[Jill] Biden [who earned a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware and is currently teaching two courses at Northern Virginia Community College] is thought to be the first second lady [i.e., spouse of the Vice President] to hold a paying job while her husband is in office.
“I think she is unique,” said Joel Goldstein, a professor at St. Louis University School of Law and an expert on the vice presidency. Other second ladies — Cheney, Quayle, Tipper Gore and Joan Mondale — wrote, lectured or did important volunteer work.
“But I think Dr. Biden is the first . . . to basically continue in the regular workforce,” said Goldstein, who has a DPhil (the English term for doctor of philosophy) from Oxford and a JD (juris doctor) from Harvard. He seemed mildly amused upon hearing that Biden liked to be called “Dr.”
“It’s a funny topic,” Goldstein said. “Occasionally someone will call me ‘doctor,’ and when that happens my wife makes fun of me a little bit. But nobody thought it was pretentious to call Henry Kissinger ‘Dr. Kissinger.’ ”
Joe Biden, on the campaign trail, explained that his wife’s desire for the highest degree was in response to what she perceived as her second-class status on their mail.
“She said, ‘I was so sick of the mail coming to Sen. and Mrs. Biden. I wanted to get mail addressed to Dr. and Sen. Biden.’ That’s the real reason she got her doctorate,” he said.
Amy Sullivan, a religion writer for Time magazine, said she smiled when she heard the vice president’s wife announced as Dr. Jill Biden during the national prayer service the day after President Obama’s inauguration.
“Ordinarily when someone goes by doctor and they are a PhD, not an MD, I find it a little bit obnoxious,” Sullivan said. “But it makes me smile because it’s a reminder that she’s her own person. She wasn’t there as an appendage; she was there as a professional in her own right.”
Newspapers, including The Times, generally do not use the honorific “Dr.” unless the person in question has a medical degree.
“My feeling is if you can’t heal the sick, we don’t call you doctor,” said Bill Walsh, copy desk chief for the Washington Post’s A section and the author of two language books. …
Estela Bensimon, a professor at USC’s Center for Education, said she cared about being called Dr. Bensimon only if she was being addressed by her first name while male colleagues were called doctor.
You know, I’m not someone who insists on formality. A few of my email correspondents insist on addressing me as Dr. Stemwedel even though, blogospherically speaking, we’re more like peers; they keep signing emails with their first names, and I do the same. My guess is that most of my neighbors don’t know that I have one Ph.D., let alone two. I’m still negotiating the manner of address that achieves the right balance of respect and accessibility in my relationship with my students.
But I’m getting a strong impression that the LA Times would not be treating Jill Biden’s preference for being called “Dr. Biden” as an affectation worthy of comment if she were a male. Did the papers give Henry Kissinger crap for his “Dr.”? Do they think it’s obnoxious to append the “Dr.” before “Martin Luther King, Jr.”?
What is obnoxious is that the standard feminine honorifics (which are not tied to an advanced degree or elective office) make one’s marital status an issue. Why the hell is that a matter of public interest? If we’re interested in cutting down on the obnoxiousness, we might even look into honorifics that are gender neutral.
Yeah, I’m sure the newspapers will get right on it.
Also obnoxious is the condescension that seems to drip from the “smile” it provokes that Dr. Biden might want a job beyond being Mrs. Joe Biden and showing up for the required tea-parties and photo ops. How darling! She wants to be her own person!
I don’t want to get into a dispute about whether MDs or PhDs have a better claim to the “Dr.”, either on historical grounds or on the basis of their powers in the world. (A pathologist can have an MD without healing the sick, after all; would Mr. Walsh at the Washington Post refrain from identifying a pathologist as Dr. Quincy?) Let’s stipulate that it’s hard work to earn an advanced degree. To the extent that people have done that hard work and would like to commemorate that achievement with the honorific that goes with the degree, why on earth should that be a problem? Dr. Biden is teaching education classes, not claiming that she can cure anyone’s sciatica.
I understand that some members of the American public have a knee-jerk distaste for pointy-headed intellectuals, all of whom are assumed to be pompous quaffers of lattes or chardonay (depending on the time of day). Perhaps if they knew that these Doctors of Philosophy walked among them, shopping at their stores, volunteering in their kids’ classrooms and coaching their soccer teams, and behaving pretty much like other members of the community, for better or for worse, Joe and Jane Six-Pack could re-examine their prejudices.
Whether the arbiters of honorifics at the LA Times can re-examine their prejudices is another question.