Learn about Life in the 1920s

Dorothy Dix: Advice Columnist

The Freuds, the Adlers, and the Watsons dispute, but one practice of the psychiatrist seems to be established —that of trailing mature habits and states of mind to youthful teachings and experiences. Here, then, is the background from which Dorothy Dix emerged to become " the big sister of the troubled and perplexed."

IT has long been a theory that love makes the world revolve and that without its vital spark literature and all the other arts would swiftly die. At the present time, however, marriage and divorce and their attendant problems seem to be doing their share. Discussion of them guarantees the success of any celebrity's lecture tour. They stimulate ministers, club women, and writers to unending outbursts of denunciation or praise. Can matrimony, companionate or otherwise, be successful? Is divorce compatible with the safety of the Nation? What of the home and the children? What, if anything, has love to do with marriage?

Such questions arouse enormous heat whenever thy come up, and few are entirely satisfied with such answers as may be offered. But to Dorothy Dix, counselor on love to millions of newspaper readers, the solution lies in expecting very little of marriage—or of anything else in this vale of tears. Life at its best is pretty bad. Wives should not complain about washing dishes, because husbands are finding their own work just as dull and monotonous. Men must philander and women must weep. The trouble with most marriages is that husband and wife start out with sublime, and foolish, hopes that they will be happy. It is a world designed for males, arranged for their benefit and comfort. Where concessions must be made for the sake of domestic peace the woman must probably make them. Care of her husband's stomach is the outstanding duty of every wife.

"Without doubt," Miss Dix has written, "marriage is a cruel and bitter disappointment to nine-tenths of those who enter into the holy estate. Sit down, sisters, and have a real heart-to-heart talk with yourselves. Put out of your mind forever the idiotic idea that there is any lot of perfect peace and happiness. Worry and anxiety and sickness and sorrow and disappointment and loneliness are the portion alike of the highest and the lowest."

Sketch of Dorothy Dix
Elizabeth Gilmer - "Dorothy Dix"

Miss Dix, I am convinced through careful reading of her newspaper columns and books, is far more cynical about love and marriage than the younger literati are supposed to be. Most marriages will fail because most lives are failures. In every family "one kisses and the other submits to being kissed." This being so, she claims, it is better for the wife "to love than be loved." Otherwise, she is likely to run off with some actor. A man "marries to end romance." He "wants to be done with doubts and fears and heartburnings." Men, Miss Dix is certain, "prefer mediocrity in women." The basic thing on which "a man's love for a woman is built is his sense of superiority." The notion that his wife might cease to love him "never enters the average man's mind." It is usually very easy, Miss Dix has said, to "spot married couples" at the theater or in restaurants.

"The alert, interested, smiling people are unwed or are talking to other people's husbands and wives. Wives won't listen even when their husbands try to tell them about their plans and hopes and ambitions. And when a woman tries to talk to her husband about the things that are of interest to her he falls asleep and snores in her face."

It is more than a little shocking to read this sort of thing and to realize that such philosophies are spread to the four corners of the earth in 150 newspapers with a daily circulation approaching 20,000,000. For Miss Dix's column is syndicated to newspapers in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Australia, the Philippines, Porto Rico, and Hawaii. It is easy to laugh at what she writes as merely another "advice to the lovelorn" forum. The fact is, of course, that no similar newspaper feature in history has had so astonishing a circulation. To Miss Dix turn girls and boys believing themselves in love or troubled because they are not, men and women wondering whether divorce is a solution to their problem, men and women perplexed by sex impulses they do not understand. And Miss Dix is rarely in doubt about the soundness of her advice. Sex and birth control she largely ignores. Her plea is for horse sense in matrimony. Away with romantic nonsense! Divorce is no remedy, because the next marriage is likely to be just as bad. Get down to brass tacks and realize that the optimisms of youth, the dreams of man for an ideal, his aspirations for success, the belief of woman that men may be honorable—realize, Miss Dix urges, that all these are largely futile. And that her views must satisfy the great mass of the people is evidenced by the popularity of her output.

