January 21 2013
Pauline Friedman Phillips created the beloved character Abigail Van Buren, who offered readers straightforward advice for more than half a century in her "Dear Abby" column, encouraging high standards, morality and the importance of gender roles.
In the world of Dear Abby, personal responsibility was viewed as a virtue and social rules were welcomed. Abby wasn't shy in telling readers to tip when they ate out at restaurants or to move if they didn't like their neighbors. She applauded good manners as "a measure of respect and courtesy."
Dating world navigation
Abby might have been wisest when it came to adapting to evolving sexual mores and gender roles. In 1975, to the boyfriend offended that his girlfriend didn't like him standing up for her, Abby responded, "Now that you know she prefers to fight her own battles, either give her that privilege or find a less militantly independent girl."
Or more recently to the young woman who worried her boyfriend wasn't ambitious enough, Abby advised, "If you feel you are selling yourself short by being with Lance, then you probably are."
Despite her famed, sharp-tongued one-liners, Abby frequently took the time to delve deeper. For instance, when debate erupted over a reader who sought advice over his choice not to allow his daughter to sleep in the same room as her live-in boyfriend while visiting, Abby responded, "I don't think an unmarried houseguest has a 'right' to share a bedroom if either parent is uncomfortable with it. And while the father may know his daughter is having sex, theoretically, I'm sure he isn't the only parent who would prefer it was 'out of sight, out of mind.'"
Abby talked openly about sex and embraced aspects of modern feminism — applauding men who used Viagra, encouraging women to work if they wanted to. She even directed readers to Planned Parenthood when they were in trouble. Dear Abby was no staunch social conservative.
She had strong views on proper behavior and morality, but she leavened it all with a healthy dose of realism. Abby frequently helped readers negotiate a changing cultural landscape, and grow more comfortable with issues such as premarital sex and same-sex marriage. She embraced change, but without dismissing all values and tradition.
Abby wasn't blinded by feminism. Though women have won tremendous freedom educationally, professionally and personally over the past 50 years, Abby recognized that freedom comes with a cost. She saw firsthand how the sexual revolution, which was supposed to leave women feeling empowered, often left many of her readers feeling powerless. And her columns frequently recognized something many feminists hate to acknowledge — that the pill and the culture of casual sex it enabled meant women were often the ones who bore the costs of its downsides.
Sense and sensibility
In our brave new world of gender equality, in which women and men are encouraged to act the same, Abby saw all too often that love and the happily ever after so many men and women were seeking were often harder to find. Ultimately, it was Abby's recognition that rules and customs often serve a purpose (other than to drive us all crazy) that made her column so helpful to so many.
I suspect that many of her followers would agree that in some ways, Dear Abby is needed more today than ever. Because in contrast to 1956, when Abby first began offering advice, gender roles have largely gone by the wayside and romantic courtships are something you find in a Jane Austen novel. What Abby understood and communicated beautifully was that gender differences are used to help both men and women better survive the rough waters of romance, courtship, marriage and sex.
Her readers didn't always agree with her advice. But what made her so popular for so long and such a positive voice was the sense of balance she offered readers who were experiencing a rapidly and radically changing world. Cultural norms will inevitably evolve, but Abby always reminded us that change is never an unadulterated good nor an unmitigated disaster.
Sabrina L. Schaeffer is executive director of the Independent Women's Forum.