Elizabeth M. Gilmer as Dorothy Dix: A Woman Journalist Rewrites the Myth of the Southern Lady
Maurine H. Beasley
University of Maryland College Park, Maryland
For more than 50 years, Elizabeth M. Gilmer, known as "Dorothy Dix," the premier advice columnist of her day, counseled newspaper readers on problems of life and love. This paper argues that her importance as a cultural force lay in her efforts to bridge the gap between the 19th century world of the "lady" and the 20th century world of women who actualized their potentials as independent beings. In doing so, the paper contends, she never totally rejected the mythology surrounding the ideal of the Southern "lady," due to her own background. Instead she attempted to modernize traditional views of women's behavior by rewriting the "lady's" social codes and conventions.
ELIZABETH M. GILMER AS DOROTHY DIX: A WOMAN JOURNALIST REWRITES THE MYTH OF THE SOUTHERN LADY
Over the years historians have viewed Elizabeth M. Gilmer, known to millions as Dorothy Dix, from various perspectives. Frank Luther Mott, who won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism history, referred to her in a paragraph on "girl reporters" and stated incorrectly that she "made her chief reputation as editor of a column of advice to girls." (At that, though, Mott treats Gilmer better than Edwin and Michael Emery, authors of the leading current textbook on journalism history, who fail to mention her at all in recent editions.) Gilmer's biographer, Harnett T. Kane, as would be expected, treats her respectfully, but he portrays her as a romantic and little-understood figure, "an American phenomenon."
Women have seen Gilmer somewhat differently. Writing in l936, Ishbel Ross, the first historian of women journalists, referred to her warmly as "America's Mother Confessor, the most highly paid newspaper woman in the world." Marion Marzolf, a contemporary historian of women in journalism, noted that Gilmer believed in the worth of her advice columns, felt that they actually helped individuals with their problems, although she discounted any social utility in her reporting of famous murder trials. Barbara Belford saw her as a somewhat pathetic figure, who never had what she understood so well - "love." Madelon G. Schilpp and Sharon M. Murphy emphasized her influence as "America's first important personal advice columnist."
One scholar stressed the feminist messages in Gilmer's writing. Margaret Culley concluded from studies of both Gilmer's advice columns and her reports on sensational murder trials that Gilmer's interest in women's rights pervaded her writing. She described Gilmer's "highly polemical columns...intended more to shape popular opinion than to reflect it in the manner of the genre we are most familiar with today." As for Gilmer's celebrated court reporting, Culley contended Gilmer saw it "as a kind of morality play in which to teach the public about the victimization of women."
Drawing on previous scholarship, this paper considers Gilmer first as a professional journalist and second as a feminist. It suggests, however, that her chief importance as a cultural force in the United States lay in her efforts to bridge the gap between the l9th century world of the "lady" and the 20th century world of women who actualized their potentials as independent beings. Based on a review of Gilmer's writings, it concludes that Gilmer never resolved the tension between these two conflicting roles for women, although she sought to reduce it by redefining the parameters of acceptable conduct for women. In so doing, the paper contends, Gilmer never totally spurned the mythology surrounding the ideal of the Southern "lady," due, no doubt, to her background and experiences as a Southern "lady" herself. Instead she tried throughout her career as an advice columnist to rewrite the "lady's" social codes and conventions, modernizing traditional views of women's behavior.
Gilmer as a Professional Journalist
To begin to understand the contradictions of Gilmer's career, it is helpful to consider her initially as an individual who became a journalist by accident. Certainly unhappy circumstances shaped her debut into the field. Born Elizabeth Meriwether on Nov. 21, 1861 on Woodstock plantation in Tennessee near the Kentucky border. She was the daughter of William Douglas Meriwether, a member of a prominent family of Virginia gentry, and Maria Winston Meriwether, who was in ill health and died during Elizabeth's childhood. Like many other Southern aristocrats, the Meriwethers lost their fortune in the Civil War. With only a sparse formal education, first at the Female Academy in Clarksville, Tennessee, and then for one unhappy semester at Hollins Institute in Virignia, where she was ridiculed for her pigtails and unsophisticated country ways, as a shy young woman, she saw few options in life. In 1882 at the age of twenty-one, the tiny Elizabeth, who weighted only ninety pounds and was barely five feet tall, rushed into marriage. The groom was her stepmother's brother, George O. Gilmer, a handsome man ten years older, who spoke grandly of becoming an inventor. This match proved a disastrous mistake, but the young wife did not believe in divorce and was determined to maintain the marriage. Almost from the start, she realized George Gilmer's lack of mental stability and resolved not to have children. Confronted by his moods and inability to keep a job, she eventually collapsed herself and went with her father to recuperate in Bay Saint Louis on the Mississippi Gulf. There, by chance, she met the South's successful woman publisher, Eliza Nicholson, owner of the New Orleans Daily Picayune. After Nicholson saw some features that Gilmer, who always had liked to write, had recently free-lanced to newspapers, she offered her a job. Thus at the age of thirty-three, Gilmer found herself launched on what would become a career that would continue for more than half a century.
