Midge Decter, Muriel Fox

Feminism and the Family

VTR Date: January 1, 1976

NOW founder Muriel Fox and "antifeminist" Midge Decter in conversation.


GUEST: Midge Decter, with Muriel Fox

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now, I’m not enormously impressed with the doctrine of full disclosure that somehow has slopped over from the world of politics to the rest of our lives. For baring one’s soul hardly makes a dishonest person honest, nor will respecting the privacy of one’s personal commitments make an honest person less so. But full disclosure does seem to be the order of the day. And so, as THE OPEN MIND turns once again to the matter of the women’s movement in America, I suppose that I should disclose first, that my own wife has written what I consider a most perceptive book on the impact of feminism, as well as of Freudianism on mothering. Further, one of my guests today, Muriel Fox, a founder and the Chairman of the Board of NOW, the National Organization for Women, is a very dear, old friend. And my other guest, Midge Decter, whose book, The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation is strongly antifeminist, is a very dear, new friend. And somehow or other, that leaves me in the middle, and at the time to begin the program.

Thank you, ladies, for joining me today. I mean seriously that I’m grateful that the two of you should take time off from our other activities. Muriel is Executive Vice President of Carl Beyer Associates, and President now of the Legal Defense Fund and Education Fund of NOW; and Midge Decter, from your position as Senior Editor of Basic Books. I think perhaps the best way to begin the program if you don’t mind, is to refer to an article that Betty Friedan wrote in The New York Times a few weeks ago, in which she referred, in talking about feminism, taking a new turn, referred, Muriel Fox, to a statement that you had made that the future of the family is an overriding feminist issue. And I think many of us thought just the opposite was true. And I wonder if you’d want to comment on that.

FOX: Why sure. Well, it’s always been true that we’ve been concerned with the family. And I would say feminism strives to overcome stereotypes and prejudices that prevent a person from fulfilling his or her full potential as an individual, as a human being. We find that today’s social institutions and support systems very much work against today’s individual, because they’re based on old stereotypes. They assume that today’s family is breadwinner father, a homemaker mother, and two or more children. Well, only seven percent of today’s families fulfill that particular stereotype that you see in all the media. So our support systems really don’t serve all the families that exist today. We consider this a very important feminist issue.

HEFFNER: Yet you say – and I would ask Midge about that, and then not try to make it question/answer, but to get us all to talk together – you say that the future of the family is an overriding feminist issue, and you say, ‘This has always been true”.

FOX: Sure.

HEFFNER: And I wonder, Midge, whether you agree with that.

DECTER: Well, I think that the idea that women have gotten some kind of terrible raw deal, and particularly that they have been exploited by men was certainly an idea that was at the basis of this movement. And it was an idea that did not do anything to conduce to the improvement of family relations. God knows, families are very delicate arrangements under the best of circumstances. No society has ever managed to invent any that are foolproof. But I would…It’s too easy, it seems to me, simply to talk about “the family” as if you were talking about some kind of mechanical arrangement. I think this movement did a great deal to undermine the kind of attitudes on the part of young women and young men that were necessary in order to make happy marriages and solid families. And now, to say, “Of course it’s an overriding issue”. Indeed it is an overriding issue. The family is in a terrible crisis. Now, you can say it’s in a crisis because society hasn’t provided the support systems for it, but I think I would prefer to talk about the attitudes which are undermining it.

FOX: Can I pitch right in? (Laughter)

DECTER: Yes. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Please. Please do.

FOX: Well, first of all, we’ve never said…I’ve read your book, and frankly, I think it’s outdated. I think it was outdated when it was written. But we never said that men oppress women. We’ve said that really society and a lot of the traditions were difficult for men and women. We’ve also said, and I think it’s been proved more and more, that our concept of partnership between men and women leads to, I think, beautiful, romantic, fulfilling marriages and relationships and families. And I think we are getting better families today. And as Dick knows, I have a very happy marriage. I think we have a good family. I think we’re seeing more and more families where people are not playing the old roles. I think it was unnatural for people to have to go through the hypocrisy of saying the man is the ruler and protector, the woman is the dependent person who has to use her wiles to get her way. I think this was very unnatural. I think we’re going to see happier families, more loving families. I think we’re seeing them already. And this is something that Betty Friedan and I and many of the earliest people in NOW foresaw as the goal and foresaw as something that was very possible and that was happening. And we’ve seen it happen. We have partnerships now. I think that is true family.

