The Feminist Who Wasn't
by ALEX CARNEVALE
Liberal Parents, Radical Children
by Midge Decter
248 pp, 1975
I remember the first time I saw Midge Decter. It was on C-Span. Midge was promoting her memoir An Old Wife's Tale: My Seven Decades In Love And War about her upbringing, her life in the New York publishing world, her marriage to Norman Podhoretz and her struggle against the forces of communism. Booknotes host Brian Lamb mentioned that she had just been in Chicago, and this cast fell over her face. "Chicago," she intoned with a throaty brill, "is a greeeeeeeeeat American citay." The feeling of hearing something trite made unfamiliar and interesting by context first occurred when God laid out the Ten Commandments; it was later repeated by David Ben-Gurion, and here, by Midge Decter herself.
My local library contained only one of Decter's books. Last year was its 35th anniversary. Midge introduces Liberal Parents, Radical Children with the following explanation:
I will be presenting you here with a series of portraits of significant types among you, as seen under the aspect of certain of the patterns of conduct by which you have distinguished yourselves as a generation: dropping out of school, using drugs, sleeping around, creating and defecting from a communal way of life. These portraits are not of real or particular individuals though the experiences ascribed to their heroes and heroines are, as I believe, real experiences.... If such a question is at all of importance to you, it might be said that what I have undertaken to do is an essay in fictionalized sociology.
You might be asking yourself, "Midge, what exactly is fictionalized sociology?" How dare you. You disagree with this woman at your own peril.
After outlining the general problems with keedz in those days, Midge gets into it immediately. What exactly is wrong with young people in 1975 you ask?
The first thing to be observed about you, then, is that taken all together, you are most than usually incapable of facing, tolerating, or withstanding difficulty of any kind.
Wait, there's more.
The second thing to be observed about you is that, you are, again taken as a whole, more than usually self-regarding.
Starting to hit a little too close to home there, Midge. Lastly:
The third thing to be observed about you — it is really in some sense a concomitant of the first two — is that you are more than usually depending, more than usually lacking in the capacity to stand your ground without reference, whether positive or negative, to your parents.
These epithets against an entire generation of people feel like shots against the bow of today's young ones, which makes sense because here were Midge's criticisms of their laissez-faire parents. There is some carping against young people that is nothing more than static noise; some dumbass scholar always pining, "They don't love books the way we do!" No, guy, they read twice as much as you ever did. You didn't read the internet. They've read the internet, the whole thing. Since when does reading only count if it's in the thrall of a deceased tree?
Midge Decter may well have stood for recycled paper in 1950, I regret that I haven't had the chance to ask her. Then known as Midge Rosenthal, she was herself the first of a generation.
Fleeing St. Paul, Minnesota for the possibilities of New York, Midge was an unskilled college dropout, and soon a young mother who divorced her first husband, a veteran attending schoool on the G.I. Bill. Living in the lower class neighborhood of Glen Oaks, Queens, she improbably provided for her two daughters through her jobs in journalism. She worked at then-liberal journal Commentary until she moved to Harper's, where she eventually became the executive editor under the magazine's young editor-in-chief, Willie Morris, and the magazine became hot for the first time.
Inspired by a story she heard about a daughter who had run away from her family to become a Buddhist, she wrote Liberal Parents, Radical Children, her first long form book. Each chapter contains one life story — childhood, adolescence, early adulthood — of an archetype described by Midge. In the third chapter, "The Pothead," a young woman's fictional travails in the drug culture are related. (This is a chapter among chapters: it is magnificent.) She takes about 1500 words to describe the girl's upbringing up to adolescence, before writing the following:
The onset of adolescence, then, produced in her an utterly naked expression of the turbulence through which both her soul and her body were being made to pass. Half the time she would appear before them in the guise of a provocative young woman, painted, languorous and knowing. She would patronize her parents, sigh contemptuously in response to any of their demurrers about her conduct or appearance, and waggle her hips in a manner intended to communicate to them that she was no longer to be excluded from the realms of worldly understanding.
Uh-oh. After this made-up young woman drinks too much cough syrup one night, shit gets very real. "Secretly, illegally," this little thing was learning to drive. And then her relationship with pot begins.
They had been supplied with a couple of cigarettes containing the magic weed by a recent newcomer to their circle, a young man who was a freshman at a nearby college and had become the lover of one of the girls. He instructed them thoroughly in the art of marijuana use; and as the clumsy little-hand-rolled cigarette, heavy with saliva, was passed around from mouth to mouth, as the deep inhalings were taken, held within the throat and chest, and sparingly released, as eyes rolled upward and heads sank back against the nearest support, she began at last to glimpse the state towards which all her earlier efforts had only been aspiring.
The description of marijuana use that follows is an uncomfortable interlude. Midge seems to be speaking from experience; and perhaps caught in the glow of her own remembrances, she turns it into a tantalizing journey: "time seemed to stop," "she did not particularly want to move." Later, The Pothead thinks she spots a plainsclothed detective observing her and her friends in the coffee shop, but writes it off as paranoia.