Gilmer immediately seized on the opportunity. Hired in 1894 as an assistant to the Picayune's awe-inspiring editor, Major Nathaniel Burbank, Gilmer was determined to learn the journalist's craft. At night in her shabby rooming house, she poured over newspapers to learn style and practiced writing articles. As she explained years later, she "studied the backs off books of synonyms and word-books and dictionaries. I followed big stories in every part of the country to see which papers played them up best. I dissected the work of the leading paragraphists [writers of brief, witty commentary popular in her day]." With her associates she displayed a smiling manner and uncanny aptitude for making friends, but she avoided intimacy. Any man tempted to display romantic interest received a subtle rebuff and learned that Mr. Gilmer remained in the picture. Living as cheaply as possible, she saved money from her small salary to send to her husband, who was too ill to work.
After tracking down birth and death notices and hunting material for filler copy, she graduated to theatrical reviews under the major's tutelage and then to her own weekly column, which first appeared May 5, 1895 under the pen name, "Dorothy Dix." She chose the pen name in line with Victorian convention that called for genteel women journalists to keep their true identities from the stigma of public exposure by adopting alliterative nom de plumes. Gilmer selected hers in part because she thought the name Dorothy had dignity and because she remembered a black servant named Dicks who had saved the family silver by burying it during the Civil War.
Although the column offered commentary about women and advice to them, it did not begin in the question and answer format that became famous later. Instead Gilmer wrote "sermonettes" in plain language laced with humor that attracted attention nationally. In 1901 William Randolph Hearst, whose brand of sensationalism dominated the newspaper field in New York at the turn of the century, lured her to New York to work for his Evening Journal by offering the then-magnificent salary of $5000 a year. Before moving to the Journal, she covered the crusade of Carry Nation, the temperance leader in Kansas who led groups of women on saloon-smashing sprees, for Hearst newspapers. The Hearst headline screamed, "A Woman's Picture of the 'Smasher': Dorothy Dix, the well-known writer, tells all about the Hatchet Heroine." While she made friends with Nation, as she did with everyone she interviewed, Gilmer was not in sympathy with her cause. For a week or so, Gilmer stayed near Nation to "shout and smash when Carrie shouted and smashed, though I thought to myself, she said later, "what a waste of good liquor it was." As one of Hearst's best-known "sob sisters," Gilmer became a specialist in covering trials of women accused of murder. Her sympathies always lay with the women who were charged with killing relatives, usually their husbands or fathers. Her empathy for these women stretched to the point that she never saw a murderess with she failed to like or identify as a tragic figure. For the next fifteen years, Gilmer covered major trials for Hearst, making the courtroom in the words of Culley, "an arena where the battle between the sexes proceeds in particularly bold relief." (Interestingly, no jury ever convicted a woman defendant whom Gilmer befriended in print.)
Far more than today, the journalism of Gilmer's period featured narrative and told stories. Human interest, rather than the presentation of information, drew readers and built circulation. Gilmer presented trials as dramas of stained passion and the exploitation of women. She summarized her philosophy of trial reporting in the lead of her story on the Hall-Mills murder trial in which a minister's wife was accused of murdering her husband and a choir singer in a rural lover's lane where they had gone for illicit romance. She wrote, "...to the average man and woman, there is nothing so perpetually fascinating, nothing which so intrigues the mind, as a tale of mystery, and a murder trial is a super-detective story translated into reality. It is the unknown and the dramatic raised to the ultimate degree." At the same time that she covered trials, Gilmer continued to produce her five-day-a week feature column and received an increasing volume of mail from readers seeking her opinion on personal problems. Her efforts to reply to each letter, which greatly increased her workload, led to a long period of illness in l905. Yet Gilmer continued to work for Hearst until 1917.
