The year is 1956 (if you’re of my generation, think Marty McFly showing up in a world where Diet Pepsi doesn’t exist, his puffy ’80s belt brings on life preserver votes, and female high school students get all dressed up to go to school).
A 37-year-old woman named Pauline (Friedman) Phillips convinced the San Francisco Chronicle to give her a chance as an advice columnist as she was underwhelmed with the status quo, and Abigail Van Buren, better known as “Dear Abby” for the past fifty years, was born. Phillips, whose sister Esther wrote as the other queen of advice Ann Landers, died January 16th after a longtime battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.
The fact that neither Dear Abby nor Ann Landers have been a day-to-day part of life for people born after about 1980 or so does not take away their significance … nor their place as feminist icons.
In how many places, after all, can you see the transgression of feminism as seen through the minds and souls and acceptance levels slide ever further along the line? Through reading Dear Abby’s answers to questions about divorce, parenting, abuse, mother-in-laws, and proper etiquette, a reader looking with a feminist lens can actually see the zone of proximal development vis a vis feminism reach dizzying heights.
It’s a history lesson that would never be taught in schools.
Of perhaps even greater value, though, are the conversations that happened as a result of Dear Abby, the willingness to bring forward issues of increasing complexity faced by women and men alike that nobody would talk about.
There was a time when bringing up things like domestic abuse or sexual harassment at the workplace or rape or suspected pedophilia or … well, you get the idea … was just impossible. The shame of telling someone about it, of weathering the pain and grief on your own, of feeling isolated … all of those things just dragged you down. While this secret humiliation, this fear of reprisal continues to keep many people silent for a long time even in 2013, we can thank advice columnists for cracking that door at least a little.
Dear Abby and her ilk gave a degree of recourse. Sometimes just hearing, “You are not wrong, and you are not alone” can make the difference between moving on with life and descending into darkness.
So today, I am honoring Pauline Freidman Phillips for the push she gave to feminism, and the assistance she gave to many over the years.
RIP, Dear Abby … and thank you.