Eventually the Pothead begins using every day, and her parents become aware of her addiction to marijuana. The Pothead's only conclusion: "They pretended they wished to know all about her, she thought bitterly, but in truth they only wished to know that which suited their own narrow and particular sense of life." In the end, the Pothead moves out of her parents' lives and into a co-ed apartment to pursue her new lifestyle.
The Pothead gets off easy. Midge may not like drugs, she may not approve of the effects they have on people, but at heart her love of freedom does not allow her to kill off The Pothead, or force us to witness the girl's destruction. No, drugs are just not a great choice, she seems to be saying. But it is nothing next to her next chapter: "The Sexual Revolutionist."
To understand Midge's view of feminism, it's important to understand her own marriage. She met Norman Podhoretz when she first came to New York, when she was spending eight hours a day studying the Hebrew Bible at the College of Jewish Studies. She found herself married to a guy named Moshe, a veteran she finally divorced in 1954 after bearing two daughters.
Midge loomed three years the elder of Podhoretz, who was 26 when his Jewish girlfriend's desire to make things legal encroached on his bachelorhood. He was wary of becoming a stepfather, and his mother Helen Podhoretz was horrified by the possibility of this development. When she met Midge and her daughters, she instantly softened when young Rachel Decter told her, "You're so beautiful!"
In so many ways, Midge overcame barriers women had to cross before feminists had named them. She required no man to prop herself up, she complained not at all of the misogynistic treatment she must have endured at times in her professional life. It was in her blood and her bones to treat all people equally. As a young woman, she considered herself and her friends liberals; what else? Even her second husband, Norman Podhoretz, saw her as a feminist "in the classical sense," even though she handled most of the duties around their home.
Midge's talent for being a mother orients around a statement she makes in the chapter titled "The Sexual Revolutionist." It is intrinsic to our understanding of parenting now, but then it was not: They were members of the first generation to understand how real and weighty was their true power over the psychic development of their children. In essence, it was becoming a parent that finished the idea of Midge Decter, the feminist, before it ever had a chance to gestate. As soon as she saw how other parents regarded their children, enduring the 1960s was a matter of surviving a hell of their devising.
The parental units of the girl who would become The Sexual Revolutionist are no sociological fiction. In this chapter's titular character we can see her second daughter, Rachel. That she would tell the story of her own daughter seems not only contradictory but insincere, but some of the details match. Midge once described her daughter as "everybody's longings rolled into one package," and the same is true of the girl who will become the Sexual Revolutionist. It is her parents who are the real revolutionaries, however:
Mankind's resistance to the force of sex, born in ignorance and taboo and the impulse of organized religion to deny its adherents their innocent pleasures, had let to a notion of the body as somehow loathsome and unclean; and this notion had served for century after century to twists the sexual appetites of men and bury or extinguish altogether the sexual desires of women. Few had escaped unscathed or untormented. They themselves, while they had grown up in a world on which the grip of the sexual taboo had by comparison with the past already been considerably weakened — thanks to the heroic labors of a lonely band of doctors and philosophers — had had to work with all the powers of reason and self-discipline they could muster to overcome the shame of their birthright.
So far, so good. In time, the parents of the girl who would become the Sexual Revolutionist take her to get a prescription for the pill. The girl's mother has a strange reaction, despite being on the drug herself:
As the doctor wrote out the daughter's prescription, her mother could not resist one small pang of envy. She did not know whether her daughter yet had need of this new medication or not, and did not want to know, since it was up to the girl to decide how much of her life in sex she wished to share with her parents. (They hoped, they were to tell her laughingly over her birthday celebration dinner, it would not be too much.) But now her daughter would never in her whole life know either the sickening need to hide and dissemble before her mother, such as she had once so painfully lived with, or that one last ineradicable bit of anxiety that women before her had always carried into bed. Her daughter, in other words, would never know how lucky she was.
All is status quo until the girl who will become the Sexual Revolutionist meets a man. He is only one man, but he is not a particularly great man. He is college-aged, she is still in high school. They have sex every day, but they never discuss it. When they're out among friends, he pantomimes his desire for other girls in front of her. Once, she finds him on top of her unwilling best friend in a bedroom at a party. She goes on seeing him. She marvels at his intelligence, she marvels at her own empathy. He is older and she is his: "She liked belonging to him."
Eventually, this guy/goy moves in with her and her parents, where "she gave herself to him on their living room couch." (They also have intercourse at the beach, in the sand.) She finds herself fighting with her parents, regarding their views on things as hopelessly naive. When her boyfriend encourages her to give him head in front of their friends, she hails a taxi and gets out of there.
