Dear Abby, #MeToo

Elizabeth Gilmer, a.k.a. the advice columnist Dorothy Dix, in 1940.

Within days after the news broke about Harvey Weinstein, almost every post in my Facebook feed ended with the hashtag #MeToo. The stories shared sometimes concerned workplace harassment, but they also involved lecherous doctors, relatives or boyfriends. There was a feverishness to the way women were telling them — as if it had just occurred to them how lonely they’d felt.

The most concrete goal of the “Me Too” movement has been to reform workplace culture. But the movement has also accomplished something broader, and more nebulous: It has given women the ability to talk about some of the hardest moments of their lives with less shame, stigma or fear of repercussions.

It has, in other words, created room for the sort of discussions that once were restricted to, essentially, just one type of public space: advice columns. For decades, the columns were where women with creepy bosses or abusive husbands went to air their grievances.

Credit...Bettmann Archive, via Getty Images

“Dear Miss Dix, how should a boss treat the girls under him? And what should be their attitude toward him?” wrote Mother of Three Girls in a letter to an advice columnist from 1935. “When most young girls go to work the first thing they have to learn is how to keep the boss from petting them, putting his arms around them and kissing them.” The columnist, Dorothy Dix — the pseudonym used by the journalist Elizabeth Gilmer — responded that a young woman should treat her employer with respect and formality and that her boss should do the same.

When Gilmer began writing for The New Orleans Picayune in 1896, most major papers published columns on so-called women’s issues; the authors all had alliterative names like Fanny Fern, Jennie June or Catharine Cole. The tone of the columns tended to be syrupy and mawkish, filled with false cheer.

Gilmer decided that her advice column would be different: “It came to me that everything in the world had been written about women and for women, except the truth. They had been celebrated as angels. They had been pitied as martyrs,” she later wrote when describing the origins of what became her widely syndicated column. “It was time for them to shake themselves up and get busy at being practical.”

Practical meant that nothing ever roused Gilmer; her columns were a space for a frank discussion of the forces that shaped women’s lives during the era. Gilmer received thousands of letters about unwanted pregnancies, loveless marriages and dissatisfaction with domestic life. She urged her readers to take a pragmatic attitude, to drop any romantic fantasies: Divorce laws were stringent and there were few careers available to women. Gilmer could be harsh, but at least her readers could feel some assurance that their problems weren’t theirs alone.

“My husband is a brute. He mistreats me. He has affairs with other women. He wants to be rid of me,” a woman once wrote Dix.

“My heart bleeds for you,” Dix replied. “But will you be any better off if you are divorced? A beast of a husband is no worse than the wolf at the door.”

If advice columns were a kind of predecessor to ”Me Too” movement that fostered an honest discussion about womanhood, they were different in that they typically did not seek to dismantle the strictures their readers faced. Columnists generally upheld social convention; their responses gave women a gauge of what they were expected to tolerate.

The twin sisters Esther Lederer and Pauline Phillips began writing their columns in the mid-1950s under the pen names Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren. After the sisters published a letter, readers would chime in, elaborating on the original column. There were long trains of conversation about marital problems and the difficulties of being a stay-at-home mother.

At the same time, Lederer and Phillips urged many unhappy wives against divorce. When they started their columns, both sisters believed that a distracted husband, a boring husband or an unloving husband were all better than no husband at all, though their views on divorce, among other social matters, progressed as time went on.

Helen Gurley Brown wasn’t a columnist but published a wildly popular advice book in 1962 called “Sex and the Single Girl.” Her central point was that sex was joyful and shameless; the corollary was that she encouraged readers to treat unwanted sexual advances as flattering. “Anyone who wants to kiss you or sleep with you isn’t handing you a mortal insult but paying you a compliment,” she wrote.

According to a study by David Gudelunas at the University of Tampa, when Lederer started her column, 91 percent of letters included a question intended for her; by the 1990s, only 34 percent did. By then, many instead contained personal anecdotes or responded to a previously published question. Readers didn’t appear to be looking for advice: they were looking to participate, to get things off their chest — years before there were websites set up to foster those kinds of communities.

Those readers didn’t want to be told by Ann Landers, or anyone else, what they had to tolerate. They craved a space where their problems and frustrations would be regarded as normal — a place where women could chime in and say, me too.

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