Commentary Magazine


Women's Lib & the Liberated Woman

To the Editor:

Although I am tempted to reply to the catty tone of Midge Decter’s article [“The Liberated Woman,” October 1970], I shall try to take her seriously. Beginning with her title and continuing throughout the article Miss Decter presumes to generalize about “The Liberated Woman.” Unfortunately, she appears to have indulged in the sort of instant social analysis where wit outscores research. If Miss Decter generalized only from her personal and professional acquaintances (note that her typical liberated woman aspires to write), then she has misrepresented her article, and a new title is in order: “Some Liberated Women I’ve Met and Hated.”

Assuming that Miss Decter did her homework but did not wish to burden us with it, what is her main point? Her liberated women do not need better pay, or, as they used to say, a fairer chance in the race of life. “What she heard most about . . . were problems of status.” It is popular to explain the dynamics of social reform by referring to the status problems of reformers (e.g., David Donald on the Abolitionists). . . . Yet even if her article draws an accurate portrait of an important segment of Women’s Liberation, this in no way affects the validity of Women’s Liberation programs. Similarly, one may not dismiss the historical or moral claims of Abolitionism simply because numerous Abolitionists were not selflessly motivated. . . .

Macdonald S. Moore
New York City

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To the Editor:

She is a creature of the 40’s and 50’s: somewhat rueful, a bit snide at times, but no matter, Midge Decter’s dissection of the liberated woman has a number of useful insights. One cannot help but suspect, however, that Miss Decter is guilty of a fundamental confusion between the often slick and mindless generational style of her protagonist and the far more serious and comprehensive matter of Women’s Liberation. The genuine ideals and genesis of that movement—in its widest sense—surely transcend the tiresome, if fleetingly dramatic, pursuits of the pampered young woman Miss Decter portrays.

Two specific misconceptions also demand correction. The first is Miss Decter’s assumption that the desire for equality between men and women presupposes an assertion of their identical nature. Such a notion would only be sustained by the most obtuse adherents of the movement; surely if I demand equal rights for blacks and whites I am not assuming that their skin colors are identical. Second, Miss Decter’s glib dismissal of the reality of centuries of patriarchal values is highly misleading: when she displaces the constricting attitudes of certain men onto the mothers of those men (“. . . what she was really denouncing them for was their having submitted to an earlier set of female demands. . . ”), the author achieves nothing but evasion. For whatever it may entail, Women’s Liberation does not imply a blanket toleration for everything female, most especially for pernicious values that may have been female-generated, but were in all likelihood responses to an oppressive male value system.

I would welcome a discussion of the liberated (or unliberated) woman from the vantage point of those born in the 20’s and 30’s, one which would genuinely confront the relationship of these women to the larger issues of the movement—without copping-out by indulging in a snide critique of the “60’s woman.”

(Dr.) Barbara F. Lefcowitz
Bethesda, Maryland

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To the Editor:

Midge Decter’s biased and prissy caricature of the liberated woman was a great disappointment and certainly untypical of the thoughtful analysis to be found in COMMENTARY. Her conclusion that the freedom now granted by society to women “is remarkably equal to that enjoyed by men” flies in the face of continued severe discrimination against women in all areas of public life, in training for the professions, and in all levels of employment. I suppose a similar statement could be made about the de jure equality achieved by the black minorities, but by now we have become sufficiently aware of the very real and sometimes subtle obstacles to achievement they face not to accept such conclusions without further examination.

While Miss Decter admits that there are certain “inevitable practical difficulties” that face women who choose both a career and marriage, she thinks that managing these “widens the options for gratification.” Exactly what this means is difficult to explain to a woman who is forced to abandon her profession because of lack of adequate child-care centers and the astronomical cost of domestic help, both of which are not now deductible from the income taxes of most working mothers. The other solution she offers is chastity. This makes one smile at her idea of “equality.” I wonder whether she is prepared to offer the same nostrum to the many men who often are forced by the press of business or community commitments to neglect their families for months at a time. I submit that the current Women’s Lib efforts to establish child-care centers and tax allowances for domestic help is a more realistic and constructive approach to the problem of freeing both parents for meaningful work. . . .

As for the working women Miss Decter criticizes for having “problems of status,” it apparently does not occur to her that their complaints might be justified. At the September 1970 hearings before the New York City Human Rights Commission, witness after witness (female) testified that regardless of educational background or experience (some had Ph.D.’s) the only employment offered was for secretarial or similar positions. No wonder these women find “serving” intolerable. As for those women who have been able to achieve despite the tremendous obstacles placed in their way because of their sex, Miss Decter finds them “restive.” The reason for their restiveness may well be found in the U.S. Department of Labor statistics which show that women, working full time average $3,000 less than males holding comparable positions, regardless of the profession involved. This, rather than the general “un-congeniality” of which Miss Decter speaks, would certainly explain the dissatisfaction which some of these women may experience.

Finally, Miss Decter exhibits her bias when she purports to reveal to her readers that “man forgoes the operations of his blind boyhood lust and agrees to undertake the support and protection of a family, and receives in exchange the ease and comforts of home,” implying that the woman’s part of the bargain is necessarily having pipe, slippers, and dinner warm and waiting for her “protector.” A familiarity with the history of the laws of marriage and domestic relations leads most students to conclude that this abandonment of lusts (if indeed, it does occur, which Kinsey would have us doubt) is induced by a desire to pass on the family inheritance to legitimate male heirs and is not a supine surrender to the demands of females for a home, as Miss Decter would have her readers believe.