This bad experience with men is the catalyst for everything that happens afterwards. For Midge, it was possibly redolent of a man Rachel had brought home to them as her fiance, a skilled, beautiful farmer from a kibbutz who Midge regarded as Satan incarnate, even though she permitted Rachel to marry him against her better judgment.
Meanwhile, Rachel's fictional counterpart, the girl who would become the Sexual Revolutionist, heads off to college. Although the men are on the whole lot nicer to her there, she is faced with the thorny problem of rejecting their sexual advances. Midge discusses this as if it had never happened before: "All she got for her pains was the souring of a friendship." But eventually she meets a new prospect, one she regards as a keeper.
He listened as no one had ever listened, his face a tender pool of comprehension and sympathy, and he responded in kind. He too was alienated from his parents, who were brutal, particularly his father, in their disappointments with him. He told her of his psychoanalyst, of the fact that he was presently having deep difficulty concentrating his mind on his studies, of his longing to be loved for simply what he was. Not very long after they met, they sat together on a grassy hillside beneath a cloudless sky and exchanged avowals of profound love. He held her hand, caressing her fingers on by one, while they discussed the details of moving in together.
Of physical sex there had been none between them, not a hint or gesture.
You'll be surprised to know it turned out he was gay.
In the wake of her disappointment, the girl who would become the Sexual Revolutionist wanders into a feminist lecture. (This is evidently the only reason Midge can think of for someone to become interested in the empowerment of women.) The lecturer informs the students that men are oppressive and unnecessary, and that "it was the clitoris, rather than the penis, which was the true instrument of female pleasure."
She returns to her parents with a spate of "mimeographed articles" and a passion for her new creed. Her father is both shocked and relieved at what's happened - shocked because he feels potentially implicated in her oppression, relieved because he had suspected she did not enjoy the sex with her high school swain.
Her mother, on the other hand, is at first not so enthusiastic. Having given her daughter the kind of freedom she herself never enjoyed, she cannot imagine the source of the girl's complaint. In the end, she comes around, reckoning that she may indeed have been forced into her own life as a mother. She begins to see her daughter's attitude as simply a natural extension of the freedom that was afforded to her. Is this Midge's own view? Not quite.
Today, she is just as offended by how women dress and act as she was in 1975. Her problem with feminism began with Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. She hated it: "This work had seemed to me both intellectually and stylistically very crude. It was also unbelievably insulting to ordinary housewives, written on the level in exactly the kind of lingo previously used by a number of pop sociologists to denigrate the postwar lives of the ordinary people of Glen Oaks."
Midge did not like the late 1960s, but it was not the movement towards civil rights and freedom that caused offense, it was the protests of white college students in the early 1970s that truly incensed her. In contrast to African-Americans who fought for their own rights in the south, college kids picketing Woolworth's in New York drew Midge's ire in the extreme. For her, the chaos of the time represented a class war rather than a gender one: she represented individuals, male and female, who lacked power, and to see privileged students from rich families raging against working class people from her own background was too much to bear.
She was surprised to learn that journalist Gloria Steinem ("a so-so talent") was a voice in the movement. She agreed to debate Steinem in a downtown ballroom. She recalls the scene in her memoir:
The debate took place in a downtown ballroom that often served as a union meeting place, and the room was packed. Actually there were four women debating that night, on her side a black social worker and on mine, a black official of the teachers' union. Gloria was unforgettable that evening, for she turned up in a crotch-high suede skirt and knee-high suede boots and kept warning the men in the audience that they had better wake up and realize that she and women like her were dead serious, and no longer were women going to put with being their playthings. I think she even stamped her foot, while I, looking at that skirt, had to control my impulse to giggle...
Later in the evening she declared that women no longer needed men, and that men had better get used to it, whereupon her own debating partner jumped up and said, "Oh no, Gloria! What women in Harlem need is husbands!"
Perhaps Midge's view of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan sounds like sour grapes now. By the time she was inspired to write Liberal Parents, Radical Children, her daughters were all out of the house leaving her only son, a junior in high school at the time. She was not so much older than the women in the movement, but she felt like she was from a completely different time and place in comparison. The movement never mentioned grandmothers, soon she was one.
They both became well-known, powerful actors in their circles; Steinem for her outspoken, groundbreaking feminism in addition to her founding of Ms. magazine, and Midge for her invention of the Committee for the Free World (CFW) to fight tyranny around the globe, as well as the Independent Women's Forum, which has been a crucial part of ensuring women have a strong voice in the conservative movement.
The fact that two Jewish women from a similar Midwestern background could find this much on which to disagree is an American phenomenon, a cultural artifice that posits difference where there is similarity, and the inverse. Two charismatic and inspiring women fought for everyone's liberty — for the emancipation of women is impossible without the same for men. One of these women was called a feminist, another an anti-feminist. What better way to repay the debt they are owed than according both the Presidential Medal of Freedom?
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He last wrote in these pages about Harold Pinter's adaptation of Proust and the death of Jim Henson. He tumbls here and twitters here.
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