Pauline Philips, the original “Dear Abby” columnist, recently died. She wrote under the pen name Abigail Van Buren and captivated her readership. Her column has been a mainstay in newspapers ever since it first appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle in 1956. Today, “Dear Abby” is written by Phillips’ daughter and remains the most widely syndicated column on the face of the earth.
“Dear Abby” offers a space to complain, to seek advice or counsel, and to discuss something you might not voice in the company of someone other than Abby. “Dear Abby” offered an anonymous space for people to share their fears, dreads, ideas, dilemmas, and more, ostensibly testing them out on Abby before committing to a solution.
While “Dear Abby” is likely read by many with a similar level of interest to reading the comics, the column was and is a political platform of sorts. “Dear Abby” often supported gender equality, challenged men for writing in with patriarchal demands of their wives or daughters, and subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) teased those whose dilemmas she thought had less to do with the dilemma and more to do with an understanding of the world rooted in systems of power and inequality.
“Dear Abby” was also a space in which sexual equality was promoted. It’s significant because it was a style of promotion that utilized Pauline’s verve and wit. Pauline referred parents of gay and lesbian children to PFLAG, she challenged homophobic or sexually prejudice remarks, and more. Interviewed in 1998, she commented on the ways she was challenged for supporting gay-friendly views in her column. She said, “It doesn’t bother me. I’ve always been compassionate toward gay people.”
In her classically sassy style, one of the quotes that illustrated the ways she seamlessly challenged inequality with pen in hand occurred in a 1979 column. “UP IN ARMS” wrote in to complain about a “problem”: two men had recently moved into a house just across the street from the letter writer. They were of different ages and first presumed a father and son, but later discovered to be a couple. The writer explained that the neighborhood “had” been “respectable” before the new neighbors moved in. Complaining of the visitors to the house and the ways they kept their “activities” from prying eyes, UP IN ARMS lamented: “Abby, these weirdos are wrecking our property values! How can we improve the quality of this once-respectable neighborhood?”
Abby’s response became a classic. “DEAR UP: You could move.”
While “Dear Abby” was often simply a space for advice, occasionally, Pauline made use of it for something more. It is this—among a great deal more—that she ought to be remembered for.
Her daughter—Jeanne Phillips—continues to carry this torch for “Dear Abby.” In 2007, Jeanne publicly announced her support for gay marriage. The significance of this is related to the public nature of “Dear Abby” as a political space. The director of PFLAG commented: “If Dear Abby is talking about it, it gives other people permission to talk about it.”