The Jill Biden furor is about more than titles. It touches on gender, race and civility.

Over the weekend I was angsting about how to address the last of my holiday cards. What’s the proper form for a same-sex couple? Or a modern widow, even a divorcee? And what about when one spouse has a professional title — like reverend, judge or doctor — like my friends, Dr. Amanda Cook and her husband, Ian Cook. Doing this correctly is not always easy or intuitive, which is one reason why titles have generally gone the way of dinosaurs. Then there’s the other reason: Americans like the fiction that all people are created equal. A title — or what’s also known as an honorific — only disrupts that fantasy.

In the midst of sealing and stamping the cards, the internet rightly blew up when Joseph Epstein, what my late father would have called an “agent provocateur,” attempted to humiliate Jill Biden, the incoming first lady, by recommending she drop the use of her title, which “sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” “Dr.,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, should be reserved only for those with an M.D., adding, “A wise man once said that no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child.”

Offensive, sexist and impolite

For the record: Jill Biden has delivered a child. Her name is Ashley Biden. But that isn’t really Epstein’s point.

As I wrote on Facebook over the weekend, Epstein’s op-ed is “offensive and sexist” and attempts to “diminish all Dr. Biden has accomplished.” What I neglected to add is a fundamental tenet of common courtesy: Refer to people as they identify.

Many news organizations, including USA TODAY, reserve the title “Dr.” for medical doctors because that’s Associated Press style. But the rest of us aren’t bound by AP style. Jill Biden is usually addressed in public with the “Dr.” honorific, and other documents generally include it before her name. She has earned it. We should use it. We should respect her.

I first learned this lesson from my mother who, starting in the late 1970s, preferred to be addressed as “Ms.” even though she was also a “Mrs.” by virtue of being married to my father. I still have letters addressed to Mom as “Mrs. Richard Petrow” — by her own mother! It steamed her. As for my father, he eschewed “Mr.” I think he preferred his title, “Professor,” in large part because he bootstrapped himself from a working-class background. He’d earned it. We should respect him. (And after he died, we made sure his grave marker read: “Professor and Journalist.”)

Jill Biden on Aug. 18, 2020, in Delaware.

All this might seem like an arcane matter of manners, but considering the outcry against Epstein’s provocation, such questions touch on not only identity but the intersection of gender, race and civility. Just the other day Virginia Heffernan, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, posted her ire on Twitter, referring to Epstein as Joe:

“Joe, kiddo. I got my PhD when 2 ancient & 2 mod langs were required & 10y of bowing & scraping to men like you. So I use my title. Sure, It’s not for BAs like you mistaken for MDs, but for ppl like me & Dr. Biden who are mistaken for housewives.”

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Similarly, Graeme Wood reminded us in The Atlantic this week that racial minorities “sometimes insist upon ‘Dr.’ for a similar reason,” that reason being that they prefer to use their title “if people have assumed you are a janitor or a common thief, just because of the color of your skin.” As an example, Wood wrote that Henry Louis Gates Jr., who teaches at Harvard University (among his many prestigious affiliations), once told a class: “Because this is a small seminar, you may call me by my first name, which is Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” 

Use the title people prefer

In a year when holiday cards are making a comeback big time and disrespect is arguably at an all-time high, let’s recommit to respecting each other, which starts with our forms of address. For instance, married gay couples are properly addressed as “Mr. and Mr.” unless one of the fellas carries a title, and then it would be “Reverend and Mr.” Two lesbians might choose either “Mrs. and Mrs.” or “Ms. and Ms.”  Again, it’s their decision. (And ask if unsure.)

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Old school widows continue to use both the “Mrs.” honorific as well as their late husband’s name. (For instance, after JFK’s death, his widow, Jacqueline, was known as “Mrs. John F. Kennedy.”) Young widows today are more apt to style themselves as “Ms.” and use their own first and last names, emphasizing their identity and gender. And then there’s my friend, “Dr. Amanda Cook,” who told me there was already a “Mrs. Cook” in the family as well as a “Professor Cook.” “I wanted my own identity,” she said of her choice to be known as “Dr. Cook.”

I’m guessing that’s what Jill Biden wants, too: her own identity separate from her husband, the president-elect. We should respect that. And maybe if we start calling people as they wish, we’d be one step closer to bridging the divides everywhere in our midst.

Steven Petrow, a writer on civility and manners and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the author of five etiquette books. His new book, “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I’m Old,”  will be published in June. Follow him on Twitter:@stevenpetrow

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