An Old Wife’s Tale
My Seven Decades in Love and War
by Midge Decter
Washington Post Book World
September 2, 2001
by Bella Stander
In Brief: Battle Fatigue
Being out of the ideological loop, I had never heard of Midge Decter, who, according to the jacket of An Old Wife's Tale, is "one of the nation's most renowned female conservatives." So I picked up her book with little more than idle curiosity. It starts off with a nostalgic account of Decter's youth during the Depression and World War II in St. Paul, Minn., in a Jewish family of typically ardent Roosevelt Democrats. Oddly, she neglects to name her parents, and it was only through an Internet search -- the first of several that helped fill the gaping holes in her narrative -- that I learned her maiden name (Rosenthal). She also doesn't name the husband (presumably Mr. Decter) she parted with in the early 1950s.
Within the first 10 pages, Decter has fired her opening salvo -- against feminists who have adopted Rosie the Riveter as an icon. Okay, I thought, she's entitled to her opinion. But she lost me for good some 30 pages later when she extolled the ideology of Commentary magazine, where she worked and met her second husband, Norman Podhoretz, editor-in-chief for many years. Its "true animating passion was a deep hatred for Communism in any and all of its manifestations, whether . . . the liberal fellow travelers of the Communists or even the liberals whose mind-set had unknowingly been influenced by the Communists." As the daughter of a victim of the Hollywood Blacklist (my father was the actor Lionel Stander), I was insulted, even more so when Decter later implied that liberals are not patriots.
Despite the promise of the subtitle, Decter gives love only passing mention; the operative word here is "war." Her main enemy is feminism, though she also takes swipes at former colleagues and political allies, including Lewis Lapham of Harper's magazine, Pat Buchanan, her idol Ronald Reagan, and especially at female Ivy League graduates (a freelance writer until landing in the greener pastures of conservative think tanks, Decter never finished college). Three decades after writing books castigating "Women's Lib," Decter is still bitterly inveighing against Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, and deriding "equal pay for equal work," date rape and sexual-harassment law. Although she left four children from two marriages in the care of others so she could "make my mark on the world," Decter maintains that women should put their careers aside until their children are grown. While occasionally acknowledging her many inconsistencies, she makes no compelling argument as to why women should follow her advice rather than her example. Decter does offer a real old wives' tale: There is "no evidence that plain vanilla sexual intercourse between two heterosexuals can result in AIDS." Tell that to the people dying in Uganda and Zimbabwe -- but then, as she repeatedly makes clear, Decter is concerned only with white upper-middle class women.
© 2001 Bella Stander