Conservative media can’t see that women like Jill Biden are more than their marital status

A second grade student from Ft. Belvoir Elementary School in Virginia reads her assignment to Dr. Jill Biden on June 22, 2010. Photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class William Selby | Department of Defense

“Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo,” was how an opinion piece by Joseph Epstein in the Wall Street Journal began.

Epstein penned an op-ed, asking Dr. Jill Biden to drop the “Dr.” in her title, which he claimed “feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic,” and instead refer to herself in a manner that makes Mr. Epstein (and many other conservative men) more comfortable: as the wife of the president-elect, a married woman, a woman without a title, or a kid.

While many denounced the opinion piece as obtuse and misogynistic (which it was), I also found it far too familiar.

I started college not long after the Clintons entered the White House, and I remember the personal attacks on Hillary Clinton after she took the lead on health care policy. Her critics, which included a sitting congressman, referred to her as a witch and a bitch and other terms not fit to print.

Like Ms. Clinton, Dr. Biden has hit a nerve among traditionalists — those who prefer a more muted first lady, one whose foremost role is that of dutiful spouse and hostess. These first ladies are allowed to concentrate their spare time on benign social causes, but in the end, they are but the wife of an important man.

That’s why, I believe, Joseph Epstein felt compelled to implore Jill Biden to drop the use of the honorific, doctor.

Biden is choosing to remain in her role as a professor, a career that predated her husband’s rise to Vice President and eventually President-elect.

Like women who choose to use Ms. instead of Mrs. or Miss, Biden has a title that does not designate marital status. And for individuals such as Epstein, that’s Biden’s real transgression.

That’s also why the op-ed hit a nerve with so many women, myself included. Our identities, and at times even our achievements, are too frequently relegated to that of our spouse, or lack thereof.

Last month, I was invited on a local talk radio show to provide counter opinions to the show’s staunchly conservative host. My assumption was that I was invited on the show because of my professional work, as a communications consultant and columnist and someone who regularly offers political commentary on radio and television.

But when I was introduced to the audience, there was no mention of my occupation or professional background. I was the widow of a former Phoenix police officer. That was the extent of my résumé, and it seemed, the only reason I was asked to be on the show.

I found the entire experience odd. I’ve never heard a man introduced as a widower in a professional setting. For men, marital status is occasionally a part of the story, but it is rarely, if ever, the entirety.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board could have taken the criticism they received in stride, maybe even learned a thing or two from the feedback. 

They did not.

Instead, they responded in typical partisan fashion, complaining it was a symptom of today’s “cancel culture” and promised not to wilt under the pressure.

That’s an ironic statement considering the article they are defending was one that attempted to diminish Dr. Biden’s credentials and quite literally cancel out her title.

Paul Gigot, the Journal’s head editorial page editor, went on to write another opinion piece which suggested much of the backlash the Journal received was part of a coordinated attack from the Biden team. Gigot accused them of using “identity politics” to send a message and “playing the gender card.”

Again, an ironic statement considering it was Mr. Epstein who started the discussion by opining solely about Dr. Biden’s gender and identity when he suggested she “forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill and settle for the larger thrill of living…as First Lady Jill Biden.”

I find it telling that the crux of the responses from the Journal’s editorial board members were not about the merits of the op-ed’s arguments. Rather, they sought to deflect valid criticisms with loaded phrases such as “cancel culture” and “playing the gender card.”

That’s weak.

When members of the media attempt to cheapen a woman’s accomplishments or abridge her identity, those individuals should expect vociferous objections. 

Women—including first ladies—are not appendages of men.

Julie Erfle
Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.