Advice columns in newspapers and magazines offer readers an opportunity to write in for advice on their personal concerns and receive a response. The columnists are promoted as experts, offering commonsense advice.
While some believe that the dilemmas posed are fabricated, many columnists claim they are overwhelmed with readers’ questions. Contributors are identified with a name or initials, and an epithet like ‘Desperate’, or just ‘Name Supplied’. Increasingly, responses to letters are accompanied by contact details for support groups.
The success of the columns relies on the regular columnists, many of whom have be- come household names. Occasionally, columns have needed to survive multiple authorships as individuals retired or were replaced, and have maintained their continuity through a specific language register and a consistent approach. The earliest precursor to the agony column appeared in John Dunton’s Athenian Mercury, first published in 1691 in England, where readers could direct questions on a range of topics, including ethical conduct, to a panel of experts. Other early English publications offering advice included Female Spectator in the 18th century and Annie Swan’s column, ‘Over the Teacups’, in Woman at Home in the late 1890s.
Nineteenth-century Australian newspapers published ladies’ columns offering advice on domestic concerns as well as personal issues like how wives could make themselves indispensable. They included homilies directed to ‘young ladies who are engaged’ or to ‘marriageable girls’ on topics like social conduct or choosing the best marriage partner. They also responded directly to letters. In the early 1900s, the Weekly Times (often referred to as the ‘Bible of the Bush’) offered a variety of advice on topics relating to legal issues, medical matters and farm management.
From the 1920s, the Sunday Sun included a Dorothy Dix column, syndicated from America, which answered queries and offered advice on personal issues and etiquette. In 1926, the Daily Telegraph appointed Millicent Preston Stanley, the first female MLA in New South Wales, as women’s editor to contribute articles and answer correspondents. The Labor Daily dedicated a section to report on organisations of particular interest to women, among the home hints and fashion, and by 1938 included Kathleen Carson’s columns answering readers’ personal problems.
Advice programs, such as Norman Banks’ Husbands and Wives and Frank Sturge Harty’s Between Ourselves, began to appear on (principally) commercial radio. The first version of the panel program Beauty and the Beast, with Eric Baume as the ‘Beast’, appeared on the Seven Network in 1963; the show has returned a number of times.
There have been several long-running columns in Australian women’s magazines, notably a version of the ‘Dorothy Dix’ column in Woman’s Day in the 1950s and 1960s. Prominent magazine advice columns have included Dorothy Drain’s ‘It Seems to Me’ (1947–62) in the Australian Women’s Weekly. Louise Hunter answered letters in ‘Here’s Your Answer’ in the ‘Teenagers’ Weekly’ insert in the Australian Women’s Weekly from 1959. In 1956, visiting marriage guidance expert, Dr David Mace, addressed Weekly readers’ problems on love and marriage.
Kate Samperi made much of the fact she was a social worker in the ‘Dear Kate’ feature (1970–93) in Woman’s Day. Further expertise was apparent in Dolly, which included a ‘Dear Dolly Doctor’ column from the 1970s. Advice columns were a source of coded sex education before this was widely available elsewhere.
New Idea published Dulcie Boling’s ‘Let’s Talk’ in the 1990s, using readers to solve problems. The Australian Women’s Weekly’s ‘Dear Berry’ started in 1993. Woman’s Day has drawn on actor Georgie Parker, as well as clairvoyant Fiona McCallum, to answer readers’ problems. Nene King joined New Idea as a columnist in 2011. In contrast to the feminised realm of women’s magazines, Fairfax Media has used Danny Katz, writing as ‘Modern Guru’ in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend, to solve ethics and etiquette dilemmas.
Online columns offer users more chances to receive advice, post comments and interact with others. New Idea through Yahoo!7 asks readers to email experts for advice on personal life, money, medical matters, nutrition and cooking. Some columns with origins in traditional media have online versions, but others are found only in cyberspace. News.com.au has been inviting its readers to ‘Ask Bossy’ (Kate de Brito) for ‘the advice your friends and relatives are prob- ably too polite to give’ since 2007. Australian journalist Samantha Brett produced an online blog on dating and relationships, ‘Ask Sam’, which was also available on the Age and Sydney Morning Herald websites for six years until 2012. She has also written advice columns for Cosmopolitan and FHM.
REFs: S. Sheridan et al., Who Was That Woman? (2002); R.B. Walker, Yesterday’s News (1980).