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Living Wisdom and Grace

Monday, October 1, 2001

Midge Decter.
An Old Wife’s Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War.
ReganBooks.
234 pages. $24.00

Some years ago I had lunch with three of my students. These were very bright and successful undergraduates at one of the country’s most prestigious universities. Not unreasonably, all three had some interest in a scholarly career. When they raised the subject, I launched into one of my favorite speeches, making sure they understood the many and serious risks of the academic path. All of a sudden, one of them flashed me a mischievous smile and protested, “but we can always get married,” as the others grinned their agreement. They were at least half serious, if not more so. And all three of them, of course, were women.

I had been too well indoctrinated — and took their formidable intellectual gifts too seriously — even to consider the possibility that the gamble of an academic career might be less fraught (or perhaps fraught in a different way) for these women than for my male students. They knew better.

Midge Decter might have been one of those students — had it been 50 years earlier, and had Decter not dropped out of college to marry and mother — all as a prelude to a career as one of the country’s premiere intellectuals. Her new book, An Old Wife’s Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War, is about the unavoidable, irresolvable conflict between the contemporary woman’s desire to marry and mother on one hand and to make a recognizable place for herself in the world of work on the other.

An Old Wife’s Tale has the appearance of a memoir, but is in fact something more. For Decter’s chronicle of her fascinating life also amounts to a full-blown critique of the feminist ideology that came to dominate the culture in which she lived and worked.

Decter tells us relatively little about either of her marriages, the first of which ended in divorce, the second of which was (and is) a deeply fulfilling alliance with Norman Podhoretz, long-time editor of Commentary. For the most part, Decter protects her privacy, and that of those closest to her. The book reads as though Decter is doing what she often does — having lunch with a young woman of her acquaintance, someone she likes, respects, and wants to help through the challenges posed by marriage, career, and motherhood. Decter interlaces her thoughts on men, women, and sex with telling glimpses of her inner experience — just enough to get the point across, yet without a trace of exhibitionism.

The result is a work of wondrous spirit. Decter seems to have reached a sort of Zen state in which the preoccupations of her youth (and her consequent empathy with youth) are retained, yet also smoothed over by the consciousness of a life well-lived and wisdom attained. In short, Decter has grown older, and in a manner that demonstrates (in welcome contrast to our conventional cultural assumptions) that old age might actually be a state worth looking forward to.

A look back at Decter’s early work, The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation, makes it clear that, 30 years later, Decter has surpassed herself. The New Chastity was an important critique of feminism at a time when virtually no one but Decter had the thoughtfulness or courage to stand in opposition. Yet even as one honors her achievement in that early work, the plain truth is that The New Chastity can’t hold a candle to An Old Wife’s Tale. By weaving her critical perspective on feminism into her life story, and by doing so with the humor, gruffness, and confidence of age, Decter has created something beautiful. As a critique of feminism, this is human enough to change minds — if they’re open even a bit. An Old Wife’s Tale is, in the fullest sense, the accomplishment of a lifetime.

Simply put, Decter believes that men and women are different, and that these sexual differences, denied and suppressed by our current cultural system, continually reassert themselves in hidden and distorted fashion. Actually, despite an occasional friendly swipe at Freud, Decter’s theoretical framework is in many ways modeled on his. Although she may not mean it in a literally Freudian sense, Decter is continually (and persuasively) pointing to the disguised fashion in which our masculine and feminine natures revenge themselves upon the sham of androgyny demanded by our reformed sexual system.

This was the core insight of The New Chastity, and over the years, Decter has obviously learned how to deploy it with impressive subtlety and variety. What Decter noticed and thought through 30 years ago was feminism’s first retreat from the sexual revolution. That revolution had vowed to return to women their long-denied desire. By making women sexual subjects, not simply objects of lust, the sexual revolution promised to force equality into the very core of the sexual situation, an equality which would spread from there throughout the entire male-female relationship.

It didn’t turn out that way. Even “liberated” women seemed to be looking for something different out of sex from what men were looking for. The so-called sexual revolution simply left women feeling exploited and dissatisfied. But how to say this without appearing reactionary — without rediscovering, explaining, and validating the rationale of the very sexual system that feminism itself was pledged to destroy? The alternative was to launch an all-out attack on the social and sexual natures of men in an inevitably futile attempt to reconstruct them along the lines of women (although, of course, the very existence of a womanly nature was denied).

Drawing on her early views, Decter is masterful in her dissection of the latest manifestation of “the new chastity” — the campus date-rape and sexual harassment movement. The unfettered mixing of male and female students in dormitories, along with the withdrawal of campus authorities from any supervision of sexual life, expresses the positive expectation, built into the current system, that active sexual experimentation in college will and should take place. There’s just one problem. Most young women do not in fact wish to sleep around. But with no adults to provide backing for their reluctance, these young women are unable and unwilling to acknowledge their discomfort with the new sexual norms. So, says Decter, “they cry ‘rape’ when they know full well that they have not been raped because deep down they feel that the world around them has denied them the means to resist in any other way.”