Sue Wimmershoff-Caplan
Chairman, Equal Employment Opportunities Committee
New York Women’s Bar Association
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . Midge Decter displays either ignorance or a lack of sensitivity to the masculine types who have triggered the women’s movement. Nor does she consider the real stresses of being an emancipated girl in a society containing Esquire, Playboy, and Cosmopolitan as well as a hostility to everything feminine, nurturing, maternal, and real which has rarely been matched, except perhaps in Sparta.

Also, I doubt whether Miss Decter has talked to enough college girls in the business world, which can resemble both the harem of the Grand Turk and the salt mines of Siberia to any girl trying to “make it.” . . . Basically, of course, the reason for the really wild surge of Women’s Lib feeling is the Men. It’s easy for Midge Decter, having made her accommodation with the men of her time, to appreciate their problems. . . . But has Miss Decter encountered the machismo of today’s intellectual males, has she met the business Ayn Randites, or the types who live at their psychoanalysts, or the permanent searchers dragging out experimental relationships with girls and simply refusing to take emotional, financial, or even intellectual “interest” (I don’t even mean responsibility)? Has she ever tried a “singles’ bar”? Has she read the critiques of motherhood and alimony à la Helen Gurley Brown? Or how to lie down and get walked over and love it in any article in Cosmo? Has she reflected on the dreary, humiliating, “every thing-else-is-more-important” role thrust upon a woman who may want to have children and be nurtured and nurture? The intellectual style-setters of this country, the economic structure, the very quality of life leave a woman no choice if she is to have any future, growth, interest, or fun in life, but to become . . . a second-class man or a first-class conniving bitch. . . .

Esther Soretsky
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . I am in strong disagreement with Midge Decter’s statement that freedom granted women by society is “remarkably equal to that enjoyed by men.” As soon as she has said this, Miss Decter then points out that women are free to choose either a career or marriage. This is a choice that a man does not have to make. She admits that should a woman choose both a career and marriage many additional difficulties . . . will face her. But a man may pursue a career and have a family with no conflict. In fact, his ability to be successful in a career is often based directly on the fact that his wife does not (and cannot as long as he considers only a career for himself important) have a career. . . . It is because he is largely free of domestic and parental duties that he is able to devote extra time to his career. If a woman were to pursue a career with the same diligence as a man she would be branded a bad mother, . . . neglecting her family. . . .

Mary Lee Geisser
Williamsville, New York

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To the Editor:

. . . Midge Decter’s credentials are given at the bottom of the first page of her article: not only is she executive editor of Harper’s, but “in private life, Miss Decter is married and the mother of four children.” Oddly enough, no male author in that issue was described in terms of his “private life” and number of children! Miss Decter then proceeds to set up her straw woman, making her the pampered little bitch we all know and love as the prototype of modern young womanhood in middle-class America, and then she knocks her heroine down for being what she has made her. Instead of dealing with the data documenting discrimination against women (gathered not by Women’s Liberation, but by the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor, NOW, President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, President Nixon’s Task Force on American Women, and various scholarly studies by Leo Kanowitz, Martin Gruberg, and others), Miss Decter . . . has her heroine dismiss them all as “boring.” Does Miss Decter in her own mind really dismiss them . . . so easily?

Although I have all the qualifications listed by Miss Decter (i.e., a career and family) I do not consider it necessary that others suffer the same discouragements and difficulties I faced. Nor am I unmindful, as she seems to be, of the fact that most women suffer far worse because of their status as women: those who bear the brunt of poverty and racial discrimination; those whose families had no money to educate daughters; those who were turned down by admissions offices, or for fellowships, as “bad risks” because “they might get married”; those whose lives were overburdened by unwanted children because society allowed them no access to the means of controlling their own reproductive functions, and so on. It is, of course, comforting to consider oneself a worthy exception, and all others lazy. But that attitude overlooks the “invisible” women who didn’t make it for the reasons listed above.

I found Miss Decter’s supercilious, even-handedly condescending-treatment of “pampered” young women and Women’s Liberation (about which she knows little, to judge by the facts she offers) unconvincing and shallow. Perhaps she is too busy being an editor and mother of her own middle-class children to look beyond her nose at other women who have not had the advantages she has had. But then one wonders how she found time in that busy schedule to write such a lengthy personal attack on Sally Kempton (see Miss Kempton’s article, “Cutting Loose,” Esquire, Summer 1970). With such acrimonious female colleagues, who needs male chauvinism?

Gayle Hollander
Conway, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

. . . It may well be that there are people who exactly fit Midge Decter’s and Dorothy Rabinowitz’s [“The Radicalized Professor,” July; “The Activist Cleric,” September] descriptions . . . but surely there are many more who might nevertheless qualify as liberated women, radical professors, and activist clerics. Your writers sound like Vice President Agnew insisting that permissive child-rearing has caused the emergence of bomb throwers. Although I find their thinking and their conclusions much more in tune with my own viewpoint than Mr. Agnew’s ever could be . . . this does not blind me to the fact that their methods of thought are much the same as Mr. Agnew’s. . . .

Mrs. Josef Solomon
Moorestown, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

Midge Decter is apparently suggesting that some young women are not worthy of liberation. Such an old historic argument (used for so many other groups) and so banal! Young people have always had a tendency to be ahistoric, to minimize the price to be paid for their own passivity. This is equally true of the young blacks in the civil-rights movement.

Miss Decter paid a high price to get where she has and she knows it. I cannot respond favorably, however, to her plea that the next generation should pay an equally high price. Social improvement occurs so slowly for precisely this reason: at the moment of truth, each generation is outraged if there is a hint that the next might get the same thing cheaper. Miss Decter is the only fairy princess in her story, having made it in both worlds. If women do become liberated—that is, share in the use of power and develop freely their craftsmanship without being discriminated against (paying a higher price than men)—then maybe in the next generation there will be lots of fairy princesses just like Miss Decter. And of course they won’t remember that she paved the way.