Those of us who believe love, intellectual congeniality, courage, and sex honesty constitute the prime essentials of successful marriage may quarrel with the counsel given by Miss Dix. Our chief complaint must be that it is so materialistic. We may be apprehensive, too, that her views on women, marriage, and divorce are those of the vast majority, and therefore carry great weight. Every one agrees, however, that she is desperately sincere in her work. She may be the highest-paid woman in the newspaper profession, but this is less important to her than that she is, to quote the syndicate which handles her output, "the big sister of the troubled and perplexed." Her hard-boiled, often bitter, outlook toward the business of living is explained, perhaps, by the fact that her private life has been none too happy.

"I have had," she wrote in her latest book, "what people call a hard life. I have been through the depths of poverty and sickness. I have known want and struggle and anxiety and despair. I have always had to work beyond the limit of my strength.

"As I look back upon my life I see it as a battlefield strewn with the wrecks of dead dreams and broken hopes and shattered illusions—a battle in which I have always fought with the odds tremendously against me, and which has left me scarred and bruised and maimed and old before my time. "Yet I have no pity for myself; no tears to shed over the past and gone sorrows; no envy for the women who have been spared all that I have gone through. . . . I have known things they will never know. I see things to which they are blind. It is only the women whose eyes have been washed clear with tears who get the broad vision that makes them little sisters to all the world."

THE details behind this summary are known only to Miss Dix. She seldom talks about her personal life, and certainly it is no one's business except her own. She has said, however, that her own marriage was "a bitter disillusionment from the start" and that within a year she had been "chucked out in the world, not only to earn my own living but to support others." Dorothy Dix is a pen-name. Her real name is Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer, and she was born in 1870 in Woodstock, Tennessee, a small village on the Kentucky border. Her parents were Tennessee Meriwethers, and in her girlhood she knew horses and plantation life. She was educated at a "female seminary" in a neighboring city, was graduated with an assortment of useless knowledge, and was married very soon afterwards to a young man who became a chronic invalid within a short time.

Elizabeth Meriwether must have been a typical young gentlewoman of the Old South. The family fortunes had been partially depleted in the Civil War and as she reached maturity faded into poverty. She was unsophisticated, untrained, entirely unfit to cope with the world. Girls of her day had been taught to expect care and protection from a husband, taught that their safety depended upon marriage. Thus unequipped, she suddenly faced the necessity of earning a living for herself and her family. Today she is earning a very large salary, but the memory of those months and years of anxiety still remains. It influences very often, no doubt, what she writes.

"My husband is a brute. He mistreats me. He has affairs with other women. He wants to be rid of me. What shall I do? We have two children."

Very frequently questions of this type appear in her column.

"My heart bleeds for you," Dorothy Dix is likely to reply. "But will you be any better off if you are divorced? A beast of a husband is no worse than the wolf at the door. Alimony is difficult to collect. It is hard to make a living."

The surprising thing is that a woman who has fought her own fight so valiantly should now be so pessimistic about the ability of her sisters to do likewise. One can only conclude that the terror of the early years still haunts her and guides her pen, and this, it is my theory, is the worst feature of her philosophy. Again and again she preaches caution and warns of the inevitability of defeat. Women, particularly if there are children, must sacrifice their souls for food and shelter; for has not Miss Dix found life "a battlefield strewn with the wrecks of dead dreams"? She urges women to learn a trade; not that they may enter the world outside the kitchen and thereby grow in intelligence, but because only in this way can wives break away when matrimony becomes intolerable. AFEW years after her marriage worry and apprehension caused the youthful Mrs. Gilmer to suffer a nervous breakdown. Some friends raised enough money to send her to the Mississippi Gulf coast to recuperate. While there she met the owner of the New Orleans "Picayune" and succeeded in selling a short article she had written. Her newspaper career began on the same paper, at a salary of $5 a week. It was then, too, that she adopted the pen-name of Dorothy Dix. Part of her duties was to write a weekly article for women.

