Referring to Female PhDs as ‘Dr.’ Promotes Equal Treatment and Values Women’s WorkRoundup
tags: sexism, Jill Biden
Anya Jabour is Regents professor of history at the University of Montana and the author of Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women’s Activism in Modern America.
Since Joseph Epstein published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Friday suggesting that first lady-elect and education specialist Dr. Jill Biden — who holds an EdD — should drop what he calls her “fraudulent” title, female academics and their supporters have been in a furor, calling out the sexism driving such statements.
Female academics — who are now changing their Twitter names to include “Dr.” and have the hashtag #damnrightimadoctor trending — understand the significance of such demeaning statements about their expertise. Indeed, the prevalence of “manels,” all-male panels at academic conferences, has prompted the creation of new professional networks, such as Women Also Know History and Women Also Know Stuff, to call attention to women’s expertise.
More than a century ago, two pioneering female PhDs, Sophonisba Breckinridge and Edith Abbott, did the same in their efforts to achieve professional recognition and status. Their fight reminds us that dismissing women’s expertise is nothing new. Women have long had to fight for their credentials to matter. And this is not a “minor issue,” as Wall Street Journal opinion editor Paul Gigot claims. Acknowledging women’s credentials helps not only to promote professional women’s status and equality in professions, but also to recognize the value of women’s work.
Breckinridge earned her PhD in political science at the University of Chicago in 1901, the first woman to do so. Her partner, Abbott, earned her PhD in economics in 1905. Both women experienced gender discrimination in their chosen fields. Breckinridge, who studied political science and political economy, recalled in her memoirs: “Although I was given the PhD degree magna cum laude no position in political science or economics was offered me,” while “the men in the two departments … went off to positions in College and University faculties.”
Even after earning her JD from the University of Chicago in 1904 — again, the first woman to do so — Breckinridge was able to find only part-time work there as an instructor in the Department of Household Administration. Breckinridge made the most of her limited opportunity. As a former Wellesley classmate described the teaching post, “It was not the work for which she was best fitted, but she broadened the department by offering courses on the legal aspects of the household, on public institutional management, [and] on the public care of children.” In addition, Breckinridge offered a course on “The Legal and Economic Position of Women,” one of the earliest courses in women’s studies.
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