Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Unfavorable Book Review or Linkfest: An Old Wife's Tale

This is another harsh book review...I wrote it about fifteen years ago, for a different audience, in a different style. The book in question tanked, although you can find collectors' copies online if you really want them. I never owned it. Reviewing it for one of the few public libraries that did acquire it, though, I felt obliged to bash it primarily by comparing it with better books that that library owned; I bought many of those books myself, and of course, as an Amazon Associate, I can get more of them. That makes this old review an Amazon linkfest (to make up for the book reviews I failed to post yesterday and Monday?). For example, in spite of some disagreements I enjoyed, and recommend, this study of very young women's experience:

An Old Wife’s Tale is a book to be praised only with faint damns. One cannot, for example, say that every word in the book is false, including “a” and “the.” It is probably true that Midge Decter was the youngest child in her family, was married twice, and became a grandmother, although she does not reminisce in sufficient detail to tell readers anything new about family life or, indeed, to hold our interest. As for her basic theme—that the feminist movement has been a bad thing because Decter never needed it—it should be sufficient for me to say that despite its errors the feminist movement has been a good thing, because it worked for me, and so there. There are more of me than there are of her, and we vote.

At least Decter can't be accused of flattering herself or furthering her own interest. The self-portrait she paints is not merely candid, or even unflattering. On her own testimony, Decter divorced her first husband for no obvious reason, was a working mother, and slept her way into an interesting job-cum-remarriage, then set out to disparage, discourage, and make life harder for any younger women who wanted to do likewise. Well known as a liberal Democrat, she went on the stump to bash the infant N.O.W., found herself preaching to a Republican choir, and, around midlife, became a sort of token Democrat employed by the Republican Party. 

In this job Decter, although Jewish, found herself in the awkward position of courting the fundamentalist Christians on the extreme right—about the only people who were still willing to listen to speeches on the theme that woman’s place, if the woman happened not to be Midge Decter, was in the home. I would have liked to believe that this, at least, was done out of the same kind of courtesy that my parents taught me a real Christian should always show to religious Jews. Decter does not allow readers like me to keep our illusions. She made nice to the extreme Christians, the kind who embarrass even their fellow Southern Baptists, purely in order to scratch up support for opinions others found insupportable. In short, she manages to present herself as a disgrace to feminists and antifeminists, Democrats and Republicans, Jews and Christians alike.

The inherent contradictions and transparent self-interest that pervade An Old Wife’s Tale are pardonable, and typical, in first books. In books like Wendy Shalit’s Return to Modesty, or George Stephanopoulos’s All Too Human, or Reggie White’s Fighting the Good Fight, there is a considerable amount of hasty, unformed thought, shaped by neither politics nor shame, and probably already embarrassing to these authors; but readers can hope that criticism will guide these young writers either to coherence or to a nonliterary career. For Midge Decter, a senior citizen, there is no such hope. The friends and relatives who sponsored the publication of this book should be ashamed of themselves. Either the political loyalties of the distinguished conservative critics whose favorable blurbs appear on the jacket (evidently written without reading the book), or the family loyalties of Norman Podhoretz and Elliot Abrams, ought to have motivated these people to edit Decter’s book into decency. They did not.

Some of the ideas discussed in An Old Wife’s Tale are neither incoherent nor hypocritical. Those ideas are, without exception, much better stated in Laura Ingraham’s Hillary Trap (previously reviewed by me: bad title, good book), by which they were probably inspired. A few of these ideas are also found in other good books by competent conservative women writers, and An Old Wife’s Tale would be a much better book if it had reflected a little study of books by old-fashioned ladies like Dale Evans Rogers, Anita Bryant, and Eugenia Price; or of freethinkers like Suzette Haden Elgin, (the adult) Germaine Greer, and Marilou Awiakta; or of timeless metafeminists like Margaret Atwood, Pearl Buck, and Charlotte Brontë; or of protofeminists like Ellen White, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Louisa May Alcott; or of current attention-getters like Alice Walker, Mary Daly, and Arianna Huffington; or, in fact, of almost any book. An Old Wife’s Tale is written as if news magazines were all Decter has read since slogging through Jane Austen. Every one of the fifteen brilliant female writers just mentioned will be found to agree with Decter on some points. Every one of them also made those points better than Decter does, and put them together into a worthwhile, coherent, honorable book.

If it took a brilliant writer to reconcile feminism with common sense, there might be some excuse for Decter’s failure to do so. However, some of us worked it all out in grade ten. Feminism is the belief that women have equal inherent value with men. Feminism is an essential component of any sane woman’s, and any fairminded man’s, political thought, not to be confused with any further ideas about how best to sustain a just and free society for women and men. The noisiest feminists during the E.R.A. uproar were socialists. The women who have anything worthwhile to say to the present generation are not socialists, but, whatever else they may be, they must be feminists. If they were not feminists they would not attempt to shape public opinion at all. Feminism is not the property of any religious or political party. Therefore, any female thinker—by definition, a feminist—must be expected to agree with some other feminist thinkers and disagree with others. Women like Decter may legitimately blame socialist feminists for promoting unwelcome socialist developments in modern history. They might even hope, as Laura Ingraham, Elinor Burkett, and Heather Whitestone McCallum seem to hope, to bring about improvements by doing so. But blaming “feminists” without attempting a cogent analysis of exactly what they find objectionable, and why, as Decter does, displays ignorance and gives intelligent modern feminists a bad name.

Decter’s best idea might be that, in a just and free society, employers should regard motherhood as the precise female equivalent to military service. After all, both options normally appeal to people in their twenties who have no other vocation; both involve a certain amount of self-sacrifice and, thus, build character in survivors who return to the workforce in their thirties and forties; both, unlike real jobs, tend to be better done by the young than by the mature; both exact a certain—usually temporary—loss of money, mental energy, and physical health; and, in order to sustain a democratic republic, both must be chosen by a certain percentage of young people. Decter comes close to saying all this, but she does not say it, probably because it qualifies as a legitimate feminist (but not socialist) idea, or perhaps because her purpose is to eschew coherent thought and thus demonstrate her intellectual inferiority to her husband. (And how it must gravel the greedy, needy, envious, self-seeking soul she bares in An Old Wife’s Tale, to realize that, thanks to feminism, millions of women can now afford to wait until we find husbands who are willing to stretch to our level rather than demanding that we sink down to theirs.)

Her worst idea is the speculation that four recently overpublicized cases of mass murder by schoolboys were caused by adults’ failure to hold little girls back enough to allow little boys to feel superior. If Decter’s woman-hating had permitted her to read How to Overthrow the Government, or if her fear of intellectual excellence had allowed her to read Joseph Glenmullen's Prozac Backlash, she might have been able to avoid adding yet another useless theory to the existing mess. Drugs that provide an illusion of cheerful, focussed energy for some users produce violent insanity in others. Confusion on this point costs lives--and Decter is spreading confusion.

One hesitates to recommend that any book be removed from the public libraries...but, in view of the harm Decter’s speculation might potentially do in the kind of uneducated, right-wing, barely functional home where her book seems most likely to be read, this one probably ought to be. Don’t buy it. Let it die. In ways the E.R.A. agitators could never have foreseen, this book could truly become part of the next generation’s greatest social problem--which may well be "Prozac Dementia."