Midge Decter

July 25, 1927–May 9, 2022

by Kirsten Fermaglich, updated by Ronnie A. Grinberg
Last updated

A member of the burgeoning neo-conservative movement in America, Midge Decter is one of several Jewish liberals of the 1950s who swung to the "right" in the 1970s, galvanized by their opposition to the increasingly anti-Israel views of the "left." Her work reflects the growing conservatism among Jewish-American intellectuals, and in the United States as a whole, in the late twentieth century.

Institution: Online repository.

In Brief

Midge Decter was a writer and editor who helped forge neoconservatism. That word, originally pejorative, referred to formerly liberal intellectuals who became conservatives in the early 1970s in response to 1960s radicalism and is often associated with Decter’s husband, Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine from 1960 to 1995. In the 1970s, Decter was a fierce critic of Women’s Liberation and gay rights. Significantly, her writings on social issues fused with the “family value” concerns that defined the New Right. An ardent anti-communist, Decter turned her attention in the 1980s to foreign affairs. By the 2000s, she was ensconced in an ecosystem of conservative foundations and was the matriarch of a prominent conservative dynasty.

“Nerve,” activist-writer Midge Decter once said, was “the one thing all writers need.” Her own career demonstrated this principle several times over, as Decter’s controversial opinions put her at the center of public debates over issues ranging from feminism to foreign policy.

Family and Education

Decter was born Midge Rosenthal on July 25, 1927, to Harry and Rose (Calmenson) Rosenthal, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her father owned a sporting goods store in which Midge helped as a clerk. Her mother worked with her father in the store while also running the family household and leading several communal organizations. Decter’s parents nicknamed her the Yiddish word for “mouth” because she talked a lot, “an expression half of pride, talking being a true mark of achievement and half of disapproval, because I didn’t seem to know my place.” As the youngest of three girls, she was “a kind of honorary son,” which meant, she later reflected, that “more was expected of me and at the same time I was given a longer leash” (Decter, An Old Wife’s Tale, 3).

Decter dreamed of becoming a writer. As a student at Central High School in St. Paul, she worked on the literary magazine. But she hated going to school. She attended the University of Minnesota for one year but dropped out and moved to New York City, with plans to pursue Hebrew studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). But Decter dropped out of JTS, too, after marrying on September 7, 1947. She had two daughters with her first husband, Moshe Decter, a writer and activist later known for his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry. The marriage ended in divorce in 1954.

In 1950 Decter began working at Commentary (founded in 1945 by the American Jewish Committee) to support Moshe, then a veteran completing his education on the GI Bill. Decter worked as a secretary for the magazine’s managing editor, Robert Warshow. When the couple moved to the suburbs, she quit. She returned to Commentary following her divorce, this time working as a secretary to its editor Elliot E. Cohen. There she reconnected with Norman Podhoretz, an acquaintance from JTS who had started contributing to the magazine after graduating from Columbia University. They married on October 21, 1956, and had two children, a girl and boy. In 1960, following Cohen’s death, Podhoretz became editor of Commentary.

Between 1951 and the early 1960s, when her children were young, Decter worked intermittently in part-time jobs. The one exception was after her divorce, when she worked full-time because she “needed a job simply to live on.” Following the birth of her third child, she stopped working again because the cost of hiring a nanny, combined with her commute, amounted to nearly as much as her salary. “The discovery that my job was costing us money…came as something of a welcome relief. I could just stay at home and hang out with the children and at the same time even feel that I was adding to the family coffers,” Decter recalled. She believed her “story of working and not working” was not “different in any significant respect from the stories that could be told by countless numbers of working mothers today” (Decter, An Old Wife’s Tale,  48, 50).

Anti-Feminist Writings and Career

In the 1960s Decter began a twenty-year career in publishing. In addition to Commentary, she worked at Midstream, the Hudson Institute, and CBS Legacy Books. In 1968, Willie Morris hired her as an editor at Harper’s, where she stayed until 1971. Thereafter she worked at Saturday Review/World and at Basic Books until 1980.

