On January 17th, 2013, a female American icon, Pauline Phillips, passed away at the age of 94. But WHO is Pauline Phillips? The name, at first glance, has no significance, until identified as the emblematic “Dear Abbey” columnist who guided women through a plethora of issues for the greater part of a century. For the women in my family- “Dear Abbey” provided her opinion to three generations of young ladies, from my grandmother, who lost her mother at 8, to my younger sister, who lost her mother at age 9.
So who is Pauline Phillips and how did she find her pseudonym “Abbey”? As a young, happily married 37-year-old housewife, Phillips started her advice column after she read another woman’s etiquette page that she didn’t find up to par to the modern woman. When asked what her greatest accomplishment was, Phillips replied swiftly and surely, “surviving,” something any strong and tested human being would relate to. Interestingly, the pen name “Abigail” was a derivative of the Old Testament prophetess; Phillips and her sister have been described as “the most widely read and most quoted women in the world” (Life Magazine).
Abbey’s witty and direct replies to long, detail ridden inquiries were filled with the same classy but smart-ass humor that I constantly, as an adult, try and emulate – and probably fail more oft then succeed in. This tone seems to be natural to her, looking back on one 1960’s column, a young woman complains: “I can’t seem to please my husband. He brags about everybody else’s cooking but mine…do you think he is ashamed of me? (signed) Lonely”. Abbey’s response? “Dear Lonely: No. He is probably ashamed of himself”.
From financial pitfalls, to relationship advice to parental cues, Abbey gave some American women a unique outlet of confession as well as a gossipy tidbit to look forward to each upcoming week. At one point, “Dear Abbey” was being read by an estimated 95 million people and it is empowering to myself as an unsure intern that Pauline Phillips not only made a name for herself, but also prompted her sister and daughter to carry on the tradition — all in the name of women’s issues.
I know that “Dear Abbey” might in itself seem sexist, especially the focus on “female” labeled issues of housework and marriage, with less focus on occupational and independent success of women. Abbey also assumes that there is a set answer to problems and a way that a “lady” should handle them which oftentimes degrades the very essence of the few precious choices that young women had towards their futures as young adults in the 1950’s, while dually assuming the best way to act is “lady-like”.
Before you can, I will be the first to say it — “Dear Abbey” probably isn’t where most feminists would go to find advice nowadays, but it was a place for women in general to find some resolution in their problems and, at the very least, to have the strength to see that other women have had similar conflicts. “Dear Abbey” gave women a place to express themselves, to question the advice they had gotten from others, and oftentimes to improve their own situation. Especially for those who were ashamed or afraid to go to anyone else (or had no one else to go to), such as myself and other adolescent women in my family, “Dear Abbey” became a role model, almost a mother figure, and a motivating and soothing comfort that you, me, she and he — are not alone in our worries.