Jeanne S. Binstock
University of Massachusetts
Boston, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

It is indeed remarkable that COMMENTARY should find no more cogent statement on the Women’s Liberation Movement to publish than Midge Decter’s essay, a deeply frivolous exercise, parading as high responsibility.

Selecting as her foil a childlike, pliable, spoiled “child of our time,” Miss Decter pours a contempt not unlike that of the wicked fairy upon her heroine’s “pretty head.” The “child” does not know the “realities.” And what are they? That marriage is a transaction imposed for their own procreative ends by women upon men, the men exchanging their sexual freedom for home comforts. But setting aside the question of whether this is an adequate view of marriage (I think it is not), it is precisely the fact that the terms of this “transaction” are not working that has caused our present malaise.

Formerly, perhaps, a satisfactory enough proportion of males remained “enslaved” within marriage, sheepishly appreciative of those not always welcome gifts of self that women were able to bestow. Yet who would deny that these homely gifts have been made to seem a paltry substitute for male sexual liberation? How much admiration of fidelity do we see in the cultural attitudes of 1970? Today, a married man is not far from being considered only half a man, a married woman a moody, sullen trap. . . At the core of what I have seen in the women’s movement is a painful crisis in the relations of the sexes that must be faced. If any form of marriage is to have contractual weight in the future, the bargain must be spelled out and struck afresh, for too many have become confused about its responsibilities and privileges, and pious exhortations to “grin and bear it” are only expressions of a callous refusal to confront the reality of a widely felt pain.

The disingenuousness of Miss Decter’s approach is palpable. The young woman who “has everything” is, after all, not unique among favored beings in finding fault with what she has been given, and in wanting what she has been swindled out of discovering for herself: the students feel this too. . . . The men in her story are, except for the beastly lawyer (an anomaly), tasteful, gentle, and even-handed. To be sure, the college prof proves disappointing in bed (how classical!), but there are no scenes of sexual shock or anguish. There is no open or even covert prejudice toward women, even of the sort one hears every day and accepts with embarrassed complicity, so that the heroine’s espousal of the movement is made to appear a response only to an irrational inner demand for perfection.

Now, a demand for perfection has often been thought ennobling for mankind as a whole. Why, then, not for women? That desire for freedom expressed at times inchoately by Women’s Liberation Miss Decter deems childish in its charges against the world and in its lack of a “sense of responsibility.” But what can be more responsible, ultimately, than to perceive what oppresses you and to call it by its name? Women have less genuine freedom to become in American society than in some other societies. Our stereotypes have so reduced that very sense of choice which Midge Decter thinks we all have in such abundance that we need to make war against them to restore us to ourselves. If freedom only “lies in one’s enactment of it,” and “can be granted only in theory,” then Women’s Liberation may represent the first attempt on the part of women in our culture to wrest the idea of freedom for themselves, and to discover a better basis for their relations to men than having to ask for gifts and favors while granting gifts and favors in return.

Miss Decter’s vindictive attitude toward her passive girl protagonist reveals the bias of one who has comfortably internalized that prayer in which God is daily thanked for His goodness in not having created man a woman.

Madelyn Gutwirth
Haverford, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

. . . Of course there are women who blame society for their own inadequacies, just as there are Jews who attribute setbacks to anti-Semitism and blacks who see white racism as the cause of their every difficulty. But does the existence of such individuals prove that there is no religious or racial discrimination?

. . . Like her “heroine,” Miss Decter is not interested in the boring statistics. But those familiar with these statistics know that sex discrimination, like racial and religious discrimination, is a real and pressing problem. . . .

It has become fashionable in certain circles to label young social critics “cry-babies” whose overly-permissive upbringing has rendered them incapable of accepting reality (i.e., the war in Vietnam, pollution, discrimination, etc.). Surely people of all ages who devote their efforts to ending social ills do not deserve to be reviled as neurotics.

Sarah Wernick Lockeretz
Mattapan, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

I found Midge Decter’s article highly provocative, so provocative, in fact, that I have left the breakfast dishes on the table and the beds unmade to raise some questions I have about it. First, what is wrong with reading and studying novels? Miss Decter speaks of the “liberated woman” as having trained herself “for a life of monied leisure in the study, say, of the English novel, only to find . . . [herself] bitter about being thought unqualified in spirit as well as training for valuable work.” For Miss Decter, then, reading novels is a frivolous, vapid way of spending time. . . . I wonder what she considers “valuable work.” Could teaching English qualify?

My second basic question is about male-female roles. The “liberated woman’s” lover “demanded that he have clean shirts and a made bed.” Miss Decter seems to accept this as right and proper. Yet both the “liberated woman” and her lover had jobs outside the home, and, presumably, both were paying money toward food and rent. Why then is it the woman’s job to make the bed?

Laurel H. Rabin
Baltimore, Maryland

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To the Editor:

Midge Decter asserts that “freedom is an end in itself, a value whose strongest connections are thus not with happiness but with responsibility.” Surely Miss Decter must be speaking from the vacuum of her own experience and not from the context of 20th-century life-styles. In the first place, modern man, in his yen for freedom, avoids responsibility like the plague. “I didn’t/don’t want to get involved” should replace E Pluribus Unum as the U.S. motto.

In the second place, freedom today means being able to “do your own thing,” that which makes you happy. The problem is only that we are all so hung-up that we don’t know what makes us happy. Perhaps when we find out, then, and only then, will we all be liberated.