In 1901 William Randolph Hearst, still engaged in his circulation race with Joseph Pulitzer, summoned her to New York to increase the feminine clientele of his "Journal." Miss Dix became one of the sob-sisters who were a journalistic novelty of the day. They covered murder trials, wrote tear-jerking stories concerning lady defendants, put heartthrobs into everything. She believes that her experiences in the hurly-burly of crime reporting were extremely valuable and that she gained much knowledge now useful in conducting her column.

"I have been the confidante," she has said, "of the women who keep brothels and the girls in them. I have sat in prison cells and listened to the heart stories of murderesses and have sat in luxurious drawing-rooms while the guest of millionaires' wives. I have seen women in their moments of triumph and in their hours of despair; and there is no joy or sorrow that can tear at the human heart that I do not know. All of this has given me a knowledge and an understanding of human nature that no young girl or woman who has led just a home life could have. There isn't much concerning men and women that you don't hear and see as a sob-sister."

But it is open to doubt that service as a sob-sister affords, in itself, anything but a distorted picture of life and the human heart.

By 1908 Miss Dix was writing a daily feature from which her present column has been evolved. These "Talks" in the "Journal" continued up to 1917, when Miss Dix shifted to a newspaper syndicate and expanded her field. She assumed the burden of conducting a confessional only gradually, but now it is the major part of her work. She lives in New Orleans, in a house filled with treasured antiques, and spends at least five hours a day writing letters. Usually there are about 500 letters a day, and sometimes there are 1,000 in the special mail-pouch reserved for her. One secretary does nothing but handle the mail. Miss Dix insists that all letters be read and answered. In a recent interview she explained her system:

"The letters that ask perfunctory questions such as 'What year was McKinley elected President?' or 'How can I reduce a double chin?' are answered by my secretary without consulting me. But if the question is a complicated one, I dictate the reply. My assistant also weeds out the most vital ones, and these I answer through the newspapers. They form the basis for most of my articles.

"The letters are written by every class, even the highest. They are not only from the ignorant and the lowly. Often doctors consult me, and lawyers, about problems that arise in their professions. And I get hundreds and hundreds of letters from people who tell me that I have helped them. Often a girl writes that I have turned her back just as she was starting down the primrose path.

"Almost all of the letters are written by some one in dire distress. They are little bleeding pieces of people's hearts, confidences torn out of the souls of weeping men and women. They tell me things they only tell their God, and so these letters make the most amazing human document that anybody has ever been privileged to read, and my one feeling about it all is the passionate regret that I am not better fitted to answer them."

OBVIOUSLY, Miss Dix is a gentle and kindly person who would like to alleviate the suffering that man is heir to. The theory has been offered that she speaks for the older generation and that her views on divorce are due to this. The thought is dispelled, however, by recollection of some of her writings. She has no patience with those who believe modern girls less moral than those of the restricted '90's and has said so repeatedly. She declined to become alarmed when chaperons disappeared and when flappers started to discard superfluous clothing. She believes that the girl of to-clay is likely to be just as excellent a mother as the Gibson girl turned out to be; better, if anything. She berates stupid parents who attempt to rule the lives of their children and warns them that youth laughs at a lack of latch-keys. Parents should never live with their married sons or daughters-it is one of the chief causes of marital unhappiness. To the extent that Dorothy Dix harps on these things she has done untold good.

Being a Southern lady, it is not unnatural that Miss Dix is no feminist. Back in the days of the suffrage fight she urged that women be given the vote, but said that while "men looked after the big things" women would "look after the little things." The feminine vote "would supplement man's." Even while telling women to train themselves for self-support she reminds them that "they make the greatest successes who stick to purely feminine lines." But, despite her disbelief in divorce and her warnings that women must make most of the concessions in marriage, she by no means advocates door-mat wives. On the contrary, she calls for rebellion and reprisals when husbands fail to treat them as human beings. One woman, for example, wrote that her husband refused to give her any money although she was doing all of the housework and taking care of a baby.

