Midge Decter: An Overlooked Intellectual Forerunner of TrumpismRoundup
tags: conservatism, intellectual history, Midge Decter
Ronnie Grinberg is an assistant professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, and core faculty member of OU's Schusterman Center for Judaic and Israel Studies. Her book manuscript, Write Like a Man: Jewish Masculinity and the New York Intellectuals, is under contract with Princeton University Press.
In life, observers overlooked writer, editor and political activist Midge Decter, focusing more on her pugnacious husband, Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine from 1960 to 1995. But Decter’s death, on May 9, has led to renewed attention for this “architect of neoconservatism.”
This attention is welcome because Decter’s writings were indispensable to unifying the conservative movement and help explain the twists and turns of conservatism in the late-20th and early-21st centuries — including the embrace of Donald Trump.
Born in Minnesota, Decter moved to New York at age 19 after dropping out of college. She briefly studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) before taking a job as a secretary at the newly launched Commentary. After a short first marriage, which produced two children, she reconnected with Podhoretz — an old acquaintance. They married in 1956 and had two more children. She quit working because child care cost more than her salary.
At first glance, Decter epitomized two histories tied to the rise of conservatism in the 1970s. She and Podhoretz were among the leading wave of “neoconservatives,” formerly liberal intellectuals who shifted politically rightward by the early 1970s in response to 1960s radicalism and what they saw as the excesses of liberalism under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs. Decter was a champion of social conservatism and “family values” — which emerged in the 1970s as a backlash against the demands of the women’s rights movement.
But in reality, Decter’s history reveals far more complexity in what drove the rise of neoconservatism — and especially social conservatism. Her writings make clear that her political metamorphosis predated these standard timelines by at least a decade. Additionally, unlike many on the right, her politics were not rooted in Christianity (she was a secular Jew).
Instead, a devotion to mid-century Freudianism, which advocated “maturity” through heterosexuality and marriage, compelled Decter to speak out against what she saw as an assault on masculinity and the nuclear family long before these charges became common refrains among opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment, legalized abortion, women in the workplace and the gay rights movement in the 1970s. Decter, in fact, took to her soapbox even before publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963 — a book widely considered to have launched the modern feminist movement, which critics saw as an assault on the traditional nuclear family. She balked at 1960s radicalism from the start and was a champion of “family values” before the term even existed.
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