Sheldon Barry Gewirtz
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . As a member of a small Women’s Liberation group and a supporter of the movement, I find myself in a very parallel position to the one I found myself in ten years ago as a member of CORE. Two responses to CORE were typical in those years: “What do they want?,” and “Yes, of course, I’m all for it but their methods! Don’t they know they’ll only alienate people with demonstrations?” How glad those critics of CORE would be now to bring back the age of peaceful picket lines, but it is too late. Today do we not hear the same shocked disapproval of Women’s Liberation? Must intelligent people make the same mistake over and over again? Can’t we learn from history before it is too late? There is a rage in women. It is true that the rage is being articulated by the most advantaged women but this should not come as a surprise—weren’t the leaders of the NAACP the most advanced black people?. . .

Miss Decter’s portrait of the girl who has everything certainly does not describe the women in my group, but I trust that the author has an example in mind. Isn’t it typical for older women to see younger women as their enemies and to resent and put them down? One of the beautiful aspects of the movement to me is the real effort to break down the envy and jealousy among women which has afflicted our relationship with our sisters for so long. We have pitted ourselves against each other as sisters. Women must stop playing “Uncle Tom” to the male-dominated society, women must stop rushing to be the first to criticize Women’s Liberation. Women must listen to each other, respect each other, and support each other.

Charlotte Krause
San Francisco, California

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To the Editor:

. . . I am a liberated woman, I work in the Women’s Liberation movement with many others, and I do not recognize myself or my friends in Miss Decter’s portrait of the liberated woman.

This article is condescending because it portrays the liberated woman as essentially a spoiled brat. The women whom I know and with whom I work are just the opposite. In spite of being trained from the cradle to fail at anything but motherhood or housewifery, we have chosen to work for a system of free and fair choice for all women. Those of us who chose a career in addition to marriage find ourselves unable to compete with men on our merits as individuals. In spite of Miss Decter’s sermonizing at the end of her article, the fact is that bias based on sex pervades our society. A glance at the statistics from the U.S. Labor Department will show that Miss Decter is dead wrong: we in Women’s Liberation do not choose freedom from responsibility, but freedom with responsibility. In other words, human rights.

Finally, let me assure Miss Decter, and anyone else who may be interested, although I can’t see why, that many of us are very happily married to men who are truly and deeply committed to their wives as female human beings, and who are secure enough to accept their wives as people, not as objects or slaves.

Eva Kashket
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

I have never met Midge Decter, but judging by the formidable manner with which she dismissed the liberated woman, I very much regret not being on her side.

I am moved to dissent publicly from her view, in spite of my expectation that many others will do the same, precisely because, like Miss Decter, I am outside the movement, if considerably more sympathetic to it. More important, I too have “made it,” or at least I am in the process of “making it”; that is, I have also managed to juggle a career and a family. In generational terms I stand between Miss Decter’s generation (I said I did not know her, not that I did not know of her) and if I am not as firmly established in my career as she is in hers and if my children are not as grown-up, within ten years or so I will, presumably, be in a comparable position. So much for my credentials.

The most startling, though not the most important, feature of her essay was its tone. It is one thing to view the members of a movement as spoiled princesses; it is quite another to play the mad queen and chop off their heads. If humor is in general a hostile way to look at the world, satire is its most virulent form. Miss Decter made some telling points, but the very structure of her essay reflected anger, which I sometimes share, and lack of compassion, which I do not. In the early Women’s Liberation days I taught at one of the prestigious, Eastern, all-girls’ colleges, and met and came to know well several of the indulged, self-centered, pleasure-oriented, undisciplined, self-important princesses she so cleverly described. And while many have those irritating qualities, they are, at the same time, fragile, directionless, searching, desperate young women. The problem of upper-middle-class women educated and trained for a world which makes no place for them, except for temporary busy-work, is hardly new. More than fifty years ago Jane Addams spoke feelingly of young people with all of the advantages of wealth, of college, of European travel, but for whom “uselessness hangs about them heavily.” Jane Addams is a good example of a serious social thinker particularly attuned to the problems of young people and women who was able to combine her searing social criticism with a genuine concern for the ones she was criticizing. She has one of Miss Decter’s princesses, or rather her grandmother, saying some sixty years ago (although the implication of Miss Decter’s piece is that our child-rearing habits have produced a new breed of bratty girls): “You do not know what life means when all the difficulties are removed. I am simply smothered and sickened with advantages. It is like eating a sweet dessert the first thing in the morning.”

An even earlier reflection of Jane Addams, appearing in 1893, deserves fuller quotation here: “It is inevitable that those who feel more keenly this insincerity and partial living should be our young people, our so-called educated young people . . . who bear the brunt of being cultivated into undernourished, over-sensitive lives. I have seen young girls suffer and grown sensibly lowered in vitality in the first years after they leave school. In our attempt to give a girl pleasure and freedom from care we succeed, for the most part, in making her pitifully miserable. She finds ‘life’ so different from what she expected it to be. She . . . does not understand this apparent waste of herself, this elaborate preparation, if no work is provided for her. . . . Society smiles at [her] indulgently instead of making [her] of value to itself.”

Here are the earlier versions of the same little princesses but viewed in a larger social context and viewed with sympathy by an observer who knew that their plight was substantial.

Nevertheless, Miss Decter has the right not to like or care about anybody she chooses not to like or care about. Misrepresenting a total movement is something else again. While the women’s movement, like almost all reform movements in our history, is essentially middle class in personnel and program, it is not composed solely or even largely of the upper-middle-class ladies whose portrait she drew. The women’s movement has elicited an enormous response . . . from within both the middle class and the lower-middle class: students in my classes at a state university, drawn from a wide range of backgrounds; typists and secretaries and clerks in the working world who must, and do, grub for a living; young mothers in my local community—all are increasingly attracted to the women’s movement, if perhaps reluctantly and critically. There are even occasional ripplings of working-class response, particularly as the activists come increasingly to recognize the limitations of their essentially middle-class, and white, program.

