We Heart: The Feminism of “Dear Abby”

dear abby“Dear Abby,” a popular advice column featured in newspapers around the country, is well-known for its heartfelt (and quick-witted) responses. But did you know that the writers behind “Dear Abby” have also dished out sound advice related to sexual health and gender?

This Monday, Abby answered a question from “Stunned in Pennsylvania,” who wrote to her seeking advice on how to deal with her partner’s insensitive characterization of her abortion. “Stunned,” whose partner called her a “child murderer,” was upset by the comment and asked Abby, “Am I overreacting?” Abby tells the woman that she is not only not overreacting, but goes on to say that abortion “is a right that many women—and men—have fought hard to achieve.” She tells “Stunned” that this man might not be her “soul mate,” given his poor choice of words, and refers her to a resource that supports women who have had abortions. “Each woman’s circumstances are unique,” Abby writes, “This deeply personal decision is made for a variety of reasons.”

If you’re asking yourself, when did Abby get so awesome? the answer may surprise you. “Dear Abby” began as a column in 1956 written by Pauline Friedman Phillips. During her 40-year stint as Abby, Phillips was an ardent supporter of women’s rights. Not only did she answer letters on issues such as domestic abuse and sexual assault, but she campaigned for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Phillips’ daughter, Jeanne Phillips, took over the role of Abby in 2000 and continues her mother’s work of promoting feminist ideals. In the past year, for example, she has flawlessly answered questions from readers dealing with such topics as bisexuality, STIs, asexuality, contraception, marital abuse, transgender issues and same-sex dating. In all of these responses, she gives helpful information while also occasionally employing straight-to-the-point, sharp humor similar to that of her mother (a famous response from the original Abby in 1979 to someone complaining that a gay couple had bought a house across the street: “You could move.”)

Jeanne Phillips’ reign as Dear Abby has been a successful one: she has a worldwide readership of over 110 million, and by 2009 the column was showing up in 1,400 newspapers. She also received the first-ever PFLAG “Straight for Equality Award” in 2007.

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Photo of Jeanne Phillips courtesy of Dear Abby’s Twitter

About

Emma Niles is a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz and an editorial intern at Ms. Follow Emma on Twitter @emmalorinda.