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Chapter Five

Agony Aunts

I can’t help feeling jealous of my husband’s admiration for a young woman who lives near to us. She is married and doesn’t appear to think twice about him, but I know he thinks she is lovely and he flares into a temper every time I tax him about talking to her. How can I manage him better?


* Learn to manage your own jealousy first. It could poison your relations with your husband, and his tempers are a sign that he resents your possessiveness. Many men admire good-looking young women, but if their wives are wise, they accept this as part of the masculine attitude, and at least pretend that it doesn’t matter a scrap. Usually it doesn’t matter.

“Mary Friend” column, Woman’s Day, 3 January 1955


Can you help me stop being so jealous when my husband gives young women adoring glances?


* On the first night of a new moon, fill a white china cup with mineral water. Add a few drops of orange essence and one drop of musk oil and mix with a silver teaspoon. Wash your husband’s underwear and socks and put the cup of magic mixture into the washing machine as you repeat these words: “Lover, lover warm to my soul and feel my sensitive heart.” Each time you feel a pang of jealousy, light a pink candle and repeat the incantation.

“Cast a Spell” column, New Idea, 17 January 1998


Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch is probably the most influential book ever written by an Australian. It has changed the lives of millions of women throughout the world; and through them it has changed the lives of men and transformed our society.


Her penetrating, witty and controversial analyses of our society are always stimulating. So, when she came to Melbourne in 1997 for the annual Writers’ Festival one newspaper commentator remarked that “Her guns are blazing”, and “She’s cranky as usual”.


But what she had to say may have surprised some. Although her theme was a familiar one - the role of women and their continuing subjugation by men - she gave the impression that the feminist battle had barely progressed. She said that in 1970 (when The Female Eunuch was published) women had the right to say no to sex, without apology. “Now they have a duty to say yes to whatever their partners may desire; no holds are barred. Women cannot admit to feeling disgust or to not enjoying the stuff that is going on - not if they want to seem cool.”


She went on to cite recent letters to the advice column of Cleo magazine as illustrations, and commented: “To judge from such letters men are still doing things to women rather than the other way around, and the things they are doing are no more pleasurable or loving and no less dangerous than the things they were doing a third of a century ago.” In other words, according to Greer’s analysis, women in our culture continue to be degraded. Power still rules, not love.


It is perhaps unfortunate that she did not turn her analysis to the advice columns in the more popular women’s magazines, like New Idea and Woman’s Day, rather than in an upmarket one like Cleo. For it is these columns themselves that degrade women.



There was a time when the advice columns of such magazines were a small but important element of support for some of the weaker members (especially young women) of our society. For example, the “Mary Friend” advice column was a staple of Woman’s Day in the 1950s. Most of the problems concerned relationships, usually with boyfriends or husbands, though there were also many teenage women who had problems with their parents. Even young men sometimes sought help.


For example, in a typical edition of the column, that for 31 January 1955, a young woman worries that her fiance seems to be dominated by his mother; a woman married for the second time finds friction between her daughter and her new husband; another woman is having mother-in-law problems; a young woman’s parents object to her boyfriend because he is German; a 17-year-old girl complains that her mother will not allow her to go to dances and parties or to develop friendships with other young people; and a young man asks for advice on discouraging a girl without hurting her feelings.


What stands out from the columns is the utterly sympathetic and practical manner in which “Mary Friend” answers the letters. Here is some of her counsel:


Your fiance seems to accept his mother’s dominance without question, which suggests he will look for strong maternal feelings in his wife. Do you want that type of man? Or do you prefer a man who will make his own decisions, stand up for himself and for you too? Think it over carefully. If you need a protective, strong-willed man, it might be wiser to decide now you have made a mistake that will lead to unhappiness.


A man’s nationality is no guide to his sense of morality and values, and, without knowing your boyfriend, I could not assess his worth as a suitor. However, I consider three weeks acquaintance is far too short a time to consent to an engagement. I think you would be much wiser to wait until you know him much better before you promise to marry him.


You are not being unreasonable, because it is natural and right at your age that you have young friends and enjoy life. I suspect your mother is being selfish and wants to monopolise you, but any solution I could suggest will only aggravate the conflict. Have you an older relative who could influence her, or could you ask your minister to have a talk with her about allowing you young friends?


It is all so reasonable and sensible. It is the kind of common-sense advice that, in other cultures, might be passed on between women of all ages gathering water at the village well, or washing clothes together in the river, or, in my wife’s Korean culture, eating kimchi pickled cabbage and dried squid in the kitchen while the husbands get drunk together on soju grain liquor in the living room. It is advice that faces up to the realities of our day-to-day existence; such guidance does not shy away from the fact that life is not always easy and that many problems do not admit of neat and easy solutions. Life often involves suffering.



Kate Samperi spent a couple of decades answering readers’ problems for Woman’s Day. In her 1991 book Dear Kate she wrote:


When people make a decision to write to me or consult another practitioner, it can be the turning points in their lives. By putting their thoughts on paper, they are putting space between themselves and their difficulties. In many cases, what they focus on and write about is not the problem. They are seeing the symptoms but have no insights as to the cause. Yet the clues are always there. My area of expertise is to find those clues and then direct their attention to the aspects of the problem of which they are unaware. Handling life successfully is looking with total honesty at our own behaviour, instead of blaming others when they don’t respond the way we would like.


So, the change in advice columns today is startling. It is beyond the wildest parody. Magazines like Woman’s Day and New Idea and the Australian Women’s Weekly have handed over the columns to a coven of clairvoyants, psychics, astrologers, tarot-card readers, numerologists, feng shui experts and other oracles.


Reading all this prognostication is like entering a time machine and being transported to a medieval bazaar that is littered with the tents and caravans of seers of every stripe. The reader is left free to wander and to select from what is sometimes quite contradictory advice. Many of the advisers are linked to high-cost psychic telephone services for further consultation.


Of course, women’s magazines have for long had their horoscopes, sometimes compiled by the junior reporter, and it has been fashionable for sophisticated women to joke about how they always read them, the implication apparently being that they would not dream of believing what is there, but that it is all in good fun.


Thus, Ita Buttrose, a former editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly, was involved in the following exchange when she appeared as a guest, in 1997, on ABC television’s “Club Buggery” with Rampaging Roy Slaven and H.G. Nelson:


Roy:    Did you ever read Women’s Weekly?

Ita:     (laughing) Word for word. On my honour.

Roy:    Did you? Well, what about bloody “You and Your Stars”? Did  you think that was a reasonable bloody thing to put in the magazine?

Ita:     Too right. I wouldn’t start the day without reading my stars.

Roy:    Do you read your stars?

Ita:     Of course.


Roy:    You don’t think the magazine patronised women a little bit?

Ita:      No.

Roy:     You don’t?

Ita:      No.

Roy:     What, women like reading rubbish, do they?

Ita:      No.


But the new moves into fortune telling are of a different order altogether from the traditional horoscope. The magazines have even extended freedom of choice to other types of advice. For example, in the winter of 1997, the Woman’s Day “Your Good Health” column gave readers a trifecta of choices for dealing with colds and flu.


A Sydney doctor listed practical steps to avoid contracting the flu virus, noting that, “There is only anecdotal evidence to support the belief that vitamins, minerals and herbal remedies such as echinacea work to deter colds and flu”. Then a “medical herbalist” advised on a variety of herbal remedies and stated that, “Over the past few years the word echinacea has become part of everyday language, changing the way we tackle winter ailments.” Finally, an “authority on juice therapy” advised on cocktails of fruit and vegetable juices that “will be beneficial” against colds and flu.



But it is in their advice columns dealing with relationship problems and other personal concerns that the magazines so degrade women. Because the common thread running through the columns is that women are often victims, that their destiny is not really in their own hands, except to the extent that they are able to take advantage of Lady Luck. Yet the readers are at the same time led to believe that anything in the world might be theirs, if only somehow they can weave the right magic.


Consider the following letter, from Woman’s Day in 1955.


I am still in love with a boy who used to take me out three years ago, but he is just friendly and quite indifferent to me. Is there any way I can win him back, like playing hard to get or telling him I love him? None of the other boys I’ve been out with compare with him and I just can’t fall in love with anyone else.


* You will, some day. Unrequited love burns itself out in time. I am not being callous when I tell you that one day you will look at this boy and wonder what you ever saw in him. I cannot give you much comfort to tide you over this unhappy experience for I think it is quite useless to try to win him back. This has happened to so many people so many times before, but the thing to remember is that their love stories usually end up happily with somebody else.


“Mary Friend” column, Woman’s Day, 14 March 1955


Maybe this is an answer out of the school of hard knocks. But it is honest and to the point. It allows the young woman to take stock of her life. Compare it with the following:


My heart has been broken by a man I spent three years with. He has moved in with another woman who has her own home. I have been ringing psychic lines and they all told me something different. Some say he will be back and others say he won’t. I am confused.


* You need to sit down face to face with a good clairvoyant and have a complete reading. Someone will steer you to a very accurate reader. Be guided by what she says, as it will be correct. Make arrangements to pay off your phone bill.


“Dear Fiona” column, Woman’s Day, 23 June 1997


The reader is being told she does not control her own destiny, that it is in the hands of chance.



It astonishes me to find that so much of the vocabulary of the fortune tellers has become engraved onto modern Australia. I lived in Asia for 17 years but had never heard of feng shui until I came to live in Melbourne. (Admittedly it is a Chinese concept, and I lived mainly in Japan, but as a journalist I travelled extensively around the region.)


In Australia, I find numerous books available about feng shui, I hear it discussed on the radio, and Woman’s Day has a feng shui adviser. In 1997, my local council announced proposals for a Chinatown development near the new Eastern Freeway extension. One of the project organisers told our community newspaper: “We think Doncaster deserves its own Chinatown, and the feng shui is great.”


When writer Blanche d’Alpuget married former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, she found it “psychologically very difficult” to move into his home, which was identified so closely with his first wife, Hazel. “Initially, I didn’t like it at all, and it has taken a lot of effort to get it feeling like it’s mine and expresses what I want,” she told Good Weekend magazine. “The first thing I did was call in the feng shui man and knock down the main bedroom wall.”


Writers to the Woman’s Day feng shui adviser seem quite naturally to adopt the vocabulary:


I forgot that feng shui says don’t dust under the bed if you hope to become pregnant. How long will it take for the baby spirits to settle after vacuuming? Also, where is the Ba-Gua Children’s Position in our living room and what’s a good nursery colour?


* Feng shui says never dust under the bed when hoping for pregnancy as this is where the “ling” or baby spirits hover. Allow nine weeks for them to resettle. The Children’s Position is always the middle of the wall to the right of the wall containing your main entrance into the living room. To boost your chances, place an item of yellow or white baby clothing such as baby bootees here. Yellow or lemon are colours with really great feng shui for your nursery.


“Feng Shui” column, Woman’s Day, 20 October 1997


Is it not ironic - or is tragic a better word? - that while Australians turn to Asian clairvoyancy to try to boost their luck, many of our Asian migrants are stressing discipline and hard work in order to achieve extraordinary success in Australian society?


And am I the only person amazed at what some readers now expect from an advice columnist? Who in the 1950s would write to a magazine for help in finding a lost item? Such letters are no longer uncommon. For example:


Can you see where I have hidden my jewellery? I’m desperate.


* It’s in a small plastic bag in a packet of washing powder under the kitchen sink.


“Dear Fiona” column, Woman’s Day, 20 October 1997


I’ve misplaced a gold nugget in my house which was very precious to me. The last place I can recall it being was sitting on my bedside table. Where should I look?


* The nugget was last seen on the bedside table. It was knocked on the floor when the room was being cleaned and collected in the vacuum cleaner where it is now setting.


“Psychic Matters” column, New Idea, 22 November 1997


I have lost a special watch that was given to me by my parents. Can you help me find it?


* I see you removing the watch to show someone, but being so distracted while trying to place it in your pocket, the watch slid into a corner of a car seat covered with brown upholstery. I feel you will find your treasure.


“Tarot” column, New Idea, 14 February 1998



Australia may never really have been a strongly Christian country, but at least people generally tended to accept a Christian view of life: that people are not perfect; that hard work is generally needed to make a go of things; that rewards and good luck may come, but not necessarily; that life may - and often will - involve suffering.


Now, having forgotten these lessons, we think that we can become perfect, if not through our own efforts then through luck. These advice columns often teach women that through some kind of magic incantation their problems are all capable of solution, and that no particular hard work is needed on their part.


In other words, the women of Australia are being transformed into fodder for the casinos and gaming parlours springing up throughout the land. Sadly, this brings to mind the comment of the British writer G.K. Chesterton that when a person stops believing in God she doesn’t believe in nothing; she believes in anything.


Perhaps it is a case that, like the horoscopes, everyone reads these columns but no one really takes them seriously. But if so, why are they proliferating? Why do so many women apparently write to them for help? Why do these advisers continue to pay large amounts to advertise their psychic lines, week after week? Sometimes I fear for the future of our country when I see the kind of advice being given out, apparently seriously, to people with problems.


To end this chapter, here is a final “then and now” example from the advice pages:


Before my voice broke when I was 15 I was considered a promising singer. Now, at 21, I feel my voice is growing stronger - as a tenor instead of a soprano of course. Could you tell me where I might have it trained?


* The Conservatorium of Music at Melbourne University could recommend a good singing teacher to you. Good luck with your training. We might some day hear you with the National Theatre Opera.


“Mary Friend” column, Woman’s Day, 21 March 1955


I have been playing piano since I was very young and my aim in life is to be a concert musician. Can you help?


* If you want to become a music expert, try seeking inspiration from an artistic genius such as Mozart. Before practising at the piano, draw a circle with a lipstick or crayon on a mirror and then write the name of the artist you wish to be inspired by. Sit in front of the mirror and look into the circle for a few moments and imagine you see your favourite musician within the circle. Feel their energy mixing with yours and breathe deeply and calmly until you are filled with the inspiration to perform at your best.


“Cast a Spell” column, New Idea, 14 February 1998  



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