But it is not Miss Decter’s hostile stance in relation to the women’s movement which disturbs me most, nor even her arbitrary selection of a segment of the movement which she then somehow, without quite saying it, passes off as representative. It is the way she went about her analysis to which most attention should be directed.

The problem as Miss Decter poses it is an individual one and the solution is similarly an individual one. Within the context of the individual problem, she suggests it is also a matter of personal maladjustment. American historians have played that game on and off for years. We have described the Populists as paranoid and anti-Semitic, we have waved off the Abolitionists as a group of status seekers, we have explained away John Brown as a madman, and then we have come to realize that this kind of reasoning, while it has some value and may even be accurate, manages to evade the central questions. Miss Decter has apparently found her private solution, as I have mine, but these are more-or-less satisfactory personal answers to a larger social concern. If I have been able to sustain a career and a family simultaneously it is because I have been fortunate enough to have a sympathetic husband and because I have been able to share most of the household responsibilites with another woman. It is not a solution that can be projected into the social arena. It is the Jackie Robinson-Ralph Bunche syndrome again. If they made it, what are the rest of the blacks complaining about?

The problems the women’s movement raises have no easy answers, for they ultimately confront the major matter of family and child-rearing, and no women’s movement in history has thus far coped adequately, in my opinion, with that set of problems. The respected and extraordinary women who presided over their 18th-century salons did so on the basis of wealth and class, both of which depended on their husbands’ positions. Jane Addams and her circle of talented and active women chose public careers over private ones and typically remained unmarried and childless. Now for the first time in history it is possible for larger numbers of women to sustain a vision of a fuller life than has hitherto been possible. It is in the context of rising expectations confronted by frustrating obstacles that Miss Decter should have developed her analysis. Her preaching gets us to a kind of inapplicable Puritan admonition to work hard, shape up, and stop whining. Her supercilious comment that both men and women have choices is reminiscent of Anatole France’s observation that it is forbidden equally to the rich and to the poor to sleep under the bridges across the Seine.

The emphasis on the maladjusted individual woman obscures the possibility of a penetrating analysis of the assumptions of the women’s movement. For example, there persists throughout her article the nagging assumption that boys and girls are different, that men and women are different, and it is the weakness of our princess that prevents her from dealing with the difference. Indeed, I share the assumption that men and women are different. To say that women are just men with different plumbing, as has been said to me repeatedly, is, aside from the inelegant language, hardly accurate. Whatever the differences are between men and women, however, they are clearly not along lines of who can better do the ironing, make the beds, and cook the dinner, as Miss Decter’s article suggests; by thus casting her argument on a personal level, she is prevented from examining seriously the larger implications of her criticism. The women’s movement has made an invaluable contribution by underscoring the ways in which psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and psychiatrists have, in general, ignored or never seriously examined the genetic or biological differences between men and women and the relation of those differences to cultural definitions.

It is when Miss Decter examines the question of so-called sexual freedom that her effort to define a social movement in terms of limited personal biography is exposed. She asserts that our princess now claims “that it was precisely the possibility to have a wide sexual experience that constituted the major block to women’s equality.” This is not at all what the militant young women claim. By viewing the problem as an aspect of a single woman’s history, albeit a fictionalized history, the entire social dimension is lost; the problem, as Miss Decter defines it, is reduced to a matter of the individual psyche. More precisely, it is seen as a matter of ingratitude on the part of young women for the tolerant and accepting views of their mothers. What Miss Decter does not recognize is that in this empty, consumption society, where all forms of human relations are reduced to commodities, everyone suffers, but especially women. This vaunted sexual revolution might be more clearly viewed not only as a liberation from earlier sexual inhibitions but also as a further indication of how even intimate relations between men and women are demeaned. The relaxation of previous sexual mores has made it clearer to many women what their real role has been.

When Miss Decter drops the protection of satiric attack and deals directly with her position, she gives her game away. Having criticized young women for not knowing how to deal with their real freedom, she then concedes that marriage is indeed, as the women’s movement has been saying, a contract in which, she rather quaintly says, the “man forgoes the operations of his blind boyhood lust and agrees to undertake the support and protection of a family, and receives in exchange the ease and comfort of home.” If marriage is a contractual arrangement, then it is eminently reasonable for one of the partners to reopen negotiations and attempt to equalize and humanize the contract. Her assumption of contract is at the same time in conflict with her earlier notion that the family represents the “very place meant to be a haven from enemies.” And I believe she is right in both definitions, for the family has served simultaneously in both capacities—as a haven where affectionate and loving relations reside and as a depository for a contract, a historically unequal contract. The women’s movement has tended not to recognize the first function in its understandable but unbalanced challenge to the second. The militant women may ultimately prove the validity of their case, that the liberation of women is inevitably tied to the breakup of the family and the social rearing of children, but I am not yet convinced that the family cannot be completely redirected to be what we claim it has been. Such a restructuring will, however, have to come with a general restructuring of social priorities to eliminate the centrality of the marketplace in human relations and to permit real sharing between men and women of the pleasures and duties of the home and children. Such a view is also compatible with the premises of much of the women’s movement. If the militant women have yet to define clearly what is meant by freedom for men and women, they are groping toward such a definition.

