are a doctor why aren’t you in a hospital helping people?”

I explained about different types of doctors, and said I help people by teaching them skills to serve them throughout their lives. Many non-medical “doctors” are finding cures for cancer or COVID or are conducting research that contributes to our quality of life. Doctoral degree holders do help people and may even save lives.

Over the past week, with furor raging over a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Joseph Epstein, it is heartening to see so many other opinion pieces, news articles and social media posts defending Jill Biden’s use of the prefix “Dr.”

A few noted that the “real” or original doctors are the academics, not the medical degree holders. The word “doctor” has a Latin root docere, which means “to teach.” Not to diagnose, heal or conduct surgery. The term was first used in the 14th century by theologians and later by university teachers. It was not used extensively in the medical field until the 16th century.

What many have said over the past few days bears repeating: Epstein’s article is an example of the rampant sexism in politics. No one told Henry Kissinger he should not use Dr. when he was Secretary of State, nor did anyone call him “kiddo,” as Epstein addressed Dr. Biden. Even Kamala Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, who has witnessed the misogyny she experienced, commented that this would not be an issue if it were a male spouse.

Many articles have made this another example of the political divide, but much of the blame rests with journalistic guidelines such as the Associated Press Stylebook, that includes only medical doctors as worthy of the title. Not all media follow that standard and as a result, choices are made and not made consistently.

As I write this, I am surrounded by news stories about the sexist treatment of women who ran for president in 2012, 2016 and 2020 for an academic article I am co-authoring. It is the sequel to an article my former graduate student, Kelly Winfrey, and I wrote about the sexist treatment of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton in 2008. We titled it, “Have You Come a Long Way, Baby?”

The challenge Dr. Winfrey, who is now the assistant director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, and I have is how to winnow down the examples to fit the page limit for an academic journal. I could provide at least 25 pages of examples (the limit for this article), but there is no need because the evidence is obvious to anyone who follows politics or is reading the reactions to Epstein.

A second point that needs emphasis relates to another area of my research — first ladies. In many ways, the expectations for first ladies have not changed that much since Martha Washington created the role of presidential spouse.

The media still comments on first ladies’ wardrobes, their social events, their children and their causes. It is said that first ladies are mirrors of their times. Some, such as Lou Henry Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson or Hillary Clinton, have deflected more than reflected as they broke with traditional activities and were often criticized for doing so.

However, none continued their professional lives. Pre-pandemic, women represented nearly half of the total labor force. Women are also earning more college degrees, from bachelors through doctorates, than men. Yet, we have not had a working first lady — until Dr. Jill Biden.

In fact, she is the first working second lady. No one expected Doug Emhoff to stop working and commit the next four years to social events and worthy causes as second gentleman. While he did leave his law firm, he will teach at Georgetown Law School.

Only 2% of the U.S. population has a doctoral degree. Jill Biden earned hers and two master’s degrees while also meeting the demands of a professor, political wife, mother and grandmother. She is not alone in balancing family and profession and should be lauded for representing what millions of other women are doing in the U.S. She should not be criticized for using a title that means “to teach” when that is what she does.

Dr. Diana Carlin taught courses on women and politics at the University of Kansas.