That year she switched to the nationwide Wheeler Newspaper Syndicate and returned to New Orleans to concentrate on her advice column, which she wrote in the form of letters, called sermonettes, and questions and answers. Tired of covering legal circuses, she told Arthur Brisbane, Hearst's star editor, "The next murder I cover will be yours!" Her advice column, she believed, aided actual people and served a social good, whereas her crime reporting chiefly built circulation for Hearst newspapers. Only once did she agree to again cover a murder trial - in 1926 when the Ledger syndicate, to which she had moved in 1923, offered her a thousand dollars a week, then a tremendous sum, plus her usual payment, to report on the Hall-Mills case. She was nearly 65, described by another woman reporter as "a tiny figure, housewifely and plump who looked like somebody's grandmother....(who) sweated over her copy every night like a novice and did a workmanlike job." By this time Gilmer lived in luxury in New Orleans, surrounded by expensive antiques and admiring friends. Her husband died in 1929 in a mental institution.
Switching to the Bell Syndicate in 1942, Gilmer continued to write her advice column until April 1949 when failing health forced the syndicate to send out columns she had written earlier, and eventually to provide a ghost writer, who continued along the lines Gilmer had laid out. The next year Gilmer was hospitalized. She died of kidney failure in New Orleans on Dec. 16, 1951 at the age of ninety, leaving an estate of nearly two and a half million dollars. Although she started her career late, there was no doubt Gilmer adopted the values and attitudes of the professional journalist. She worked hard to master her craft. She followed the conventions of the newspaper business by always meeting deadlines and working harmoniously with editors. She engaged in standard reportorial techniques, excelling at interviewing and capturing the vivid details that marked her trial reports. Beyond that, her extraordinary interest in people favored her work and gave it the readable, down-to-earth quality that made her the world's highest paid newspaperwoman of her day.
Immortalized in song, plays and billboard signs, Gilmer reigned in New Orleans as a celebrity, recognized by the city government that declared a special Dorothy Dix Day in June 1928. Yet she always placed herself within the context of being a woman in journalism, even as she assumed the role of being Dorothy Dix, the compassionate adviser, both publically and privately. "I regard journalism as the ideal career for a woman," she told a group of women students at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, when she received a honorary degree there in l931, adding, "What is a newspaper anyway but the aggregate gossip of the world." She apparently assumed women found gossip intriguing because it incorporated their interest in human relationships.
Gilmer as a Feminist
Certainly Gilmer was a friend of women. Certainly she supported the right of women to work for pay outside the home - as she herself had been forced to do. It can be debated, however, to what degree Gilmer advanced the cause of feminism through her column. Culley contended that Gilmer's early columns provided a "wide-ranging and radical" view of women's position. She cited examples from the woman's page of the New Orleans Picayune such as these:
- "Nearly every woman who goes into the world to fight the battle for bread is driven to it by poverty." (June 7, l896)
- "Woman has, at least, a sort of step-sister-in-law inheritance in that provision of the constitution which gives to every one the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and if she chooses to pursue happiness down the same path men have trod, who is to say her nay?" (Sept. 5, l897)
- "The woman with the broom is getting tired of working for her board and clothes." (March 4, 1900)
- "Somehow the theory (that one must keep one's husband amused) seems to degrade marriage into a kind of vaudeville show, where the wife is doing a continuous performance, and the husband is an audience of one, who may get bored at any moment and get up and leave." (Feb. 13, 1898)
- "There is no other right that women envy them (men) so persistently and entirely and sincerely, as the right to be as ugly as nature made them, and to look as old as they really are." (July 3, 1898)
- "One may be bound just as securely and as fatally with silken cords as with iron fetters, and the fact that our jailer happens to love us does not offer adequate compensation for being in prison." (Oct. 29, l899)
Such passages as these betray the anger, irritation and dismay Gilmer may have internalized and then set in a broader framework as she dealt with the unhappy circumstances of her own marriage. They show her revulsion over a social system that made women powerless pawns to male violence and aggression, victims of a romantic ideal that disappointed their hopes and dreams. They explain why she appeared on a platform with Susan B. Anthony in 1903 in New Orleans and later campaigned for woman suffrage. They testify to the outrage that she expressed in a column on April 27, l897, when she wrote she could "even sympathize with the woman who gets so disgusted with the way things are run that now and then she feels like turning anarchist and blowing everything up."