A glance at the history of the women’s movement reveals that the current claims that marriage is legalized prostitution, that women are bred to be objects of consumption, and that women are forced to struggle with the duality of being both woman and person in a society that demands a choice—all have been echoed by earlier generations. The women’s movement began with a demand for basic political and legal rights and then later demanded that women have equal access with men to the job market. It became clear that women could not compete effectively so long as they were also primarily responsible for the household and the children. Miss Decter’s suggestion that the solution rests with changing our child-rearing habits so that little girls are not raised to be sell-indulgent women is a most shallow appraisal of a serious social problem. The women’s movement has its share, as all reform movements have, of neurotics and fools. It is easy, and dishonest, to pretend to deal with the movement as a whole by focusing on these elements. The women’s movement has challenged the value of our most cherished institutions; it has raised searching questions which have forced many men and women to reexamine their attitudes and actions. If it has not come up with altogether satisfactory answers, neither has anybody else, and it is now the appropriate moment to drop our defenses and deal honestly and directly with its challenge.

Ann J. Lane
Department of History
Douglass College
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

. . . The real locus of the Women’s Liberation movement is to be found not in the public and rather flamboyant organizations of women in their early and middle twenties but rather in the quiet, often unorganized efforts of women over thirty to achieve a sense of respected personhood and meaningful activity in their lives. On the whole these women did not grow up with a sense of ease as divine right. They are faced with such real problems as restricted opportunity for work and unequal reward for performance. Most of all they face the disquieting realization of a grossly unequal distribution of power in most marriages.

Miss Decter is right when she says that we now all enjoy “the freedom to make certain choices and take the consequences.” However, I doubt whether this is a “freedom granted [women] by society.” It seems more to be a basic element of the human condition available at all times to all men and women. But while the freedom may exist, in our society the consequences of the same choice are different for men and women. Overcoming the difficulties may ennoble an individual woman, but it does not justify abandoning the attempt to rectify the inequalities which apply to women as a class. To hold the contrary, as Miss Decter appears to do, is to indulge in a kind of sophisticated Uncle Tomism. . . .

Rabbi Stephen Forstein
Topeka, Kansas

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To the Editor:

. . . The “liberated” woman portrayed by Midge Decter is the product of an extraordinarily privileged, enlightened upbringing and education. As a result, Miss Decter concludes she is merely a spoiled child who refuses to accept the reality that life is difficult. Although I frankly doubt that even progressive private schools and “modern” parents have been as free of role stereotypes and sexually-differentiated expectations as Miss Decter suggests, I was also irked by the assumption that most of the women in Women’s Lib come from this kind of overprivileged background; we do not all belong to Miss Decter’s intellectually elite New York clique. (These people always think they are “everyone who counts.”) Furthermore, a woman with such an upbringing would still have to cope with the images of womanhood presented in the news media, films, fiction, and so on. Such a fairy princess would indeed suffer from inconsistent conditioning and her head would be in a frightful muddle.

Of course, most women in the Women’s Liberation movement are middle-class, but that usually means something far more earth-bound than the world inhabited by the fairy princess: it means an upbringing riddled with the confusion which comes from implicitly expressed but nonetheless strait-jacketing conceptions of femininity together with a rhetoric of individual fullfillment. The class character of Women’s Lib only proves again the validity of the concept of the “revolution of rising expectations.” Offer people a glimpse of the possibility of real self-fullfillment and they will know enough to resent being degraded, cheated, and manipulated.

Anyway, my main objection to the article is that Miss Decter does not know the first thing about the ideology of the women’s movement. She seems to think women want what men have—status and money (but without having to work for it). She couldn’t be more wrong. Although Women’s Lib insists that women who work have a right to their just rewards, far more profoundly, the movement is questioning the most fundamental values of the society: achievement glorified as the goal of life; competition which colors every human interaction; individualism carried so far that it leads to isolation; sex as ego-gratification instead of tenderness and mutual pleasure; meaningless work accepted as fair exchange for money and status; rigid role conceptions which violate the self. . . . I could go on and on. The end result of all of the above is alienated and manipulative human relations.

Women are beginning to feel that this way of life is “masculine.” Certainly women do compete, use sex to enhance their egos, fail to “see” other people except as objects, etc., but because, to a large extent, they have been excluded from the central arenas of society, they do so to a lesser degree than men and can more readily extricate themselves from such habits of mind. This is what we are trying to do in our collectives. Basically Miss Decter’s problem is that she totally fails to grasp the radical assumptions of the movement.

She implies in the article that the liberated woman does not recognize that she is different from men and wants fundamentally different things. On the contrary—the beautiful thing that is happening to women these days is that they are, for the first time, genuinely embracing their womanliness. The very qualities in themselves which they previously scorned—their sensitivity to the dynamics of human interaction, their emotional perceptiveness . . . these are now being recognized as strengths. No longer do women feel compelled to strive to be more rational, more abstract, more “masculine” in their thinking. . . .

The kind of liberated woman I know wants men to develop more multi-dimensionally too. We don’t think our advantages are innate. We feel that when a human being, male or female, is forced to conform to a role, part of her (his) true nature is denied. We are all capable of objectivity and subjectivity, logic, and intuition. And we are all capable of honest human interaction, rare as it is in our patriarchal society.

To get back to Midge Decter’s article: she argues that it is women who have wanted marriage and children and have therefore forced men to discipline their non-selective lusts. Has she never noticed that women can also lust in a random manner? And how can she forget that women have demanded marriage because without it they have been, until recently, economically helpless, and even today are stigmatized as rejects to be pitied or ridiculed? Near the end of her essay she suggests that if a woman wishes not to be a sexual object, she may refrain from involvement, setting her own “price” for sexual complicity. In a culture where a woman without a man is a sick nonentity, in a society where a woman writing about Women’s Liberation can assume that merely finding a congenial lover would constitute a happy ending fit for a fairy princess, it is obviously naive to suggest that an individual woman declare her sexual independence. However, this is precisely what women are now becoming courageous enough to do—because they are beginning to have the strength which comes from sisterhood.

