30 Years Ago Today: Dear Abby – Women Are Not Substandard to Men

State Lunch, Circa 1969

Sitting in a booth at the State Lunch (Third at Saginaw Street – now “Zeff’s”), I’m waiting on a client for a meeting to discuss his case. (He never showed up). To pass the time, I read the Detroit News and Free Press the restaurant provided, back when the newspapers were competitive and widely read.

After reading my regular news, and still waiting on my no-show client, I revisited the papers once again. Only this time, I read the stuff I rarely look at, like astrology charts, Hints from Heloise, and advice columns.

All was well until I read a letter in the “Dear Abby” column that I found quite alarming.

A heavy-set woman wanted advice on how to handle her father-in-law’s offensive comments about her weight.

The columnist, Abigail VanBuren, offered the woman no encouragement or helpful perspective. Instead, she provided harmful advice that was counter-productive to the guidance the woman was seeking.

My visceral response was quick, with passion against such cruelty and insensitivity racing through my veins, I grabbed a stack of napkins and wrote the only letter I ever sent to an advice column.

The letter criticized Ms. VanBuren for the useless and counter-productive advice she rendered – not only for the woman who sought her advice, but for her entire readership as well.

The next day, I pulled the wad of folded napkins from my back pocket and tossed them into the waste basket by my desk. A few hours later, still troubled by the poor and hurtful advice, I retrieved the napkins from the waste. What’s the sense, I asked myself, in writing my thoughts, only to toss them away?

So I had the letter typed and sent it to Ms. VanBuren the next day.

I never expected my letter to be published.

It was intended only to call out the errors of Ms. VanBuren, release my outrage, and right a wrong. The letter was mailed and I went back to my daily routines.

So you could imagine my surprise when, 30 years ago, I started getting phone calls from people across the U.S. I hadn’t heard from for years – old school chums, former neighbors, distant relatives, and people I did not really know – all calling to express their surprise in reading my name in their newspaper.

Much to her credit, Abigail VanBuren admitted her advice was all wrong, and she didn’t change anything in my letter; it was published as written. In fact, she published my letter at the top of her column and used language from it in the column’s headline.

In hindsight, the letter is one of the best pieces I’ve written. Know why? Because it was written with passion. A passion against injustice wherever it appears.

Thank you Ms. VanBuren for your humility and for the injection of social justice optimism that, three decades later, continues to sustain me.

The impact and notoriety of the column, and Abigail VanBuren, may be best acknowledged in the popular John Prine song.

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