In 1960, the year that President John F. Kennedy assembled a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women to study how “prejudices and outmoded customs act as barriers to the full realization of women’s rights,” and three years before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, Decter argued that sex discrimination was not a real problem: “If women suffer the disadvantages of being deprived of opportunities to hold the best jobs in the highest echelons,” it was because of an “irrevocable privilege: they always have a place to retreat when failure threatens—this not what they really are, what they really do” (Decter, “Women at Work,” in The Liberated Woman, 40).  

Decter became well known, infamous even, in the 1970s when she wrote several controversial books and essays that blasted feminism, the sexual revolution, and liberal child rearing and championed traditional domestic roles for women, despite her own distinguished career as a writer and editor. Her first book, The Liberated Woman and Other Americans (1971), an anthology of early essays, prompted one reviewer to write, “on evidence of her essays Midge Decter knew from the start that there was no future in the new hopes and enthusiasms of the sixties”  (Edwards “The Liberated Woman and Other Americans”).  Her marquee essay for the book, first published in Commentary, lambasted feminists for being spoiled and entitled. “The liberated woman,” Decter argued, sought “a freedom demanded by children and enjoyed by no one: the freedom from all difficulty” (Decter, “The Liberated Woman,” Commentary Oct. 1970, 44).

In 1972, Decter published The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation, which began with an extended critique of the Feminine Mystique. “Far from making the daily routines of household management less irksome—as Betty Friedan had predicted it would—work outside the home in the society of men was, it seemed, only making them more so,” Decter wrote. “The woman who returned home after working all day in the office found that she merely had a double burden to bear.” Though feminists sought to restructure the workplace and home to accommodate the changing needs of women, Decter lambasted the movement for critiquing gender roles and what she saw as a sex-neutral workplace.

Decter also attacked the sexual revolution and the increased visibility of gay men and women. In 1964 she wrote that lesbianism was “a growingly popular form of female chastity” Decter, “Secrets,” in The Liberated Woman and Other Americans, 23). Drawing on the work of psychoanalytic theorists such as Helene Deutsch and their American interpreters, she argued that lesbians were not “sexual deviants” but women who refused to grow up. Eight years later, in The New Chastity, Decter argued that sex had long provided women with a bargaining chip that forced men to commit to marriage and to the role of provider. The sexual revolution demolished these old rules. “Women’s liberation is nothing less than a demand to repeal the sexual revolution altogether,” Decter argued. The visibility of lesbians in the movement reflected its “enmity towards men,” since lesbianism provided “a very useful ideological underpinning for dispensing with men.”

In 1975 Decter published Liberal Parents, Radical Children, a broader critique of the New Left and liberal child rearing. In her 1980 article “The Boys on the Beach,” she attacked gay rights, charging homosexuals with mimicking both sexes and threatening the entire social order.

Neoconservative Foreign Policy

In the 1980s Decter turned her attention to foreign affairs. She founded the Committee for the Free World in 1981 to “alter the climate of confusion and complacency, apathy and self-denigration, that has done much to weaken Western democracies” (Decter, The Trans-Atlantic Crisis: A Conference of the Committee for the Free World, 1-2.)  Decter served as the group’s Executive Director, organizing conferences, monitoring news reports, and publishing materials meant to alert the public about the threat the Soviet Union posed to the United States and Israel. When the Cold War ended, she dissolved the organization. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, neoconservatives worked to ensure American military superiority and muscularity in the post-cold war era. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, terrorism replaced communism for the next generation of neoconservatives.