Decter’s no prude. So it particularly saddens her that the near-total absence of controls in our current sexual system forces women either to submit to the new norms or forgo the fun of flirtation — the rehearsal for romance that enables women to “discover their true and proper power over men.” Decter’s frank assessment of the unspoken bargains and power dynamics built into dating, marriage, and sex is one of the best things about her book. She sees and says the things that our fictions of male and female sexual “equality” no longer allow most people to say. One of the most telling moments in the book comes when she is lunching with a young woman seeking advice about men and marriage. After the woman rattles off a list of all the conventional feminine responsibilities that her ideal husband ought not to expect of her, Decter brings her to stunned silence just by asking the question, “What would be in it for him?”

 

In a chapter on eating disorders and the fashion for body piercing, Decter finds a marvelous new field for the application of her basic framework. Remarkably, Decter attributes the rise of anorexia as a widespread women’s affliction to feminism itself. At first this assertion startles, and Decter steels herself for the inevitable storm of protest. But in rooting the decades-long rise of anorexia in the parallel ascendance of the feminist movement, Decter is dead on — perhaps more than she knows.

More than 20 years ago, Hilde Bruch, the foremost clinical student of anorexia, proposed three possible social influences that might account for the newfound prominence of eating disorders in young American girls. One was the emphasis placed on slimness by fashion magazines and advertising. That suggestion, of course, was taken up by such feminist social critics as Naomi Wolfe and Susan Faludi, who interpret new and demanding female models of beauty as a “backlash” phenomenon intended to counteract the influence of feminism with a different form of oppression.

But what of Bruch’s other two candidates as social causes for the rise of anorexia? One was a sense on the part of many of Bruch’s young female patients that the newfound opportunity to enter some high-powered career had become a demand, rather than merely an option. The second was the conviction of these girls that unless they began dating and sexual experimentation at 16, 15, or even 14, they would be socially marginalized. These young girls were rushing into a debilitating disease as a way of staving off participation in the life that feminism and the sexual revolution had effectively marked out for them as obligatory. In doing so, they perfectly exemplify Decter’s claims about the unspoken and unrecognized resistance to reigning feminist expectations detectable in the lives of contemporary women.

Indeed, for Decter, feminism’s rebellion against both motherhood and woman’s sexual nature — against the need “to take one’s place in the ongoing flow of life” — is the real retreat from reality: a sort of anorexia writ large. This does not mean that Decter would deny careers to women. Far from it. But she is convinced that the constantly reiterated message that early marriage and mothering are fatal to a woman’s career aspirations is both false and damaging. Decter is right to say that women can marry and mother early on and still develop deeply satisfying careers. Yet her feminist foes understand correctly that some sacrifice of “success” (as measured by how steeply the conventional ladder is climbed) will be the price of such delay. The difference is that Decter, unlike her feminist foes, is unburdened by the desire to achieve androgyny — a utopia (really a dystopia) characterized by 50 percent female participation in every sector of life.

 

Decter is an acute observer of the social scene. If there’s a weakness in her framework, it is that she does not offer an account of the social roots of feminism to complement her compelling sociological and psychological insights. To do so, I think Decter would have to dissect the paradoxes of our advancing cultural individualism, a theme that she does sketch anecdotally with tremendous effectiveness.

Through her life, and the lives of those around her, Decter allows us to track the slow but steady erosion of the communities of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, and the rise of social atomization in the wake of the 1960s. Piled up in their parents’ homes in the old ethnic neighborhoods of the ’40s, the returning veterans and their new families rushed quickly into the relative privacy of transitional suburbs — cheap apartment developments where women still gathered during the day for companionship and shared child-minding. With prosperity and the move to large private suburban houses, or fancier apartments in a gentrifying city, the bonds between women broke down.

Decter shows us this by contrasting her days on the front stoop of her ’50s suburban apartment complex, where she and the other mothers of the neighborhood gossiped and watched the children, with her daughter’s early days of mothering in an urban neighborhood where all the women had gone off to work. There sat Decter’s daughter every afternoon, on a bench opposite the sandbox and slide, with not a single soul to talk to. (The local nannies spoke only to each other.) That sort of isolation was unworkable, and to some extent was eventually moderated by a delayed baby boomlet and the return of the grandmother to the child-rearing fray. But the growing isolation of America’s mothers is the clear social trend of the past five decades, and Decter does much to illuminate its deleterious consequences for both mothers and children.