"I think," said Miss Dix, "that a wife married to a man like that should go on strike and refuse to do another hand's turn of work until he agrees to give her for her own personal use at least the wages of a domestic. Let him come home and find no dinner because the cook has struck for wages. Let him find beds unmade, the floors unswept. Let him find that he hasn't a clean collar or a clean shirt."

IT is inconceivable, in an age when I every high school girl uses Freudian patter, that scores of the letters received by Miss Dix do not deal with sex and birth control. I have, obviously, no knowledge of how she treats these subjects when she writes personal letters in reply. It is quite possible that she deals frankly with them and that it is the limitations of newspaper syndication which force her to ignore them in her published articles. I am led to the conclusion, however, that girlhood restraints surrounding a Southern woman of gentle birth are again an influence. A recent column set forth that "common sense and love"-the order in which she puts them are significant-were indispensable to matrimony. But nine-tenths of the column extolled the value of common sense. Miss Dix admitted, it is true, that "if husband and wife love each other nothing else matters." Her assumption seemed to be, though, that this was unlikely and that common sense was an excellent substitute. I cannot avoid the thought that Miss Dix places little weight in the often hidden natural laws which, in the light of latter-day psychology, are known to have so profound an effect on marital happiness. Indeed, one letter indicates that she is naïvely innocent of the whole problem.

"I am engaged to be married," wrote some youth, "to a girl who refuses to let me kiss her although the marriage is to take place in about four months. Is this right?"

"It seems to me that the young lady is a trifle prudish," said Miss Dix, "but I should think that a man would be tickled half to death, and feel that he was marrying the Snow Maiden of the fairy tale, if he got an unkissed bride in these days."

That men can be interested in their wives because they are intelligent persons, proud of them because they are women of attainment in business, the arts, or the professions-all this seems beyond the conception of Miss Dix. No man, she has written, "can understand a woman's heart." He is "never really interested in the things a woman is interested in." There can never be "perfect congeniality or understanding" between man and woman. There "must always be some things no woman can say to a man because he could never get her point of view."

"Men prefer mediocrity in women," she wrote another time. "They like a girl to be so-so, but not too much so, if you get what I mean. They prefer the pretty girl to the beauty. You couldn't invite Venus into your kitchen. Same way about brains. If I had a daughter, I should pray Heaven to make her neither a Dumb Dora nor a highbrow college graduate, but to bestow on her a good, moderate, serviceable amount of gray matter that would enable her to understand what men are talking about without ever being tempted to make any wise-cracks herself. In that way I should assure her, not only of being able to marry well, but always to keep her husband."

AND what do the men, having acquired such a model, desire as to wifely conduct? Miss Dix, and in this case there is a hint of the sardonic in her tone, feels that she knows exactly what men want from their wives:

"No matter how big and strong a man is, nor how many other men he bosses, he wants his wife to treat him as if he were a delicate infant who had to be nursed and dandled and chucked under the chin. Talk about women who can hand out intellectual companionship! Produce your living pictures! Exhibit your paragons of virtue! They are simply not one, two, three with the wise dame who pets and fusses over her lord and master."

In concluding, I hasten to add that everything Miss Dix has written may be true as far as the great majority of men and women are concerned. My objection to her philosophy is not that she falls short in realism. She may be its essence, except as to sex and birth control. What I cannot see is why she defends the marriage institution at all if the things she claims are true. It seems to me that she accepts the standards of the mass as her norm and that she holds these up for emulation. She holds out slim hope that things will ever be better. I remember an article by Arthur Davison Ficke, "A Poet Looks at Companionate Marriage," in a recent issue of The Outlook.

"Youth longs," he wrote, "for real love; the intentions of youth are honest; it takes old men to dream of brothels. The young man and the young girl passionately hunger for a lifelong happy marriage."

What will youth think if it reads the outpourings of Miss Dix? Man is interested in his stomach alone. Women should not be too intelligent. Men and women never fully understand each other. Man and wife are certain to bore each other. Man marries to end romance. Marriage, in ninety per cent of the cases, is a cruel and bitter disappointment.

But one is consoled by the knowledge that youth will pay not the slightest attention to it all.

Source: Outlook, April 4, 1928