Midge Decter looks like she sprang full-blown, month open, from a living room on the Upper West Side, a liberal prototype suitable for framing in a Jules Feiffer cartoon.
Yes, the mouth is open fairly frequently but what comes out is hardly liberal. As a writer and social critic she manages to infuriate people regularly, particularly feminists and liberals. In town recently to speak at a National Town Meeting on "The Neoconservatives," the latest intellectual fad, she showed no signs of mellowing.
In her three books ("The liberated Women and Other Americans," "The New Chastity" and "Liberal Parents, Radical Children") and numerous essays, she has excoriated such things as the women's liberation movement, the sexual revolution and "overheated parenting."
Having earned her credentials as a liberal and working mother (of four) and wife (of Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz), she said years ago that the women's movement was absurd nd destructive, and says she senses that the intervening years have proved her points.
"I have daughters in their late 20s and I think relations between men and women at that age are absolutely ghastly," she said. "There's a kind of miserable, joyless falling into bed, the men feel downgraded and sapped and rendered impotent by the women. The women feel the men are not manly, someone who will protect and defend his wife and children because he is stronger and because that's his job. Young women today are suffering very much from the absence of men who have faith in themselves."
This sad state of affairs is the result of the "war between men and women" spawned by the women's movement that set up men as The Enemy. Nor has the sexual revolution made either sex happy; women are expected to say "'yes' in absence of a compelling reason to say 'no'" which has resulted in a "devaluation of the sexual experience."
Birth contol has helped make the act of sex "inconsequential" for women, she said, whereas before, the possibility of pregnancy made it "consequential." Women are not happy with inconsequential sexual relationships, she said.
And men aren't any better off.
"Sure, it's easier to [make love], but if you look at them, they don't look like they'er thriving under the present arrangement at all, not at all," she said.
Men are robbed of "manliness" because demands are never made on them, traditional demands such as having to support a family and be a father. Now everyone chooses his role, resulting in a generation of men who are "neurasthenic, narcissistic, they'er running all the time and greasing their bodies and doing this that and the other thing to go through substitute motions of manliness."
The real revolution, Decter has always maintained, was the advent of birth control, which allowed women for the first time to have careers. The idea that the women's movement, and not birth control, made careers for women possible is "bull...
"The fact that having children is now an act of will rather than a natural occurrence has probably done more to make a spiritual crisis for women than anything," she said. "It's the most significant and irrevocable act of your life.There are no terms for understanding why or how you should undertake it."
Not that she's opposed to birth control; rather it's a "great boon." And just because she says "Bella Abzug doesn't represent men," doesn't mean that Phyllis Schafly does either "They deserve each other," she said.
Decter speaks in measured tones; there is firmness without shrillness in her voice. Occasionally she indulges in flights of rhetoric that sound lovely but on reflection seem more emotional than factual, as when she said in response to a question during the Town Meeting that "we have heard for a long time how we use up the resources, and have been subjected to the imagery of the birth of an American baby being regarded as a kind of hideous ecological disaster, a horrid little consumer of food, electricity, clean air, clean water and everything else belonging to others."
That statement doesn't seem to quite jibe with her claim that the root of the pervasive "anxiety" felt by young women today is the deicision whether or not to have a baby, and the companion troubles of finding a man who is willing to share his life with a family instead of devoting himself wither to his body or that of as many women as possible.
"It used to be that the deal was that it was the women who undertook to domesticate the men; they did not volunteer for this job, they were pressed into it by women. Nevertheless, they would come to see that it was what they needed for their welfare." There was a lot wrong with this system, she freely admits, but in the absence of expections nobody is happy.
Women who feel they must choose between having a career and having a family will not, by and large, be happy if they choose the career, she predicts.
As human beings, we all "need confirmation in the culture." she said, and instead "we are living in a culture which disconfirms what most people feel and sense to be true."
Nor should women totally give up their "right" to mother the children they give birth to. "I think women are going to demand the right to engage in motherhood as a primary career," she said, which means the husband has to support them and other people have to stop putting them down for staying out of the day-care sydrome. Which brings us to another favorite topic among women.
"I think affirmative action for women is going to turn out to be disastrous," said Decter, who started out as a typist, took years off to have her children, and is now, in her 50s, a senior editor at Basic Books.
Affirmative action programs lead to "self-hatred," she suggests, because one is left with the feeling of having been hired for being a woman rather than for being competent. This ultimately "robs" women of being taken seriously, either by themselves or by others. Women have the obligation to fight for opportunity for oneself, but the wholesale demand of jobs or places exclusively for women is destructive and unfeminist, she says. "The implication is that women are really not the equals of men and can't do it on their own."
She draws a parallel with affirmative action programs for blacks. "The people to feel sorry for are the academically accomplished blacks," she said, "because there is nobody in the world who assumes their accomplishments are due to their own achievement You know damn well there is a greater private assumption of black inferiority among liberals now, and affirmative action has done that and will do it to women."
So there you are.
She is also vehemently opposed to the SALT II treaty, which she thinks will lead to the Russians surpassing the United States in military strength, and thinks Sen. Daniel P. Moynihab would make a terrific president.
As far as specific suggestions for making things better are concerned, she thinks that "men and women have to become friends again," but generally feels it is not her role to tell people what to do. "God save us from intellectuals," she said, though agreeing that she is one. "Intellectuals are hungry for power on the one hand and don't know how to accommodate themselves to others They are always gravitating toward some system where there is an elite where somebody decides for other people, and guess who it is ...."
As for her?
"I think I should be kept in my place." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Midge Decter; by Vanessa R. Barnes -- The Washington Post