NEW YORK — Midge Decter, a leading neoconservative writer and commentator who in blunt and tenacious style helped lead the right’s attack in the culture wars as she opposed the rise of feminism, affirmative action and the gay rights movement, has died at age 94.
Decter, the wife of retired Commentary editor and fellow neoconservative Norman Podhoretz, died Monday at her home in Manhattan. Daughter Naomi Decter said her health had been failing, but did not cite a specific cause of death.
Like her husband, Midge Decter was a onetime Democrat repelled in the ’60s and after by what she called “heedless and mindless leftist politics and intellectual and artistic nihilism.” Confrontation energized her: She was a popular speaker, a prolific writer and, as she described it, “the requisite bad guy on discussion panels” about the cultural issues of the moment. 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 “has never shied from controversy.”
Calling herself an “ardent ideologue,” she faulted affirmative action for causing “massive seizures of self-doubt” among Black people. She attacked gays as reckless and irresponsible, and alleged that they had removed themselves from “the tides of ordinary mortal existence.”
Feminism was her special target. “The Libbers,” as she called them, “had created a generation of self-centered and unsatisfied women ‘hopping from marriage to marriage,’ resenting their children for limiting their personal freedom and pressing themselves to have careers they might not have wanted.
The real agenda of feminism was to leave a woman “as unformed, as able to act without genuine consequences, as the little girl she imagines she once was and longs to continue to be,” Decter wrote.
Her opinions were not left unanswered.
The poet and activist Adrienne Rich once wrote that Decter suffered from “a strange lack of information about the unfilled needs, let alone the enormous destructiveness, of the social order which she so admires.” Responding to a 1980 article by Decter about gay people, Gore Vidal remarked that “she has not only managed to come up with all known prejudice and superstition about same-sexers but also to make up some brand-new ones.”
Decter, Vidal added, “Writes with the authority and easy confidence of someone who knows that she is very well known indeed to those few who know her.”
In her early years, Decter did not uphold tradition; she challenged it. Born Midge Rosenthal in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1927, she was the youngest of three girls and, apparently, the loudest. “Annoyingly talkative” was her family’s consensus, she recalled, underlined by “a certain note of turbulence.”
As a teenager, she acted out, 1940s style — cutting school on occasion to smoke, wear, drink “gallons” of Pepsi and talk about boys and sex. She dreamed a liberal dream. Visits to relatives in Brooklyn left her longing for the “bustle and the smells and the variety” of a big city. She dropped out of the University of Minnesota and transferred to New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary.
In 1948, she married Jewish activist Moshe Decter and for a time lived in leftist paradise, Greenwich Village. Her decision to divorce her first husband had a similar ring to the words of an imagined suburban housewife (“Is this all there is?”) in a book Decter would very much dislike, Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.”
“Divorce begins in that moment when one looks into the mirror and says, ‘Is this all there is going to be forever?’” Decter wrote in her memoir, published in 2001.
She doubted the modern wish to “have it all,” but Decter managed a full life of family, work and material comfort. She was married more than 50 years to Podhoretz and had four children, two with each husband. (All four worked in journalism and son John Podhoretz eventually became editor of Commentary). She wrote for several publications, from The Weekly Standard to The New Republic. She was an editor at Basic Books and executive editor at Harper’s magazine, where she helped work on what became Norman Mailer’s award-winning book “The 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 her husband’s, was personal and political. She and Podhoretz were longtime Manhattan residents who had socialized with Mailer, Lillian Hellman and others from whom they became bitterly estranged. In her memoir, Decter accused her leftist opponents of not simply disagreeing with their country, but wishing for her downfall — an attitude she feared would spread to her own family.
“Living as I had been, and where I had been, I had been subjecting my own children to danger: the danger they would be worn down and jaded before they ever had the chance, or the spiritual wherewithal, to take on the chills and spills of real adulthood.” she wrote.
“Put those feelings and ideas all together, and they amounted to what would one day come to be called neoconservatism.”