What’s In a Title?

I hold a bachelor’s (B.S.) and master’s degree (M.Div.) in addition to a doctoral degree (D.Min. in Pastoral Care and Counseling). I am a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) in the states of Illinois and Iowa. I completed a two-year advanced studies program in family therapy. I am a certified drug and alcohol counselor in both Illinois and Iowa. And I am certified as an approved supervisor by the AAMFT (American Association of Marriage & Family Therapists). Does my education and experience entitle me to the use of “Dr”? Apparently, some people don’t think so.

The next US First Lady Jill Biden holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education. A Doctor of Education (EdD) is a professional degree designed for practitioners pursuing educational leadership roles. Joseph Epstein, writer and former editor of The American Scholar magazine, wrote an opinion piece, “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” He suggests that Jill Biden should think about dropping the title because it feels fraudulent and even comic. He referenced a quip “a wise man once said that no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child.”

Epstein thinks that a Ph.D. may once have held prestige, but no longer, due to relaxed standards in university education. To add insult to injury, he advised Dr. Biden to “forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill, and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden.” In other words, know your place. He even called her “kiddo”.

His column was met with a strong backlash. Northwestern University, where Epstein had taught for 30 years, issued a statement saying it “strongly disagrees with Mr. Epstein’s misogynistic views”. The university’s English department said in a separate statement that it rejects the opinion piece “as well as the diminishment of anyone’s duly-earned degrees in any field, from any university.”

Biden’s spokesperson called the piece a “disgusting and sexist attack” in a tweet that addressed Wall Street Journal editors directly, adding, “If you had any respect for women at all you would remove this repugnant display of chauvinism from your paper and apologize to her.”

“What patronizing, sexist, elitist drivel,” tweeted Kate Bedingfield, the president-elect’s communications director. “Dr. B earned a doctorate in education, so we call her Doctor.”

Douglas Emhoff, husband of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, said Dr. Biden earned her degrees through hard work and pure grit. She is an inspiration to me, to her students, and to Americans across this country. This story would never have been written about a man.

British historian Dr. Fern Riddell experienced a similar problem upon discovering that a Canadian newspaper only grants doctorate titles to medical doctors. Academics are called by Mr., Mrs., or Ms. She finds it outrageous. “This is our expertise and people need to know when someone is an expert.” It became a gender issue when a wave of men called her vulgar and immodest.

Dr. Claudia Antolini is a science communicator with a bachelor’s in physics, a master’s in astrophysics, another in space science and technologies, and a Ph.D. in astrophysics. She tweeted “Are you a woman with a doctorate? No matter your discipline, drop a picture here to show that we are here, we exist, and we won’t drop our title for any mediocre man’s comfort.” In response, thousands of women with doctoral degrees added “Dr” to their Twitter profiles in solidarity.

Admittedly, I have often felt that I’m being misleading to call myself “Dr.” The title is generally thought of as belonging to a medical doctor in common usage. Therefore I feel a need to clarify that I have a doctorate in counseling (D.Min) and am not an MD or a Ph.D. Frankly, it is cumbersome, and I avoid the title in certain situations to save time.

I have also been told that, when asked, I should say I am a marriage counselor, not a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. This person thought I was being arrogant to add that I am licensed by the state. I find it important that people know that I hold proper professional credentials in my field of study and that I have training in tools that will help them.

Credentials are essential for seeking a professional for a particular problem. Stating my credentials does not make me arrogant or an education snob. In fact, once we get past the introductions, I like to be informal and I much prefer to be called by my first name. But in solidarity with credentialed women who are belittled and disrespected, I submit this column as Dr. Gail Gabbert, D.Min., LMFT, CADC.

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