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16 June 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:49pm

We need #ImmodestWomen when so many men are unable to accept female expertise

The backlash to my tweet about using Dr in front of my name shows why it’s worth using the title.

By Fern Riddell

Twitter is one of my favourite things about the internet. I’ve been using it for almost a decade, embracing it with a love that comes from being able to remember dial-up, chat-rooms and the opening weekend of the Matrix. When I was a teenager the internet gave us a place to be free, to find communities and like-minded people that we may not have encountered in our everyday lives. Today, the internet still stops us from feeling lonely, it brings us new friends, relationships and love affairs. It can also be a complete dumpster fire.

On Wednesday morning I saw a series of tweets about the Boston Globe & Mail’s decision to change it’s style guide and no longer give experts the title of “Dr”, unless they were medical practitioners. Now, I’m pretty biased about this, because I’ve got one. I am Dr Fern Riddell, expert in sex and suffrage in the 19th & 20th century. And my job, my entire career, has been as a public historian. I make and contribute to television and radio documentaries, advise on drama series, write books and about history for newspapers and magazines. And I get to do this because I know what I am talking about. And I know what I am talking about because I have a PhD.

For a historian, a PhD is a marker that you have spent years researching and writing an original piece of knowledge, something utterly unique that then becomes part of our historical record, and is examined by the leading authorities in your field. It is the hardest thing you will ever do as an academic. No journal article, no job, no promotion, comes with the same doubt, fear, and determination to prove yourself, as the process of a PhD. They make them hard for a reason, because your work, and your right to be an authority on your subject, has to be rigorously tested.

Becoming an expert in something is not unusual, we are surrounding by them in our everyday life: pilots, plumbers, beauticians and bakers; anyone who has to go through training and obtain knowledge that sets them apart from someone else has the right to be acknowledged as a qualified expert. But for some reason, when it comes to people with the title of “Dr” in their name, our brains seem to stumble and fart out the most ridiculous insecurities. And worse than that, in the last few years, the demonisation of expertise has become the status quo.

Led by the idiotic statements of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove, men who declared in 2016 that “suspicion of experts goes back into antiquity”, and “people in this country have had enough”, it has become popular to ignore and belittle those who, without a shadow of a doubt, know more than us about their given subject. Economists, medical practitioners, physicians, historians, and community leaders, all people whose lives are centred around looking at our communities and trying to protect or understand them, are now finding their right to speak, and to be recognised and trusted in what they say, is being erased from public life.

This, for me, was absolutely at the heart of the Globe & Mail’s decision to remove qualifications from the experts it will always need to interview, quote and write about. And so, like many academics on twitter, I sent out a quick, defiant tweet in support of expertise: 

Then I rolled off my sofa and made a cup of tea. I’d almost like to be able to tell you that things ended there, but a couple of hours later a man popped into my mentions to let me know that what I had said could “legitimately be regarded as immodest”. And that was like a red rag to a bull. Working on sexual culture has, for a long time, shown me how we define women by their ability to be well behaved. There is something vicious at the heart of our society that refuses to accept women as anything other than either virtuous or dangerous. Many in public life, male and female, still laud women for being well behaved, restrained, and unchallenging, as if it is the only way a woman should be. We use language built from sexual markers to restrict and remove women who challenge us, sometimes simply by existing. In the last 48 hours I have been continually told that wanting my professional title to be acknowledged in a public setting, where I work as a public expert, is “vulgar” and “immodest”, and that I lack “humility”. References to my body, my expertise being a “turn off”, and whether or not I was sexual active, all came from men who seemed unable to accept female expertise and authority in the public domain.

In retaliation to this, and knowing how often qualified women in every industry down play their own expertise, I started tweeting with the hashtag #ImmodestWomen. I wasn’t planning a revolution, but it became a call to arms for experts across the world. My timeline is now full of women with their titles and expertise proudly on display, supported by men both in and outside of their industries, and I could not be more surprised and excited to see what they do next. We need experts more than ever today, to combat the dangerous rise of ignorance and animosity that sits at the centre of our governments. We need to know who to trust, and just maybe, this is a starting point.

Fern Riddell is a historian with a PhD in sex and suffurage and author of Death in Ten Minutes: Kitty Marion: Activist. Arsonist. Suffragette.