The past year has been replete with examples of the myths those with power and platforms tell about who should and should not be respected, revered, and honored in this country. In these tales, the heroes are usually white and male.
It may be tempting simply to dismiss as sexist prattle one example of this phenomenon: last week’s much-maligned Wall Street Journal op-ed by Joseph Epstein, which implored incoming first lady Jill Biden to drop the title “Dr.” from her name. Because she’s not a medical doctor, Epstein mused, her use of the honorific diminishes its prestige.
After all, the piece — which suggested “Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo” as alternative monikers —was swiftly met with the thunderous clapback it deserved. Even Northwestern University — where Epstein holds emeritus status in the English Department but was never tenured — called the piece “misogynistic.” Biden, who earned a doctorate in education, responded via subtweet: “Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished.”
But simply to toss Epstein’s missive in the trash pail of bad takes risks missing a larger and more insidious phenomenon: the increasingly jealous guard of the fragile white male power structure against the women and people of color who threaten it.
Like President Trump’s push for “patriotic education” that whitewashes this country’s history of slavery and systemic racism, or the fatal vote of Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah against a plan for new Smithsonian museums dedicated to women and Latino Americans, Epstein’s column reminds us that when women and Black and brown Americans seek to claim their rightful spaces in academia or industry or politics or history, there will be white men who see that as a threat.
“There is a long history of women and people of color (being) pushed to the margins or policed in the margins,” said Karin Wulf, historian and director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture at the College of William & Mary.
In a year when a woman of color ascended to the vice presidency, Black Americans demanded that the justice system recognize that their lives matter, and women became the faces of the front-line fight against a deadly pandemic, that pushback — largely by white men seeking to put them in their place — has been unyielding.
As Wulf notes, the denigration, dismissal, and erasure of women and people of color — in an effort to preserve the enduring, if inaccurate, vision of American exceptionalism being a product of white men — isn’t new. History books taught us all that the Founders, after all, were Fathers — not the actual mothers, sisters, aunties, or Black and brown brothers upon whose shoulders the actual labor of building a new nation fell. That blind spot is necessary to perpetuate the myth.
And those who seek to dispel the lie end up being blamed for the social chasms in the country that are being stoked by Trump and others seeking to protect the white, male hegemony at all costs.
“The last thing we need is to further divide an already divided nation within an array of separate but equal museums of hyphenated identity groups,” Lee said of the bipartisan plan for the new museums that he torpedoed.
This is the same lawmaker who said in a June Fox News Radio interview that Confederate monuments should stand in the name of unity. “I think that can be a good lasting reminder to the American people about how we can heal in spite of our differences and even after conflict,” Lee said.
Hearing a lawmaker call statues of the white men who fought for the institution of slavery symbols of healing, while decrying the divisiveness of institutions that would celebrate women and people of color should be shocking, but we’ve heard it before. Lee is one of the many backers of Trump’s crusade against The New York Times’s 1619 Project, which placed the country’s legacy of slavery at the center of its historical legacy instead of hidden in the margins. Trump went so far as to threaten to pull funding from schools that use the project in its curriculum.
The blowback against the 1619 Project and its brainchild, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her contribution to the project, showed that pushing against the myth of the white male American story is even more perilous if the messenger is a woman of color.
“Nikole Hannah-Jones’s work is going straight at the question of America’s founding,” said Wulf, who cofounded the Women Also Know History project, dedicated to reminding the world that not all historians are white men. “And it raises these questions about white men and America’s founding (in a space that) traditionally belonged to white men.”
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page editor, Paul Gigot, blamed the furor that followed Epstein’s piece not on the writer but on Biden, calling her media team’s reaction to it “clearly a political strategy.” But women are used to being blamed for the sexism perpetrated against them. And they and people of color will continue to occupy the spaces where they are told they don’t belong, no matter how tightly others cling to the myth that they shouldn’t.