Midge Decter, a leading neoconservative writer and commentator who, in a brutal and tenacious style, helped lead the onslaught of the right in the culture wars as she opposed the rise of feminism, affirmative action and of the gay rights movement, died at 94.
Decter, the wife of retired Commentary editor and fellow neocon Norman Podhoretz, died Monday at her Manhattan home. His daughter Naomi Decter said her health had been failing, but did not name a specific cause of death.
Like her husband, Midge Decter was a former Democrat pushed back into the 1960s and after by what she called “reckless, thoughtless leftist politics and intellectual and artistic nihilism.” The confrontation energized her: she was a popular speaker, a prolific writer and, as she described it, “the indispensable villain on the chatrooms” on cultural issues of the day. Her books included “Liberal Parents, Radical Children”, “The New Chastity”, and the memoir “An Old Wife’s Tale”.
In 2003, she received a National Humanities Medal, cited as one who “never shied away from controversy”.
Calling herself a “fiery ideologue”, she blamed affirmative action for causing “massive bouts of self-doubt” among black people. She attacked homosexuals as reckless and irresponsible, and alleged that they had withdrawn from the “currents of ordinary mortal existence”.
Feminism was her prime target. “The Libbers”, as she called them, “had created a generation of self-centered, dissatisfied women ‘jumping from marriage to marriage’, wanting their children to limit their personal freedom and rush to have careers they wouldn’t have. maybe not wanted.
The real goal of feminism was to leave a woman “as shapeless, as capable of acting without real consequence, as the little girl she imagines herself to be and aspires to continue to be,” Decter wrote.
His opinions did not go unanswered.
Poet and activist Adrienne Rich once wrote that Decter suffered from “a strange lack of information about unmet needs, not to mention the enormous destructiveness, of the social order she so admires.” Responding to a 1980 article by Decter on homosexuals, Gore Vidal remarked that “she managed not only to come up with all the known prejudices and superstitions about homosexuals, but also to invent new ones”.
Decter, Vidal added, “writes with the authority and easy confidence of someone who knows she is really well known to those who know her.”
In his early years, Decter did not adhere to tradition; she disputed it. Born Midge Rosenthal in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1927, she was the youngest of three daughters and, apparently, the loudest. “Boringly talkative” was her family’s consensus, she recalls, underscored by “a certain note of turbulence.”
As a teenager, she acted, 1940s style – cutting school on occasion to smoke, swear, drink “gallons” of Pepsi and talk about boys and sex. She had a liberal dream. Visits to relatives in Brooklyn left him longing for the “bustle, smells and variety” of a big city. She dropped out of the University of Minnesota and transferred to Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
In 1948, she married Jewish activist Moshe Decter and lived for a time in leftist paradise, Greenwich Village. Her decision to divorce her first husband had a similar resonance to the words of an imaginary suburban housewife (“Is that all there is?”) in a book Decter would not like at all, “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan.
“Divorce starts that moment when you look in the mirror and say, ‘Will THIS be all there is forever? ‘” Decter wrote in his memoir, published in 2001.
She doubted the modern wish to “have it all,” but Decter managed a life full of family, work, and material comforts. She was married over 50 years in Podhoretz and had four children, two with each husband. (All four worked in journalism, and his son John Podhoretz eventually became editor of Commentary). She has written for several publications, from The Weekly Standard to The New Republic. She was editor at Basic Books and editor of Harper’s magazine, where she helped work on what became Norman Mailer’s award-winning book “Armies of the Night”. She founded the anti-communist ‘Committee for the Free World’ and was a member of the conservative watchdog Accuracy in Media.
Her turn to the right, like that of her husband, was personal and political. She and Podhoretz were longtime residents of Manhattan who had socialized with Mailer, Lillian Hellman, and others from whom they bitterly estranged. In her memoirs, Decter accused her left-wing opponents not only of disagreeing with their country, but of wishing for its downfall – an attitude she feared would spread to her own family.
“By living as I had been, and where I had been, I had exposed my own children to danger: the danger that they would be exhausted and jaded before they ever had the chance, or the spiritual ways, to take the thrills and spills out of real adulthood,” she wrote.
“Put those feelings and ideas together, and they amounted to what would one day be called neoconservatism.”