Yet the fact remains that Gilmer was not a revolutionary. Over the years she wrote her columns they became more - not less - conservative in tone. Culley attributed this to the economics of syndication, Gilmer's personal success and the passage of the suffrage amendment in 1920. Although these factors may have entered in, another explanation can be offered. All her life Gilmer remained within the tradition of the "Southern lady." Her personal contribution to that tradition, which had acquired mythological status by the end of the nineteenth century, was to rewrite the myth to fit changing times.
Gilmer and the Myth of the Southern Lady
Along with the feminist overtones of the early columns can be found numerous conventional statements about women's place and interests. For example, in one column Gilmer argued in favor of conventional manners and social behavior by women. Writing in a fictionalized discourse as she sometimes did, she called on a society lady to explain the need for responding to dinner invitations promptly and wearing suitable gowns. The column ended:
"It takes a great many things to make this a comfortable world, my dear girls," remarked the society woman, settling down her teacup and smiling at the debutantes, "and chief among them is conventionality." Gilmer often commented on the shortcomings of women themselves. The week after the column in praise of conventionality she criticized "lazy women," whose indolence resulted in "disorderly and uncomfortable" homes that caused their husbands to seek the comforts of saloons. "Sometimes - heaven help her - a woman is so lazy she shirks her most sacred responsibility and turns her little children over to the care of hired servants, letting an ignorant and unloving hand mold that life for which God himself will hold her accountable," she continued.
Such sentiments hardly fit a feminist perspective. Neither did those expressed a week later to the effect that women, unlike men, worried too much about personal responsibilities: "The woman who has learned not to worry, but to take life as it comes, cheerfully, and making the best of the rain, as well as the sunshine, has found the true elixir of youth and the magic charm that turns all hearts to her." Finding happiness within oneself and presenting a serene outward appearance, no matter how many burdens one might have, stood at the heart of the mythology of the "lady," particularly as it had developed in the antebellum South and the poverty-stricken decades there that followed the fall of the Confederacy. It was a philosophy that accepted "rain" (suffering) as a given, and it was one endorsed without reservation by Gilmer, who preached it again and again. "Ladies" triumphed through force of character and good breeding over the vicissitudes of fate, entering the working world, if necessary, but always aware that they were separate and different from men, although they might aspire to be equal legally.
As she constructed a public image, Gilmer preferred to picture herself as a melodramatic figure rather than a competent career woman. Although she attained wealth, fame, friends and every accouterment of success, including round-the-world travel, due to her professional competence as a journalist, she presented her life as one of suffering. In the introduction to a 1926 book, one of seven published based chiefly on her columns, she wrote, "I have had 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 limits of my strength." Such suffering ennobled her, she contended. While life had been "a battle in which I always fought with the odds tremendously against me, and which has left me scarred and bruised and maimed and old before my time," the outcome had allowed her to know more than those in more fortunate circumstances: "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."
In keeping with this philosophy, Gilmer drew up "Ten Rules for Happiness," perhaps her single most popular column and one frequently reprinted by reader demand. "Happiness is a matter of self-determination, not luck as is popularly supposed," she began, listing ten ways to create it: (1) HAVE A WILL TO HAPPINESS; (2) LAUGH THINGS OFF; (3) ENJOY WHAT YOU HAVE NOW; (4) DON'T EXPECT TOO MUCH; (5) DON'T ASK TOO MUCH; (6) DON'T BORROW TROUBLE; (7) THINK OF OTHERS; (8) CULTIVATE THE HUMAN RELATIONSHIP; (9) KEEP BUSY; (10) REMEMBER THAT YOU GET OUT OF LIFE JUST EXACTLY WHAT YOU HAVE PUT INTO IT. Under the ninth rule, she declared, "Any kind of work is better than no work at all....It is the hard-worked woman, whether in the home or in business, who is happy and cheerful and who make others happy and cheerful." Clearly Gilmer advocated personal fulfillment by living bravely in the midst of difficulties rather than striving for social changes to implement feminist goals. She was no believer in sexual liberation, although she adjusted her advice to changing times over the half century that she wrote her columns. She had male readers as well as female (at times half her audience) and she was translated all over the world, from Australia to Puerto Rico.
But her ideas remained those of a genteel Southern lady coping successfully with social change in her own life and urging others, particularly women, to follow suit and construct for themselves useful, productive lives. Just as the Southern lady traditionally had suffered, Gilmer expected her readers to suffer too. But she also told them how to put suffering aside. In that way Gilmer updated the myth of the "lady."
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