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Common-sense columnist: Ann Landers taught self-respect to generations of women.

She told us what to do for 46 years. She was a compassionate listener, a Jewish mother and a scolding aunt. But she was also a reliable institution, a model of good common sense, and often the first column we turned to at the breakfast table.

My mother and I would always read the questions first. Oh, your husband's nosing around his sexy neighbor's yard too much? Oh, you're lonely and can't find any single men your age who aren't after just one thing? Oh, you're a depressive, a bad teenage driver, a bored housewife? Your dog died? We'd put the paper down, discuss how we would answer the queston, and then see if we were right--because, at least when I was growing up, Ann Landers was Always Right. Now I wonder how many mothers and daughters made Ann Landers' column into a bridge across the generations. By talking about the problems of her letter-writers, we clarified our own ethical principles and, often, our right to say no.

Later, of course, Ann Landers changed. In the late I 960s, like all grownups, she turned out to have clay feet, a tin ear and a bourgeois soul (though we never doubted that she retained a warm heart). Toward the end of her life--she died of cancer at 83 on June 22 of this year--she sometimes seemed out of rouch. She would make mistakes and apologize, giving herself "ten lashes with a wet noodle." She would respond briefly and blandly: "Get counseling, and good luck, dear."

She'd lost her energy, and unlike her twin sister Dear Abby, who took on her daughter as co-writer, Ann Landers wrote her column alone, on her typewriter, until she died. (Her daughter, Margo Howard, writes the "Dear Prudence" column on the Net.)

And what did we, the general public, get out of reading Ann Landers all those years? She gave us a wider view of the world. Though she herself was always a Midwesterner--Esther "Eppie" Phillips, born in Iowa--she lived in a big city (Chicago), traveled, corresponded, knew what was happening. She wrote about fascinating and shocking problems that weren't mine, since I was that rare creature who had a happy childhood.

I learned from Ann Landers how to defend myself against bad people. Never lend money to people you know, she said--or if you have to, make sure it's all in writing. Never get involved with a married man who says he'll leave his wife for you--because he won't. Ann Landers also shook up traditional beliefs with her famous polls: in 1975, seventy percent of readers who wrote in said that if they had it to do all over again, they wouldn't have children. Nine years later, 72 percent of married women wrote to say they preferred hugging to "The Act." Eight years after that, asked if they were happy being gay or lesbian, more than 95 percent of letter-writers declared they were "glad to be gay."

About relationships, and especially marriage. Ann Landers may have been the most interesting commentator of the last half-century. When she began writing, as a 37-year-old housewife who'd never held a job, she thought wives ought to iron their husbands' under-shorts, if that made hubby happy (later she made fun of herself about that). More seriously, the early Ann Landers believed that divorce was a never-never-never: "I do not believe that a woman should live with a man who abuses her and the children or beats her. In such cases, I recommend separate roofs and child support This is not the same as divorce. In my book, marriage is forever." But then, 38 years into her own marriage, it hit her, personally. Her husband Jules, CEO of Budget Rent-a-Car, left her for another woman. She wrote about her divorce with dignity, left a white space in her column for mourning, and moved on. In her last years, she did have a "gentleman friend," and she didn't knock nonmarital sex--which had also been a no-no when she star ted.

There were certain core principles to which Ann Landers always adhered. She always opposed racism and anti-Semitism--and homophobia, long before Stonewall. She vociferously opposed domestic violence (Dear Abby sometimes joked about it). Ann Landers gave people tools and information- her columns were full of phone numbers, agencies, cancer societies and helpers of all kinds. Though she always got letters attacking her stand, she believed firmly that people--especially the elderly--had the right to "pleasure themselves" (her editors didn't want her to say "masturbate"). She changed her mind about "shacking up" and decided it was okay, and she advised us not to spill other people's secrets or give them unwanted advice: "MYOB" (Mind Your Own Business), she taught us to say.

She also knew about boundaries. When readers complained of people who barged in, asked nosy questions, helped themselves to garden tools, or showed up uninvited at summer cabins, Ann Landers told them no one is required to entertain any of that. "No one can take advantage of you unless you let them," she insisted. And if you let them, that might be a sign that you had "a geranium in your cranium."

As a writer, she was a pioneer. Dorothy Dix, before her, had written advice essays about self-respect and women's choices; "A Bintel Brief," the advice column in the Jewish Daily Forward, began with immigrants and later focused on how to stay Jewish (something Ann Landers thought about a great deal, for Jews were rare in Iowa in the 1930s). "Dear Ann" was among the first to use a Q & A format, condensing problems to no more than a paragraph or two, and answering them with equal brevity. She gave her correspondents pen names and then nicknames: "Tickled in Tickfaw" would be addressed as "Dear Ticklded."

She also pioneered with "Gem of the Day" (favorite quotes) and, in her last years, with "How We Met." I thought it very smarmy, but it may have been her way of bringing in happiness and hope. In the two thousand letters a day she received, all of them sorted by the dozen people on her staff, then read personally by her, there must have been bottomless pits of misery, violence and betrayal. In the 1970s, I remember her saying on television that half her mail was about the tensions of interracial relationships, though she rarely wrote about them in her column. But she did answer every letter, and maybe her warm support encouraged racially mixed couples to produce the rainbow of gorgeous young people we have today.

One of her continuing messages was "You're not alone," and she was sometimes the only voice saying, "Yours is not the only weird family" and "You'll get through this." She was 'writing before consciousness-raising groups, and before Oprah and the other talkshow hosts broke open the secrets about date rape, incest and more. You could write to Ann Landers, as a Chicago friend of mine did at fifteen about her own alcoholic mother, and Ann Landers would write back with sympathy. She was listening, and unlike some current advice givers--such as Carolyn Hax and Dr. Laura--she truly respected her audiences.

Ann Landers was, ultimately, one of our great teachers, and that's where I think her being Jewish is important. Virtually all the great advice givers of the last half-century have been Jewish women: Dr. Ruth, Miss Manners, Ann Landers and Dear Abby, even Dr. Laura (who's a convert). My own Ms. Mentor, who gives advice to academic women, was inspired by Miss Manners, but also by my own mother--a New York Jewish woman exiled to Ohio, brimming with kitchen wisdom and ironic humor.

What makes Jewish women prime advice givers? There's the history of scholarship and sharing ideas, which includes parsing motives as well as texts. There's the emphasis on ethics. And there's always been the belief that women can and should have opinions--a belief that's still an oddity around the world.

Ann Landers, like most women advice givers, concentrated on self-respect. She never lost an abiding interest in other people--yes, she was a yenta. But she also taught us critical concepts, without jargon, that have become part of what we know now about human behavior. Besides boundaries, she taught us to think about the bottom line: "Are you better off with him or without him?" And if you were in denial, she'd exhort you to 'Wake up and smell the coffee!" Because she was always tolerant and respectful, we could read her and check whether we were normal. Now that she's gone, how can we be sure?

An excellent sampling of Ann Landers' columns appears in The Best of Ann Landers: Her Favorite Letters of All Time (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1996).

EMILY TOTH, who teaches at Louisiana State University, writes the "Ms. Mentor" monthly advice column, on "Ms. Mentor"). She is working on a sequel to her Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia.
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Author:Toth, Emily
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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