Oh, Midge, the Things You Missed

A big problem with much of the literature of the anti-feminist "backlash" of recent years is that even when it is worthwhile, it sounds bratty. How could it not? So much of it was written by the young and the self-sure: clever 20-somethings who were in diapers, if indeed alive, when feminists were burning their bras. Not so An Old Wife's Tale, by Midge Decter. She is the wife of conservative intellectual Norman Podhoretz and a prominent New York magazine editor and conservative in her own right.

Decter can remember Gloria Steinem as "a friendly and pleasant young journalist around town, with a so-so talent and a decent if not distinguished career." She was right there when Steinem became the spearhead for "this new feminist movement that seemed to be springing up everywhere." Almost immediately and implacably, Decter took to cutting the movement down.

That is not why I hate this book. On the contrary: Coming from New York City, where the phrase "Upper West Side liberal" is as prepackaged a concept as the phrase "blue sky," I give an author who can wear the tag "Upper West Side conservative" points on the grounds of heresy alone. Moreover, while I confess to having found much of the backlash oeuvre to be unreadably simplistic, I have often thought the same of much of the stuff being backlashed at. Thus, between Decter's length of life and strength of intellect, I was hoping that, wholly apart from any ideological specifics, hers would be a work of true rigor and reflection. Unfortunately, it turns out to be no such thing.

It bears mentioning that An Old Wife's Tale is a personal memoir, not a survey of social history. As such, it covers Decter's Minnesota childhood; her first, failed marriage in the 1950s; her travels in magazines, highlighted by the executive editorship at Harper's; and her bit part in the conservative Camelot of the 1980s, when she founded the anti-Soviet Committee for the Free World and worked as a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. But the book devotes most of its space and spirit to the author's experience of organized feminism—and understandably so. After all, 20th-century American society was equal parts imperious and schizoid in its expectations of women. Decter has lived through a time when women were asked what was wrong with them if they weren't married and mothering by their early 20s; a time when women were asked what was wrong with them if they were only married and mothering and not out setting the professional world on fire; and the time when women were asked what was—or is—wrong with them if they weren't married and mothering and working ... oh, and thin and witty and trilingual.... Just having been sized up in so many different, distorting mirrors ought to give the author an interesting perspective on what feminism gave women, and what it took away; what about it was necessary and positive, and what was foolish and harmful, or well-intended but disastrous. But it is as this type of rumination that the book fails most. In fact, it simply does not care to try.

Decter met the movement where all self-respecting New York editors meet everything: at lunch. A few years after the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, an unnamed woman book-publishing executive who had invited Decter out proceeded to quiz her as to whether her husband ever discussed his work with Decter. The executive also lamented the fact that her own husband, a lawyer, did not talk to her about his work. Taken aback, Decter was relieved when the discussion turned to publishing, but she was taken aback again when the executive proceeded to offer a "basketful of grievances about her male colleagues.... I almost literally staggered away from that lunch. What was going on here that such an attractive, well-heeled, and in all ways enviable woman should be so suddenly so laden with complaint?"

Prodded by such encounters and the general scent of social change, Decter resolved to immerse herself in the literature of the movement and ultimately decided "that the angry and often downright vicious attacks being leveled against men by the movement's ideologists had far more to do with the impulse to escape from sexual freedom rather than with the desire simply to share in men's worldly power." Hoo-kay, I thought when I read that, having thought all these years that it was mainly about a share in men's power. But it's not Decter's conclusions about the women's movement that rankle me. It's how she arrives at them; namely, by standing in place.

As they say of uninvolving dramas, this protagonist never grows. Like Ben Affleck in Pearl Harbor, Decter goes through years of upheaval with the same expression on her face: Ben is gazing nobly; Midge is rolling her eyeballs. The publishing lady who lunched with Decter comes across as a dimwit who could not grasp the possibility that her uncommunicative husband "was bored to death with his work and was looking for a change of subject when he got home." Restless suburban housewives are ingrates who fail to recognize themselves as "hands down among the luckiest, healthiest, freest people on earth." Feminist headliners are snapshots of hypocritical self-promotion: Steinem shows up at a debate "in a crotch-high suede skirt and knee-high suede boots"; Friedan tastelessly snorts to an audience that she does not get orgasms from mopping a floor. And on and on, right through to the dim college students of the 1990s who organize "take back the night" rallies so they can lie to each other about date rape. In and of themselves, such observations may be perfectly valid. But they are painted all too lavishly, one on top of the other, with nary a balancing stroke. The overall effect is utterly monochromatic, and therefore suspect: In 30 years of thinking about these issues, did Decter not have one conversation with a feminist that made her think, "Hey, they're not all hairy-legged dopes?" Did she not come across one statistic, one vignette, one work of art that struck her as evidence of something the movement may have done right?

My personal favorite, however, is Decter's apparent fear that the post-feminist American female is somehow under undue pressure to stay single. As a card-carrying old maid, I can attest: Society has never shirked its responsibility to make unmarried women feel like freaks. Some of us may cling pathetically to the notion of husband and offspring later in life, but even if that comes to pass, we shall be sad little figures: "they have to learn very late to listen to the call of their own hearts.... When they are in their fifties, their lives will still be in the thick of youthful things, even though their bodies may be asking for something else."

No question, the last wave of feminism was, in many particulars, vulgar, self-centered, elitist, naive, reverse sexist, hypocritical, and dippy. But it was also resonant. Yes, it was comprised in part by pampered Ivy Leaguers who didn't know a good life when they had it, and well-heeled housewives with all the time and money to dwell on a discontentment that their blue-collared or black-complexioned counterparts would have jumped at. But it was not composed only of such people. You bet, feminism was present at the creation of such tangles in our current culture as the pervasiveness of unwed pregnancy, easy divorce, and latchkey kids, to name a few. But feminism was not the only culprit in these, and these are not its only consequences.

After all, if feminism were as utterly baseless a phenomenon as Decter depicts it, it would surely have gone the way of the metric system, the CB radio, the "new" Coca Cola, and a million other bright ideas that just didn't take off in America. But it did take off, big time. There may be an argument that, on balance, its having done so was not such a good thing for women. But no such argument is made here. An Old Wife's Tale isn't backlash from a brat who wasn't around for the war. It's backlash from an elder who was there to witness it all-alas, with a stubbornly selective eye.