Because women are growing strong together, it is now becoming possible to refrain from relationships which deny the mutual humanity of the so-called lovers. But this is not our ultimate goal. I think that most women in the movement still cherish the hope that men too will recognize that their humanity is deeper and more multifaceted than the sex role they have been forced into, and will join with women in working toward true liberation.

Linda C. Hunt
University of Massachusetts
Boston, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

“The Liberated Woman” is an immoral and ridiculously off-base piece. And even though the piece bears Midge Decter’s name it smacks so entirely of COMMENTARY’s view of the contemporary world that my unmistakable impression is that it was written in the magazine’s editorial rooms. . . . Every time COMMENTARY sets out to observe any of the numerous and, God knows, legitimate social-protest movements that are tearing our lives apart, it ends up sounding like a Jewish mother, arms folded across fat breasts, mouth compressed into fat face, saying: “After everything I’ve done for you, this is what I get back!” For, in the view of fat and self-satisfied COMMENTARY, what is behind all the social stirrings, all the churning and screaming and profound injustice thousands of people feel characterize their daily existences, is merely the dissatisfactions of a handful of ungrateful and maladjusted middle-class children. . . . What on earth can one actually say to such a wealth of painfully threatened reaction?

Vivian Gornick
The Village Voice
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . In spite of Midge Decter’s intellectual achievements and status in a male-dominated society, her opening paragraph indicates an unliberated attitude. I thought at first that the fairy who bestowed good looks upon the heroine was a put-on meant by the author to show up some of the attitudes of the male society which would be overcome by the heroine as she became liberated. To show how an attractive woman, who is in a position to exploit the exploiters, awakens to the male views which dominate our society, would have made an all the more telling point. Unfortunately, it was not the author’s intent to have the sleeping beauty awaken, only to have her stir restively a few times and grumble in her sleep.

Miss Decter makes her heroine a woman who is financially dependent on her parents and lovers. It is no wonder then that she cannot refute even the weakest arguments raised by her lover. When he argues that “as a husband he would still be expected to be the breadwinner,” it would be reasonable to expect that she would explain to him that this is a patently false argument and against everything Women’s Liberation is trying to accomplish. But Miss Decter’s heroine could not do this because she is certainly not a liberated woman. She is not concerned with any of the positive goals of the movement, only with its revelation of male exploitation of women which she uses as an excuse for her own unhappiness and status. When her lover next argues that he is “the one not permitted to cry” there isn’t the slightest hint that advocates of Women’s Liberation believe that men need liberation from their prescribed roles in our society as well as women.

One statement in particular made by the author seems very much out of place in a magazine like COMMENTARY: “And who would not, enjoying something less than divine happiness, be soothed and excited by the idea that he [sic] was indeed a victim?” That there might be some psychological basis for this masochistic conclusion does not mean that it is a major motivational factor in the Women’s Liberation movement. The statement could, with equal lack of meaningful value, be applied to the black liberation movement or even to the Zionist movement. . . .

Stuart Opotowsky
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

My immediate response to “The Liberated Woman” is that this is surely the last word on the subject: what is there left to say?

Miss Decter, it seems to me, has touched on her anti-heroine’s every weakness and on the reasons why she is so particularly vulnerable. The main weakness being her inability to equate love—fondly thought of as something neatly abstract—with responsibility, certainly today’s dirtiest word.

I accept Miss Decter’s laying partial blame on the heroine’s well-meaning parents, who lack the firmness and sense to be firm and sensible. However, there is another force, which Miss Decter somewhat slights, working equally hard to make her such a tough and irrational cookie, bringing on, in turn, a manifest discrimination against women by men.

This force is her tendency to play games with her sexual power—a power far more complex and potentially more dangerous than a man’s. Men don’t use sex as a weapon nearly so often as women do. Women use it constantly. Because they can withhold in a wide variety of emotional as well as physical ways, they can easily dominate and undermine men by refusing to “give” unless there’s something in it for them.

The fact that a lot of women are willing to play around with their sexual powers makes them fools.

No man is going to take this sort of thing lying down—or perhaps I should say standing up. A man’s only way of getting back at a woman who threatens to wound him by making a deal out of sex instead of letting it be an expression of mutual admiration, is to keep her in her place, pay her less, refuse to promote her or accept her in his institutions, businesses, and clubs; refuse to drink with her, and, in cases of extreme distress, even to eat with her.

Who can say how their rejection reflex began? Did men start oppressing women when women converted sex into something sinisterly useful, or did women start using sex when they discovered it to be their best weapon against a hostile world of men?

Even if we don’t know the answer to that one, we do know that those liberated women who believe that men have a monopoly on sexual power, have it all twisted. It’s they themselves who wield the greatest power. If anybody should be called a sexist—awful word—it is the female. Maybe, after all, it’s just as well that Miss Decter’s nameless lady hasn’t yet got wise.

Anne Bernays Kaplan
Cambridge, Massachusetts

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Midge Decter’s “The Liberated Woman” is not only sensible—all of her stuff is—but a virtuoso performance. It is the best I have read on the topic, exceeding the only other good essay in breadth and reach.

Ernest Van Den Haag
New York City

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To the Editor:

Sincere congratulations for publishing Midge Decter’s article. For those of us who are both “professional” and “liberated” women, but who are not enchanted with Women’s Lib, this essay has expressed much of what we have been trying to say about why we are not a part of the movement. My own standard riposte to questioners has been that I want to get my next job “because 1 am, not because I am a woman.” This has evoked hostility from women who charge me either with insensitivity to my own “enslavement” or with a lack of sympathy for those women who have not been as “successful” or “lucky” as I. Like some of the men in Miss Decter’s article, I too applaud the efforts of the Women’s Liberation movement to secure “equal pay for equal work” and so forth. But also like Midge Decter, I deplore the confusion of such basic rights with the insecurities of life in modern society. If you haven’t “made it” look first to yourself. Only after a long hard look are you entitled to wonder whether your sex is part of the reason for your failure.

