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“dear Beatrice Fairfax…“
America’s first Miss Lonely hearts advised generations of anxious lovers in the newspaper column that started it all
May/June 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 3
Dear Madam: I am a young lady who is very much in love with a young man who is now at present a soldier with the First Regiment, Company K at San Francisco. Before leaving, he promised to write to me, pretending he cared for me. He never fulfilled his promise, and since he left, I have found out that while he was going with me, he was at the same time going with another girl. 1 would like to ask your advice what I should do. Write to him and tell him what I think of him or let him pass out of my mind forever?
My Dear Girl: To write a letter requires some mental effort. To send it requires a two-cent stamp. Believe me, your fickle soldier is worth neither expenditure. Let him pass out of your mind without flattering his vanity by reproaches.
The initial response to the tough-minded column exceeded all expectations.
An ardent suffragist all her life, Manning often spoke pointedly about the inequities women faced. While they “paid taxes equal to the male overlord, they were not entitled to the fruits of their labor,” she once wrote. “A drunken husband, in many states, could collect the wages of his wife. … The wife was not entitled to the inheritance left her by her father.” And she had no patience at all for timid young men who wrote asking how to talk to a girl or get permission to call on her or propose to her:
My dear friends, … It is the proud prerogative of man to say what he thinks and to ask for what he wants, whether it happens to be a lady’s affections or hot coffee. Only upon the clam, the oyster and woman is silence enjoined. Man may speak. Man may tell what he wants to call. Man may proclaim what he loves. Man may demand if he has a rival. Man may propose.
Avail yourself of the glorious privilege of your sex, and ask for what you want.… Never think of adopting the silent methods of woman, who is speechless in great affairs, not because she wants to be but because she has to be. Her silence would be as troublesome to you as her involved draperies, and you would be as silly to adopt one as the other.
Yet for all her resentment of society’s injustices to women, Manning was enough a product of her time to advise her readers to bear them rather than rebel. She usually counseled unhappy wives to sustain their marriages, pointing out that they had few, if any, real alternatives:
Miss Beatrice Fairfax:
Dear Madam—… I am a married woman, considered nice-looking, age twenty-eight, have been married eleven years, have always had to work hard, and now my husband’s business is very good. He makes on an average of $20 to $25 a week, or maybe $30. He claims that $11 a week is enough to pay $12 a month rent, clothe and feed my little girl and boy, my husband and myself. I cannot possibly do it, so I have made up my mind to let him keep the children in clothes and pay their board, and I will strike out for myself. 1 think a man does not deserve a wife that is so close with his money. Can he do anything if I take the children away and leave the home to him, or what am I entitled to? He is very abusive sometimes, too. The last time he abused me, he deliberately took his foot and tripped me, sending me full length and weight on one side.
Your case is a very hard one, Ethel May: but I would certainly not advise you to “strike out” if it necessitates leaving your children, and there are so few things open to a woman with children. I cannot imagine anything more desolate for them than to be put out to board while their father saved his money and their mother “struck out” for herself. The law will oblige your husband to support you in accordance with his means. Why don’t you have a serious talk with him and tell him that it is impossible for you to get along on the allowance he makes you. It is just possible that the hundredth talk on the subject might find him reasonable if you talk quietly and don’t “nag.”
And you might be able to earn a little money in your own home by taking in plain sewing or making preserves, or doing whatever you can do best. If you leave him, he can divorce you for desertion. In the meantime, your children ought to be a great comfort to you if you are the right sort of a little woman, and I know you are. They ought to compensate for a great deal.
As the letters to the column multiplied and the Journal ’s circulation soared, Beatrice Fairfax became more celebrated than most public figures of her day. She was the subject of poems, stories, cartoons, jokes, and vaudeville skits. The chorus of one popular turn-of-the-century song ran: