We support our Publishers and Content Creators. You can view this story on their website by CLICKING HERE.

In her postscript, Midge Decter acknowledged that the questions of the modern world are not simple.How should we combine the good things of the new world with the parts of our nature that were acknowledged in the old but now left behind?

The recent death of Midge Decter at the age of 95 had me running back to her 2001 memoir, An Old Wife’s Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War. Essays about the woman, sometimes known as the “godmother of neoconservatism,” after her death from both left and right argued that she was indeed much more of an important figure in the history of conservatism than is let on and largely focused on her life of action. Joseph Bottum, who worked with her at First Things, noted that while some called her a “force for good” and emphasized the “good” part, he thought the emphasis should be on “force.”[i]

And so she was, forming the Coalition for a Democratic Majority with her husband, Norman Podhoretz, to move the 1970s Democratic Party back to anti-Communism. While it did not finally succeed in that task, and she and her husband became Republicans, it did influence the party in various ways. Her post-Democratic institution, the Committee for a Free World, could be deemed more successful as the end of the 1980s saw the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Yet she was, in her own way, also an intellectual. I say “in her own way” because her forcefulness came in part from her willingness not only to argue substantial positions out loud and in print but to argue them in terms that were accessible to those not used to intellectual argot. And she knew that the real problems were on the level of men and women. As Jacob Heilbrunn argued in the Spectator, “[H]er concerns and preoccupations did not merely anticipate but also shaped many of the themes that now animate the Republican Party in its quest to reverse the cultural revolution of the past fifty years.”[ii]

Those concerns were worked out in books with titles such as The Liberated Woman and Other Americans, The New Chastity and Other Arguments, Against Women’s Liberation, and Liberated Parents, Radical Children. They were recalled and reiterated in the aforementioned memoir I was digging for, the one with a title that is today seen almost as a slur: An Old Wife’s Tale.

The slur is not just in the adjective. Today, for a woman to label herself a wife, with its implication that the most important thing about oneself is not career but family, and specifically the relationship to a man, is seen as damaging. Some professional women label themselves the gender-neutral “spouse” or the ambiguous “partner,” with its hint that the relationship is either more like a business agreement or a same-sex romantic relationship. All the better to indicate that they are completely independent in a way that wives are not. Decter cut that off in the preface:

I myself have spent, or rather wasted, a certain amount of my time on earth under the influence of the notion that a truly successful woman is someone able to insure her own continuing well-being, however she herself has defined it; and I observe women all around me—from eighteen to eighty, each after her own kind—doing precisely the same.

She herself had given up the notion that female happiness is a completely plastic affair, capable of being molded by each woman without regard to her nature.

And a nature girls and women do have, even if those possessing it have a great many characteristics not determined by it. Though she herself was treated almost as a son given her desire to make her way in the world, Decter discovered early on during her girlhood that sexuality did not mean the same thing to the male and female, which is why though rules around such behavior in societies might seem to be problems, casting off those rules actually creates more problems. “Falling casually into bed, or falling into wherever else it is they have sex, does not alter the fact that for the girl an entirely different set of needs is being acted on than for the boy.”

This understanding of the natural differences between men and women (incorrectly labeled by some as “Freudian” by some of her critics) led her initially not to take seriously the burgeoning feminist movement. It just didn’t seem serious since the women involved in it seemed to deny the differences even as they assumed them. As she recounts later in the book, some of the characters who seemed to be leading it were almost hilariously self-unaware concerning their own actions. A 1970s debate with Gloria Steinem, whom Decter had known as “a very beautiful, very sexy, friendly and pleasant young journalist around town with so-so talent and a decent if not distinguished career,” about whether the AFL-CIO should create a special system of seniority for women, demonstrates the frivolity.

Gloria was unforgettable that evening, for she turned up in a crotch-high suede skirt and knee-high suede boots and kept warning the men in the audience that they better wake up and realize that she and women like her were dead serious, and no longer were women going to put up with being their playthings. I think she even stamped her foot, while I, looking at that skirt, had to control my impulse to giggle: how to issue men a stern warning to back off while affording a juicy glimpse of thigh. Where I grew up, we used to call that “teasing.” Later in the evening she declared that women no longer needed men and that men had better get used to it, whereupon her own debating partner [a black social worker] jumped up and said, “Oh no, Gloria! What the women in Harlem need is husbands!”

What Decter realized was that the women in the feminist movement had declared that their own needs were being met by the sexual revolution while simultaneously “rebelling against the sexual revolution.” Their rebellion thus took the form of “launching an all-out attack on men, their natures, their social behavior, and their sexual needs.” Men were not the only ones to have a target painted on their backs. “And as for children, in the movement’s ideology they were basically the enemy—considered alternately demanding and boring.” The aforementioned Ms. Steinem “somewhere unforgettably expressed her resentment that anyone should expect her to consign herself to the intellectual company of a three-year-old, proving that she was pitiably unaware of either the charms or the brilliance of three-year-olds most particularly.”

Midge Decter was not unaware of the charms of three-year-olds or the pleasure of what she calls “baby flesh,” which she believed “most women who have ever had a taste of it also come to miss… when it is gone.” And though she did work at various jobs in magazines (Commentary, Harper’s, and First Things), publishing houses (Basic Books), and the aforementioned groups she founded over time, she held these jobs lightly and did not identify her own success with them. Indeed, she defended women who made career choices in favor of their own children and families, noting that many women (and most young people) have no sense that life has stages and that a woman can very well pick up a career later on.

Saying this sort of thing earned her the attacks of the women’s movement, despite her own real accomplishments in writing and editing. Eleanor Smeal and other figures called her “Aunt Tom” and much worse. But as she noted, many of her opponents on such topics came to her later, “ever more audibly anxious: why didn’t their daughters marry? Why did they spend so many years living with this man or that without finding someone with whom they wished to settle down? And would there ever be grandchildren?”

Decter’s most poignant realization about the heritage of modern feminism was not about its attacks on men and children, often conducted in the crassest of language and policies. It was that young women were attacking themselves. She saw that “the defiance that is being expressed by the young nowadays seems to be directed primarily against themselves, against such things about themselves as the good looks of their youth and their capacity to feel pain.” These young women “have taken to having themselves tattooed all over like so many drunken sailors, and what is more distressing, they also find it in some way pleasing to stick rings and pins into virtually every part of their body—noses, brows, lips, tongues, navels, and one hesitates to imagine where else.” Their own bodies must be changed, controlled.

She saw these trends, now magnified beyond belief twenty years later, as rooted in self-hatred. After all, “what Women’s Lib calls ‘feminism’ is a game that is played in comfort only by the members of the upper middle class.” And yet, the magnification of the self-hating trends, now extended into the destruction of girlhood and womanhood via the surgeries and hormones of the transgender movement, has reached the point where even upper middle-class families cannot “play the game” without their own daughters’ losses of life and/or limbs—the latter being the breasts surgically removed before these girls ever know the pleasure of baby flesh gaining nourishment from them.

In her postscript, Decter acknowledged that the questions of the modern world are not simple. She was not advocating a return to simple small-town life nor denying the good things that have come. But she knew that in “this most comfortable of all possible worlds” our society has “fallen into a potentially very dangerous combination of arrogance and deep bewilderment.” How should we combine the good things of the new world with the parts of our nature that were acknowledged in the old but now left behind? Her own tale has now ended, but our questions are the same ones with which she wrestled. It is not just her Republican Party. It is her world. And a look back at her description of it as she saw it come into being—told in her tough, substantive, entertaining, and direct fashion—gives us a lot of hints about how we need to approach it.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

[i] Joseph Bottum, “Midge Decter: Conservative Den Mother and Witty Force of Nature,” New York Post, May 10, 2022.

[ii] Jacob Heilbrunn, “It’s Midge Decter’s Republican Party Now,” Spectator, May 12, 2022.

The featured image is courtesy of YouTube.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email