“Nerve,” according to activist-writer Midge Decter, is “the one thing all writers need.” Her own career has demonstrated this principle several times over, as Decter’s controversial opinions have put her at the center of public debates over issues such as feminism and foreign policy. A neoconservative who enjoys debunking cherished liberal beliefs, Decter has inspired both fury and respect among readers. Even those who disagree violently with her insist that hers is “an opinion to be reckoned with.”
She was born Midge Rosenthal on July 25, 1927, one of three daughters of Harry and Rose (Calmenson) Rosenthal, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her father owned a sporting goods store in which Midge helped as a clerk. She dreamed of becoming a writer as a young child; as a student at Central High School in St. Paul, she worked on the literary magazine. After high school, however, she stopped relying upon traditional educational venues for writing experience. She studied for one year at the University of Minnesota, then transferred to New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary for two years, and later briefly attended New York University, but she never received a college degree.
Instead, she married Jewish activist Moshe Decter on September 7, 1947, and had two daughters before the marriage ended in divorce in 1954. After 1948, Decter began a career in publishing, working as secretary to the managing editor of Commentary, the journal published by the American Jewish Committee. On October 21, 1956, Decter married Norman Podhoretz, future managing editor of Commentary, and had two more children, a girl and a boy.
Decter maintained a twenty-year career in publishing after her second marriage, working as an editor variously at Midstream, Commentary, the Hudson Institute, CBS Legacy Books, Harper’s, Saturday Review/World, and then finally at Basic Books until 1980. Despite this distinguished career, Decter became famous—or infamous—after writing three controversial works that blasted feminism and liberal child rearing and passionately, if somewhat ironically, championed traditional domestic roles for women. In The Liberated Woman and Other Americans (1970) and The New Chastity and Other Arguments against Women’s Liberation (1972), Decter advanced the thesis that radical women who claimed they wanted freedom from male oppression were, in fact, afraid of growing up, having children, and taking on responsibility. According to Decter, women’s liberation strove to “keep [a woman] as unformed, as able to act without genuine consequence, as the little girl she imagines she once was and longs to continue to be.” In Liberal Parents, Radical Children (1975), Decter went further, attacking liberal theories of child rearing for producing these narcissistic, overindulged “radical” children, who believed they could change the world and take no responsibility for their actions.
Feminists and liberals predictably rejected Decter’s conclusions. One reviewer called The Liberated Woman and Other Americans a “craftily contrived, meandering stream of words,” while another concluded of Liberal Parents, Radical Children: “the book’s point is non-existent and its usefulness negligible.” Critics took Decter to task for her conservative detachment and for her method of analyzing fictional types like “the Pothead,” rather than specific individuals: “We cannot accept theories clothed in shadows.” Yet Decter had numerous supporters. One conservative reviewer relished the author’s “feisty, fighting” spirit and claimed that Liberal Parents, Radical Children was “a splendid stimulus to a critically needed self-examination.” Even liberals with reservations found Decter’s essays “illuminating and chastening” and “seriously and closely argued.”
After playing her role as “the center of resistance to the [women’s] movement” in the 1970s, Midge Decter began to emphasize issues of foreign policy in the 1980s. She became the executive director of the Committee for the Free World, a group of intellectuals who claimed that their goal was “to alter the climate of confusion and complacency … that has done so much to weaken the Western democracies.” By holding conferences and monitoring news reports, this group hoped to publicize the threat they believed the Soviet Union posed to the United States and Israel.
Midge Decter’s aggressive foreign policy complemented her iconoclastic critique of the women’s movement. Like a number of Jewish liberals of the 1950s, Decter swung to the right in the 1970s, galvanized by a distaste for leftist politics that increasingly criticized Israel, supported affirmative action, and opposed Cold War interventionism. Decter continued to call herself a liberal in the 1970s, but her controversial politics aligned with the growing neoconservative movement, a numerically small but vocal and influential group of intellectuals. Her 2003 biography Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait gives an insider’s view of Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense under George W. Bush, Jr., and a darling of the neoconservative establishment. Midge Decter’s work is significant not only because it has provided a serious intellectual challenge to postwar political movements, but because her work demonstrates the growth of conservatism among Jewish-American intellectuals, and in the United States as a whole, in the late twentieth century.
Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait (2003); Liberal Parents, Radical Children (1975); The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation (1972); The Liberated Woman and Other Americans (1970).
Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Vol. 2; Current Biography Yearbook (1982); Decter, Midge. and, and; Deirdre Carmody. “A Critic Offers Views on Women’s Lib.” NYTimes, March 21, 1973; Edwards, Thomas R. “The Liberated Woman and Other Americans.” NYTimes Book Review, September 19, 1971; Fuller, Edmund. “Another Generation That Got Lost.” Wall Street Journal, June 18, 1975; Haynes, Muriel. Review, “The Liberated Woman and Other Americans.” Saturday Review (November 13, 1971): 70–71; Kernan, Michael. “Midge Decter: Women Are Women.” Washington Post, November 5, 1972; O’Reilly, Jane. “Liberal Parents, Radical Children.” NYTimes Book Review, June 22, 1975; Rosenfeld, Megan. “Midge Decter and the Crisis of Feminism.” Washington Post, July 31, 1979; Teltsch, Kathleen. “400 Intellectuals Form ‘Struggle for Freedom’ Unit.” NYTimes, February 15, 1981; “What Is a Liberal, Who Is a Conservative.” Commentary 62, no. 3 (September 1976): 50–51; Who’s Who in America, 51st ed. Vol. 1; Wolfe, Linda. “Free and Nervous.” Saturday Review (October 21, 1972): 72–74.