This growing social atomization explains a lot about the rise of feminism. The targets of Betty Friedan’s complaints about the emptiness of suburban life were the supposedly oppressive men who relegated their women to empty lives in plush suburban houses as they hogged all the fun and power of daytime work in the city. (“Some fun,” says Decter, who has a very clear understanding of the burdens shouldered by the working men of the 1950s.) But much of what was disturbing the suburban women of the time — though they could probably not have put their finger on it, and in this sense it was indeed what Friedan called “the problem that has no name” — was the loss of the neighborly networks in those crowded urban enclaves that had been abandoned for the privacy of the suburbs. For decades, those networks had actually freed up women to participate in local charity work or religious and political crusades, as neighbors who knew and trusted one another swapped child-care time.

The breakdown of the old communities and the ethos of mutual sacrifice and assistance that held them together sparked the rise of an ethic of self-fulfillment and an accompanying preoccupation with the supposedly oppressive forces that stood in the way of its realization. The contradiction between these divergent strains of the new individualist ethic constituted the driving dynamics of feminism.

Consider the contradictions of modern motherhood. On one hand, we know that feminism is classically antagonistic to motherhood, viewing it as a barrier to the true equality and self-fulfillment that can be achieved only through a successful career. Yet as Decter acutely points out, the motherhood against which feminism situates itself is vastly different from the motherhood of old.

Technology has given women the power to decide when and if they will bear children, and freed them from what used to be an endless preoccupation with the basics of household maintenance. But for that very reason, children have become a mother’s emotional preoccupation, and central expressions of her personality. The rise of expressive individualism consequent upon the breakdown of the old communal networks is nowhere more evident than in the modern ethos of mothering, in which a child’s character is perpetually scrutinized for evidence of his mother’s loving and imaginative attention.

Ultimately, then, the conflict between the feminist quest for workplace equality and the impulsions of modern motherhood are competing manifestations of postwar individualism. Feminists want to see day care made widely available, and do their level best to discredit studies that cast doubt on the quality of such facilities. But even if day care was somehow proven to be harmless, mothers would still be reluctant to surrender their children for too long a time. That’s because day care isn’t their care, and nothing embodies and expresses the core of a modern mother’s self more than her child’s character. So the very same individualist ethos that has given rise to feminist demands for absolute workplace equality makes that equality impossible to achieve. At the very moment when women are seeking equality, they are also striving to express their unique personalities through the shaping of their children. Feminism thus runs aground on the shoals of the very individualism that gave it birth.

Returning to the problem of anorexia, we can see that it is this contradiction within modern expressive individualism, not some mysterious “backlash,” that lies behind the demanding model of beauty that increasingly presses in on young girls. Naomi Wolfe, Susan Faludi, and their followers have always had a difficult time explaining exactly where the beauty “backlash” comes from. The idea of a conscious antifeminist conspiracy by manufacturers of makeup and exercise equipment is unconvincing, and feminist scholars have turned somersaults trying to explain the mechanics of the supposed conspiracy. What everyone seems to agree on is the rise of an ethos of self-mastery — the sense that a woman’s beautiful, thin, and toned body is proof of her self-command and a unique expression of her personality. But this is obviously a direct manifestation of contemporary expressive individualism. Once again, the same individualist sensibility that counts beauty’s hierarchy as an offense against equality drives women to advertise their self-mastery and personal uniqueness through the command they exercise over their bodies. So the very individualism that powers feminist outrage over the new standards of beauty fabricates the standards themselves.

 

Let us return to An Old Wife’s Tale as a memoir, rather than as an impressive and wide-ranging critique of feminism. Decter may not have opened the door to the intimacies of her married life, yet she has told us much of importance about the development of her womanhood. How, then, we might ask, did Decter come to be what she now is, a critic of feminism without peer?

Decter makes a point of noting that her parents, frustrated by a string of daughters, came to see her, the last born child, as a kind of honorary son. She was given more leeway, yet more was expected of her. Later on, Decter’s parents’ hopes for her future made them press her to associate with well brought-up girls of serious mien. But Decter would have none of it. Although she was clever, talkative, read books, wrote poetry, and appeared to be serious, Decter wanted nothing more than to hang out with her gang of “bad” girls (“bad” in that context meant pushing toward the ultimate sexual line as far as one dared, but without going over). What Decter and her girlfriends loved was teasing interplay, the tussle in the car, the whole sexual game. The girls were dependent on the boys for dates and the popularity that being desired conferred. But they revenged themselves for this dependence by exerting their sexual power — giving just enough to let the boys know how badly they needed the girls. Later on, in gossip sessions with the mothers in her suburban apartment complex, Decter learned that a subtle version of the same sexual game was still being played in the grown-up families of the 1950s.

It is evident that Decter ultimately fulfilled her parents’ desire to produce a serious girl with a serious career, but with the proviso that she would spend that career forcing her parents, herself, and the rest of us into recognition of the inescapable reality of girlishness, womanliness, and the sexual game.