Irene Taviss
Cambridge, Massachusetts

_____________

 

To the Editor:

At last, a realistic, lucid, penetrating analysis of the headlong fall of the American woman toward “liberation.” . . . It made me shudder again at the innocence and energy with which so many women are fighting to disenfranchise themselves and prove beyond a doubt that “man’s best friend is his dog.”

Miss Decter picks her way so smoothly through the last forty years of changing values and aspirations, properly noting when change was progress, that the ultimate victory seems inevitable. Woman will surely liberate herself totally and achieve absolute freedom from intimate or lasting human relationships, from any personal commitments in a life devoid of emotional and sexual gratification.

Manya Starr
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

It’s risky to elaborate on another person’s archetype, but I see something incomplete in Midge Decter’s “The Liberated Woman”—otherwise a superb piece, and badly needed. Miss Decter’s dismal young woman is indeed sick and silly; her emotional polarization is, indeed, diverting Women’s Lib from practical goals; but it’s not all her fault. It’s partly her mother’s—who, I suspect, never taught her to take care of herself. Her mother’s generation (mine) must be unique, in history and in nature, for neglecting this duty. Not many of us have taught our children (boys or girls) the essential skills: keeping one’s home, self, accounts, etc., in order. These things have to be done, however minimally—and done efficiently if there’s to be time for “real life.” Why did we cook their meals and sew on their buttons, and never teach them to do it and do it right? Not just because we were lazy. We had learned to treat the necessary evil of housework as a humiliation, a bad area for contact with our children.

As Miss Decter does point out, her archetype chose an education for leisure, not to prepare for a job; but I doubt, when that Sarah Lawrence (or wherever) catalogue arrived, that her mother ventured to remark that Comp. Lit. 104 butters no parsnips. And earlier, when the archetype was at school, I suspect adjustment, not achievement (with its evil hint of “competition”), was the goal. Everywhere, the young woman seems to have been denied both competence and self-reliance.

A point about that lady senior editor: even if her pay were fair (mine is, if that’s relevant), if she had children she wouldn’t have broken even for years. Child-care expenses for married working women are not tax-deductible at a practical level. (The IRS rule is: If joint income is less than $6000, expenses up to $600 for the care of one child, up to $900 for two or more, can be deducted if both parents work. A single woman can deduct similarly for the care of any child for whom she is responsible, notwithstanding her income level. A single man can deduct similarly . . . and at any income level.) Only an indifferent mother will confide her children to an 8-AM-to-6-PM day-care center (and when they’re sick, what?). Only a very devoted husband can resist treating his wife’s income-reducing job as her hobby. And only a very determined (or rich) woman can stay that course.

Esther S. Yntema
Atlantic Monthly Press
Boston, Massachusetts

_____________

 

To the Editor:

. . . Midge Decter’s article seems to me a most beautifully done study of the state of mind of a corn-fed member of the middle classes, but it might be written about a middle-class man instead of a middle-class woman. I call it a masterpiece in its analysis of that unisex situation, but I feel that it does not touch on the resentments, some unjustified but justified, which make for female discontent.

Rebecca West
London, England

_____________

 

Midge Decter writes:

To MacDonald S. Moore: Are you saying it is not true that today’s highly educated, ambitious working girl tends to hook her ambition to the issue of status rather than money? Or merely that it was not nice of me to say so? It may, as you indicate, be popular to “explain the dynamics of social reform by referring to the status problems of reformers” but not nearly so popular as it has become to discredit an observation through the twin agencies of false analogy and the unexamined assumption of virtue. The question of what it is that Women’s Liberation “programs” actually signify was precisely one of the things I was attempting to analyze; thus the validity of these “programs,” especially for those who like yourself demand “research,” ought not to be quite so confidently asserted. Let me in turn offer you a bit of homework: read a pamphlet entitled “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm”; it may be obtained by application to one or another of the several offices of the movement called Women’s Liberation. If it should be unavailable, I shall be happy to recommend at least half a dozen others.

_____________

 

To Barbara F. Lefcowitz: Ideals always transcend the pursuits of those who claim to be their adherents; that is why ideals are such good things to have. And movements—especially and most conveniently when taken in their “widest” sense—always try to incorporate as many of the above as will fit onto one mimeograph stencil; that is why movements are such good things to lead. And speaking of misconceptions, I wish to point out that it was the demands of women in the 20’s and 30’s—those whose vantage point you would welcome—particularly their sexual demands, to which I was referring in speaking of male submission. They were demands that—however well-intentioned were both their having been pressed and their having been acceded to—have not in their realization brought women happiness as advertised. Where did the notion of “constricting attitudes” and “mothers” come from? Nowhere did I exculpate men for anything on the ground that their mothers made them do it; I suspect that you yourself may have been more tainted by “sexist” ideology than you realize. On the other hand, ought not a defender of women’s equality hold women at least equally responsible for their own “pernicious values”? Or are women not yet fully human enough to have any?

_____________

 

To Sue Wimmershoff-Caplan: I am at something of a loss to imagine what piece is being responded to by your letter: certainly not the one I wrote. I did, to be sure, say that the freedom granted to women is remarkably equal to that enjoyed by men. I went further and characterized that freedom as the freedom to struggle, impose their will, take their licks, win their victories, and pay without too much special plead

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