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Hi, I'm Jill. Jill Biden. But please, call me Dr. Biden

The vice president's wife holds a PhD in English -- but she likes to use the prefix that people call their MD.

February 02, 2009|Robin Abcarian

Vice President Joe Biden often joked on the campaign trail about his wife's lofty educational achievements. She had two master's degrees and had already worked for nearly a quarter-century as a college community instructor. But he had a better idea.

"Why don't you go out and get a doctorate and make us some real money?" he said he told her. (That was always good for a laugh, especially in university towns.)

In 2007, at 55, Jill Biden did earn a doctorate -- in education, from the University of Delaware. Since then, in campaign news releases and now in White House announcements, she is "Dr. Jill Biden." This strikes some people as perfectly appropriate and others as slightly pompous, a quality often ascribed to her voluble husband.

Last week, the White House announced that Jill Biden had returned to the classroom -- thought by some who study the presidency and vice presidency to be a historical first. She is teaching two courses at Northern Virginia Community College, the second-largest community college in the U.S. She began her new job before last month's inauguration; the announcement was delayed out of respect for that event.

"She's just really excited to be back in the classroom," said Courtney O'Donnell, her spokeswoman. "Teaching is such a huge passion and a joy for her."

Some second ladies, as vice presidents' wives are called, have been accomplished professionals. Marilyn Quayle is a lawyer, but she did not practice while her husband, Dan, was in office. Lynne Cheney, Jill Biden's immediate predecessor, is a novelist who earned a doctorate in English with a dissertation titled "Matthew Arnold's Possible Perfection: A Study of the Kantian Strain in Arnold's Poetry." She goes by Mrs. Cheney.

But Biden is thought to be the first second lady 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.

Joe Biden, who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is expected to travel widely in his new job. But he may need to tone down the Dr. Jill Biden stories, should he find himself in Germany with his wife.

Last year, according to the Post, at least seven Americans (with degrees from places like Cornell and Caltech) were investigated for the crime of "title fraud" for calling themselves doctor on business cards, resumes and websites. Only people who have earned advanced degrees in Germany or other European Union countries may legally call themselves that.

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.

"That often happens with women academics around male academics," she said. "I don't feel I need to be called doctor to be respected. Also, just think if you were on an airplane and you called yourself doctor and there was an emergency."

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