And there is another reason, I think, why Decter remained free of the conventional feminism adopted by so many of her contemporaries. Ultimately, the satisfactions of feminism are religious in nature. The enterprise of fighting mass-scale oppression lends meaning to life in an age when, for many, the old religious verities have been lost. The old religions of sacrifice made sense in close-knit communities where relatives, neighbors, and friends relied upon one another for the wherewithal of life. The contemporary religion of resistance to “oppression” grew up in a socially atomized world of expressive individualists. The religion of oppression appeals to the new individualists because it turns individual liberty itself into a collective cause, yet demands very little from believers in the way of restriction on personal desire.

Decter’s conservatism is definitely not a throwback to old ethnic and religious enclaves or to small-town America. She explicitly rejects the moral superiority of the traditional small town. Decter in fact has spent the bulk of her years amidst the pulsing life of New York, the very existence of which continues to thrill her, as though she were still a young girl. No, Decter is very much a creature of the present. Yet she has escaped entanglement in our contemporary quasi-religious preoccupation with resistance to “oppression” through her involvement with a more serious version of the same phenomenon. Decter has spent a lifetime immersed in the fight against the all-too-real oppression of communism (the story of which struggle is an important and fascinating sub-theme in An Old Wife’s Tale). That honorable battle against authentic oppression, one discerns, took the moral and spiritual place in Decter’s life that might otherwise have been filled by feminism’s spurious struggle against the alleged oppression of men, Foucault’s “Power,” or a mysterious, disembodied “backlash.”

This intellectual and political grounding naturally raises the question of the precise nature of Decter’s conservatism. For a long time Decter, like her husband, Norman Podhoretz, was known as a neoconservative. She and Podhoretz were part of a group of Democrats who eventually left the party and joined the Reagan coalition in despair over the Democrats’ weak foreign and defense policies, and their backing of cultural innovations like feminism and affirmative action. But Decter tells us that she dropped the “neo” after finding that upon actually meeting and speaking with old-time conservatives, she and they were in near total agreement about “everything that mattered.”

Be that as it may, it seems to me that Decter’s life is incomprehensible without a restoration of that “neo.” Decter’s long and successful marriage to Norman Podhoretz, and their relative resistance to changing social and sexual trends in the rearing of their children, do indeed mark Decter out as a traditionalist of sorts. But Decter makes it clear that her early divorce from her first husband, which she initiated (in the absence of any serious crisis) when she was rearing two small children, was the indispensable prerequisite to her later happiness in life, love, and career. And Decter adds that she was the approving mother of the divorces of each of her children (a fact that gives this particular neoconservative pause, although it is impossible to form a judgment without knowing more about the circumstances). More than this, the endless and irresolvable theme of Decter’s life has been her continual movement back and forth between periods of satisfying work and time spent at home with her children. What does all of this say about the tenability and consistency of Decter’s conservatism, and about our finding a way out of our current social and sexual dilemmas?

Decter never fully resolves the contradictions in her life and in her point of view, but implicitly, and at times explicitly, she makes a powerful case for the idea that these contradictions are built into the nature of our current situation. On the one hand, she would prefer a system in which young girls receive social support for their desire to delay sexual experimentation. Yet Decter also knows that under current conditions, girls and young women are forced to choose between the new sexual norms and total exit from the sexual game.

It could as easily be said that divorce under current circumstances means something very different from divorce in an earlier social context. Under conditions of social atomization, the complex networks of relatives, neighbors, and fellow parishioners into which a couple’s life used to be knit are gone. Those networks once lent real meaning to life, relieving pressure from the couple’s own relationship, even as their collective expectations helped to ensure that couple’s fidelity. In the current atomized social context, a marriage has to do more for the emotional life of the couple, yet has fewer resources on which to fall back when placed under pressure.

We could conclude from all this that a systematic restoration of the old family system is impossible — that we should simply reconcile ourselves to current conditions. But the problem with that view is what Decter devotes her book to exploring. Although the social basis of the traditional system may have weakened, the fundamental differences between men and women upon which the old institutions were built are still in great part operative. And we might add that, although the communities that once sustained marriages have thinned, they have by no means disappeared.

So we are stuck in the middle, forced into inevitably incomplete and contradictory attempts to rescue sections of the old status quo from the failed and impossible utopian schemes of feminists and their cultural allies. As Decter points out, religious conservatives who want to be truly consistent are increasingly forced to isolate themselves from the culture as a whole — with what hope of success (especially in an Internet age) is uncertain.

Lest anyone doubt that a life of wisdom, grace, and profoundest satisfaction can be built upon that shaky middle ground where we now perforce reside, let him take up this book and read. The 1960s, says Decter, popularized “anger as a mode of social analysis.” Although her fervent opposition to feminism still burns, the plentitude of life has gentled Decter’s anger and made of her passion something powerful and lovely.