A preoccupation with masculinity linked Decter’s concerns in domestic and foreign policy. By the late 1970s, Decter was arguing that the women’s and gay rights movements had “robbed American men of ‘manliness,’” resulting “in a generation of men who are ‘neurasthenic, narcissistic, they’re running all the time greasing their bodies and doing this that and the other thing to go through the substitute motions of manliness” (Rosenfeld, “Midge Decter and the Crisis of Feminism: Politics, Paradoxes and Pleas for Manliness”).  This emasculation, she believed, enervated American foreign policy, too. In 2003, Decter wrote a hagiography of Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense and key architect of the War on Terror, which unambiguously lauded his “manliness.” “The key to [Rumsfeld] is that he is a wrestler,” Decter explained. “A wrestler is a lone figure. He battles one on one, and he either wins or loses. There is only one man on the mat at the end of a wrestling match. It is no accident, as the communists used to say, that he wrestled” (MacFarquhar, “The Talk of the Town: Midge’s Mash Note,” 36-37).

Significance

Decter contributed to two histories tied to the rise of conservatism in the late twentieth century: she and Podhoretz were among the initial wave of “neoconservatives,” and she was an advocate of “family values,” a socially conservative agenda linked to the rise of the New Right. Significantly, Decter’s writings on social issues helped fuse the neocons into the larger conservative movement. So-called paleoconservatives, some reared in the antisemitism of the Old Right, were initially wary of this group because they had so recently been Democrats and because so many were Jews, a religious community long associated with liberal and leftist politics in the United States. Decter’s long-standing conservative positions on what became “family values” issues helped assuage those concerns.

In 2001, Decter published a memoir, An Old Wife’s Tale: Seven Decades in Love and War, which continued her attacks on feminists and leftists but also told personal stories of her life with Podhoretz, as well as her children and ten grandchildren. Two of her children, Ruthie Blum and John Podhoretz, followed in her footsteps to become prominent conservative writers and editors, while her oldest daughter, Rachel, married Elliot Abrams, who served in the administrations of Ronald Regan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump.

By the 2000s, Decter was entrenched in the growing infrastructure of conservative institutions, serving on the boards of numerous conservative foundations, including the Heritage Foundation, the Center for Security Policy, the Claire Booth Luce Foundation, and Richard John Neuhaus Institute on Religion and Public. When she died on May 9, 2022, the editors of National Review described her as nothing less than a “force” in the conservative movement.   

Selected Works by Midge Decter

Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait. New York: ReganBooks, 2003.

An Old Wife’s Tale: Seven Decades in Love and War. New York: ReganBooks, 2001.

“Liberating Women: Who Benefits.” Commentary 77:33 (March 1984), pp. 31-36.

“The Boys on the Beach.” Commentary 70:3 (Sept. 1980) pp. 37-43.

Liberal Parents, Radical Children. New York: Coward, McGann & Geoghegan, 1975

The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation. New York: Capricorn Books, 1972

The Liberated Woman and Other Americans. New York: Coward, McGann & Geoghegan, 1970.

Midge Decter et al., The Trans-Atlantic Crisis: A Conference of the Committee for the Free World (New York, 1982).

Bibliography

Carmody, Deidra. “A Critic Offers Views on Women’s Lib” New York Times, March 21, 1973.

Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Vol. 2.

Current Biography Yearbook (1982).

Edwards, Thomas R. “The Liberated Woman and Other Americans.” New York Times Book Review, September 19, 1971.

Fuller, Edmund. “Another Generation That Got Lost.” Wall Street Journal, June 18, 1975.

Grinberg, Ronnie. “An Overlooked Conservative Writer Helps Explain Trump’s Enduring Appeal.” Washington Post, May 20, 2022.

Grinberg, Ronnie. “The First Lady of Neoconservatism: Midge Decter and the Politics of Family Values.” Journal of American History (forthcoming, December 2023).

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.

MacFarquhar, Larissa. “Midge’s Mash Note.” The New Yorker. November 3, 2003.

O’Reilly, Jane. “Liberal Parents, Radical Children.” New York Times 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.” New York Times, 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.

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How to cite this page

Fermaglich, Kirsten and Ronnie A. Grinberg. "Midge Decter." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 12 June 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 29, 2024) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/decter-midge>.