Pauline Phillips, Beloved Columnist and Feminist, Dies at Age 94

Pauline Phillips in 1961 (Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0)

Pauline Friedman Phillips, author of the beloved “Dear Abby” advice column, passed away on Wednesday. She was 94 years old.

Pauline Phillips began dispensing what would become her classic no-nonsense-yet-caring advice under her pen name Abigail Van Buren in 1956, the year she got a job as a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Before long she was an icon: She responded to letters from readers around the world for more than 40 years, and hers became the world’s most widely circulated column, printing in more than 1,400 newspapers and accumulating more than 10,000 letters each week.

As the world’s most sought after advice columnist, Pauline had a number of roles to fill. She received letters from readers whose problems varied wildly, leading her to develop a voice as a humorist, a realist and a counselor. She covered topics ranging from what to do about a love interest’s poor hygiene to how to live with drug addiction, rape, incest and domestic violence. “They trust me,” she said of her readers, “and the price is right.” Of course, not everyone was sincere. “Some are kooks, some fabricate problems, but I can usually spot the phonies.”

Behind the scenes, Pauline Phillips was even more than she appeared in print. She lived her life as a philanthropist and a feminist, supporting human rights organizations including the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and was a lifelong champion for gender equality. Her tenure as a columnist spanned several notable milestones in women’s rights history: She bore witness to the women’s movement, the legalization of abortion (which she adamantly supported) and the rise in AIDS, which led her to advocate for AIDS education and frequent testing. She actively campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, even making a television ad for the Iowa ERA when the Feminist Majority Foundation was working to pass a referendum there in 1992. She crossed paths with the Feminist Majority again in 1999, when she published a letter from Mavis Leno which detailed gender apartheid in Afghanistan. The letter garnered an incredible amount of support, generating 45,000 calls and letters voicing concern about the issue. In fact, the Feminist Majority received so many calls its phone system crashed, and when they hired a woman-owned phone center to take the calls their system crashed as well.

Though Pauline Phillips will be missed, her influence carries on. The “Dear Abby” column remains in circulation today with Pauline’s daughter Jeanne Phillips at the helm. “My mother leaves very big high heels to fill, with a legacy of compassion, commitment and positive social change,” she said in a statement. “I will honor her memory every day by continuing this legacy.”


Rachel Kassenbrock is a writer who works at the Feminist Majority Foundation and blogs for Ms. Follow her on Twitter at @rkassenbrock.