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 up a post as secretary of the newly founded 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 stopped working because childcare cost more than her salary.
At first glance, Decter embodied two stories related to the rise of conservatism in the 1970s. She and Podhoretz were part of the main wave of “neoconservatives”, former liberal intellectuals who moved politically to the right in the early years 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 in response to demands from the women’s rights movement.
But in reality, Decter’s story reveals much more complexity in what led to the rise of neoconservatism – and especially social conservatism. His writings make it clear that his political metamorphosis preceded these standard timelines by at least a decade. Also, unlike many right-wingers, 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 that these accusations do not become common refrain among opponents of equality. Rights amendment, legalized abortion, working women and the gay rights movement in the 1970s. Decter, in fact, took to his very rostrum before publication of “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan in 1963 – a book widely considered to have launched the modern feminist movement, which critics saw as an attack on the traditional nuclear family. She shied away from 1960s radicalism early on and was a champion of “family values” before the term even existed.
Decter, for example, championed the traditional capitalist economy of the male breadwinner and families like hers as early as 1960. She lamented that marriage had changed from “an institution based on solid rock that creates a rational economic organization for the family” to something focused on “relationships” and “us-feelings”. Where marriage had once “grown [men] to adulthood and responsibility,” her modern—feminized—appearance emasculated them.
A year later, when John F. Kennedy convened a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women to study sex discrimination, Decter flatly dismissed the issue. In 1964 she added a new element to her critique, warning that women were increasingly renouncing heterosexuality and that lesbianism was a “popular new form of female chastity”.
Although her motivations were different from those of the Christian New Right champions, who emerged to fight the demands of the growing women’s liberation movement, these demands only made Decter’s positions more strident. In 1972 – as the battles against feminist-backed legal abortion and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution intensified – she published “The New Chastity and other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation“, followed by a broader attack on the New Left, “Liberal Children and Radical” (1975).
Perhaps Decter’s most famous essay was “The Boys on the Beach”, written in 1980, which was a vicious polemic about gays and lesbians – even by the standards of the time. Decter accused homosexuals of making fun of both sexes. Gay men, she writes, impersonate women (through dress and mannerisms) to “appropriate the benefits of femininity.” At the same time, “their sleek, sleek exteriors,” unhampered by the stresses of family life, made fun of straight men.
Decter’s analysis of traditional gender roles and heterosexuality has filtered into neoconservative foreign policy. In 1977, Podhoretz blamed gay writers for “Vietnam Syndrome,” a conservative criticism that America had become so weak and emasculated that it could no longer flex its military muscle overseas.
In 1981, Decter became executive director of the Committee for the Free World, an anti-Communist organization she helped found that sought “to alter the climate of confusion and complacency, apathy and self-deprecation, which has contributed to weakening Western democracies. Decter’s turn to foreign affairs reflected the direction of neoconservatism in the 1980s.
This focus reached its apotheosis about two decades later with the presidency of George W. Bush, whose foreign policy team was made up of a younger generation of neoconservatives, explaining why much of the emphasis of the early national culture wars over neoconservatives has faded from memory. Yet Decter’s thinking provided a clear link between the two. While she had shifted focus, Decter maintained a laser-like focus on what she saw as the key issue plaguing American culture – the slow erosion of the nuclear family and traditional gender roles.
This made Bush’s blustering and assertive response to 9/11 appealing to Decter. In 2003, she published a hagiography of Donald H. Rumsfeld, Bush’s defense secretary and key architect of the invasion of Iraq, which praised his manhood. “The key to [Rumsfeld] it’s that he’s a wrestler,” Decter told The New Yorker. As she said, “A wrestler is a solitary figure. He fights one on one, and either he wins or he loses.
When Trump campaigned in 2015, his “America First” slogan was seen as a rebuke to the interventionist neoconservative foreign policy agenda that Decter had pushed for half a century. He was reminiscent of an isolationist, nativist, anti-Semitic group that opposed America’s entry into World War II. Prominent neoconservatives have been declared anti-Trumpers, including William Kristol, son of two prominent neoconservatives, and John Podhoretz, Decter’s own son. Other neocons might not have liked Trump, but were willing to serve in his administration to shape his foreign policy.
As for Norman Podhoretz and Decter? In a 2019 interview, Podhoretz said he initially opposed Trump because he sounded too much like “a protectionist, a nativist and an isolationist.” Moreover, when Trump “said they lied us in Iraq, I thought, ‘well, to hell with him.’ ”
Yet during Trump’s presidency, Podhoretz was troubled by the vitriol directed at Trump and became “anti-anti-Trump.” Moreover, Podhoretz admired Trump: he “fights back. … If you hit him, he hits back. “When I was a kid, you’d rather be beaten than back down from a fight. Worst thing in the world to be called a sissy. Trump wasn’t a ‘chicken.’
Although Decter hasn’t made her views on Trump known, her book on Rumsfeld has made it clear where she stands when it comes to swaggering masculinity. Trump embodied his vision of American manhood. In many ways, his writings on home affairs and foreign policy — dating back decades — and their influence on American conservatism helped explain why conservatives found Trump so stylistically appealing. His reflection also revealed that the desire for a Trump-like figure exuding masculinity extends beyond the religious right and helps unify the different strands of conservatism.
Decter’s defense of traditional gender roles, heterosexual marriage and polemics against homosexuality, in fact, illustrated that a “common ground” existed within the different strands of conservatism, according to Edwin J. Feulner Jr. ., founder and former president of the curatorial Heritage Foundation.
Although Decter was never in the limelight in his life, anyone who wants to understand the twists and turns of conservatism over the past half-century need look no further than his writings.