Gilmer, Elizabeth Meriwether
GILMER, Elizabeth Meriwether
Born 18 November 1870, Woodstock, Tennessee; died 16 December 1951, New Orleans, Louisiana
Wrote under: Dorothy Dix
Daughter of William and Maria Winston Meriwether; married George Gilmer, 1888
Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer's career as a newspaper columnist and reporter stemmed from her tragic marriage. The daughter of impoverished Southern gentry, Gilmer had little formal training and no work experience when, shortly after her marriage, she had to assume financial responsibility for herself and her husband, a victim of an incurable mental disease. Rejecting the idea of divorce, she began working as a woman's-page writer on the New Orleans Picayune in 1896. Successful as a columnist and reporter, Gilmer moved to the New York Evening Journal in 1901, where she continued her column, "Dorothy Dix Talks," and covered sensational murder trials (usually involving women) and vice investigations. From 1917 until her death, she confined her newspaper writing to her advice column, first for the Wheeler syndicate and from 1923 for the Ledger syndicate.
Between 1912 and 1914, Gilmer, a supporter of woman suffrage, wrote three pamphlets on the subject. She also published a number of books of advice, some fictional in technique and southern in setting, like Mirandy (1914) and Mirandy Exhorts (1922), but mostly drawn from her columns, like Fables of the Elite (1902), Hearts à la Mode (1915), and How to Win and Hold a Husband (1939). In addition, she published travel books describing the customs and problems in the places she visited.
Best known for her column, reaching an estimated 60 million readers worldwide with sympathy, humor, and common sense, Gilmer dispensed sermonettes on courtship and marriage as well as answers to letters. She advised women to develop a positive self-image and know how to work at a job, but also retain femininity, good nature, and adaptability. Beginning many columns with "Men are a selfish lot," Gilmer accepted the reality of a sexual double standard and advised her readers how to deal with it.
Convinced of the healthy and life-enriching power of love, Gilmer nevertheless explained how to achieve that goal with imagery taken from games, hunting, and marketing, with what one reviewer has called "hardboiled realism that would do credit to a brothel keeper." For example: "A young girl who lets any one boy monopolize her, simply shuts the door in the face of good times and her chances of making a better match." "Few grafts are more profitable than comforting a widower. But remember that fast work is required." And in a "recipe" book for marriage: "All wives should encourage their husbands in dough-making. It keeps them out of mischief and promotes domestic felicity."
Coexistent with the pragmatism, however, is the pride, independence, and self-worth Gilmer advocates for all women. In Woman's Lack of Pride (circa 1912), she writes about how women lack sex pride "when they permit themselves to be classed politically with the offscourings of the earth [the criminal, the idiot, the insane]… All of woman's failures are due to her shame of her sex, and she will never succeed until she [realizes] she is entitled to stand side by side with man, not to have to trail along in his wake like a humble slave."
Sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd in their study of middle America, Middletown (1929), assess Gilmer's column as the best single available source to represent Middletown's views about marriage, and also as "perhaps the most potent single agency of diffusion from without shaping the habits of thought of Middletown in regard to marriage." Gilmer defined the ideal of love and marriage, acknowledged the reality, and wrote pragmatic advice reflecting but also shaping the behavior and mores of her readers.
What's Sauce for the Gander Is Sauce for the Goose (circa 1912). Dorothy Dix on Woman's Ballot (1914). My Trip Around the World (1924). Dorothy Dix, Her Book (1926). Mexico (1934).
Criss, D. "Eliza Nicholson, Elizabeth Gilmer, and the New Orleans Daily Picayune, 1876-1901" (thesis, 1994). Kane, H. T., Dear Dorothy Dix: The Story of a Compassionate Woman (1952). Lynd, R. S. and H. M. Lynd, Middletown (1929). McDonald, J. Dorothy Dix Speaks! Murders, Mayhem and Advice to the Love Lorn Housewife, Tricks and Simple Recipes for the Novice Gourmet (1992).
CB (1940, 1952). DAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Dorothy Dix: A Symposium Sponsored by Austin Peay State University (videos, 1991). NYT (17 Dec. 1951). Proceedings of the Contributed Papers Session of the Dorothy Dix Symposium (1993). Time (14 Aug. 1939).
—HELEN J. SCHWARTZ