HEFFNER: Midge, I don’t think you terribly much subscribe to that depiction.

DECTER: Well, I don’t want to discuss, let’s not talk about past history. It is true that my book is dated, partly because it was an analysis of the radicalism of the early days of the movement.

FOX: No, the early days of certain radicals. You quoted people who were not the mainstream of the movement.

DECTER: Well, as I said to Betty Friedan many years ago, if Gloria Steinem and Simone de Bouvuard and Germaine Greer and others were not leaders and intellectual leaders of this movement, it was the first I had ever heard of it, because I had never heard anybody. I had certainly not heard her renounce any of their views, either. But in any case, leaving that aside, if I too subscribe to the idea that a marriage is a partnership. I don’t think we have any disagreement about that. I don’t think it’s too complicated to understand what constitutes a proper partnership. It’s, a marriage is a friendship in which a husband and a wife are on one another’s side and help one another and support one another and do all those things. I don’t think really that’s the discussion. But to say that because we now enunciate this principle we see wonderful marriages all around, I don’t know. What I see, being a mother of three young daughters, and having many, many young women in my house, what I see is a lot of young women in a state of crisis, either because they are having difficulty getting married, or because they are having difficulty staying married. We know that certainly to announce that the American family has never been in such good condition is somewhat belied by the statistics.

FOX: Who said that?

DECTER: Well, and there are a lot of…Also, I think you see that you set up, you really set up a straw man when you talk about stereotypes. If you’re actually talking about living men and women, the way they actually lived all around us, this description of marriage that you gave with the man being the supporter and the woman using her wiles, that stuff was from ladies magazines. It never was the stuff of real life. This country was full of immigrant families in, which were not describable by women using their wiles and men being strong and so on. It was, there were families in which struggling people, having different jobs to do, tried the best they could to help one another out. Now, I have read descriptions of these poor, godforsaken, beat-upon women. If the movement has not said that men oppressed women, then I’d like to know (laughter), I’d like to know where this notion came from.

FOX: Well, again, that’s past history. In fact…


FOX: I’d like to help you also move to a…

DECTER: …past history.

FOX: …more constructive position. I think it’s…we’re in the 80s now. We’re just about in the 80s.


FOX: I’d like to see us all work together to try to make better relationships and better potential for all people. I think the time is over really for the confrontation and the name-calling.

DECTER: Well, that’s okay. It’s perfectly okay with me.

HEFFNER: May I ask you something about that statement?

FOX: Yes.

HEFFNER: Does that mean – and this is not, “You’re right, you’re wrong; you’re wrong, you’re right” – does that mean that you feel that – Midge said something before about families being very delicate arrangements, and you agree – does that mean that you feel that perhaps those arrangements had been to some extent disrupted by the necessary harshness or aggressiveness of the feminist movement before this period?

FOX: No. I think, first of all, families have changed. As I’ve said, there’s no “The family”. That’s seven percent. The other families are all kinds. There’s single-parent families; they can be very healthy families. There’s families, certainly, with a good deal of divorce. Sometimes they can be healthy. There are families which are extended, where the older people come back. There are all sorts of families. People caring for each other. So I don’t see THE FAMILY in capital letters. But I don’t think that feminism has disrupted any kind of family, even the seven-percent family. What’s happened is we have inflation, we have new trends. People are moving into the market, as you know, far more than 50 percent of women are now out in the work force. And our economy is based on two incomes. That’s going to be increasingly so. That’s probably the reason we haven’t had a worse recession until now. But at the same time, prices are being based on two incomes. All estimates say that by 1990 we’re going to have 75 percent of women out in the work force. Now, what we want to do is still continue to work to see that they get an even break, that they can get good jobs for their potential. But at the same time we have to develop systems that will make it possible for the family to have some sort of quality of life at home.

HEFFNER: By what family do you mean? The seven-percent family?

FOX: No, I mean all families. People who care for one another. I think that’s families. And I think that is being strengthened. We’re changing our roles. I think Midge looked to the old days when a man had a certain role and a woman had a certain role. And I agree with you that there were so many variations of those roles that some of them were stereotypes. But I think what we’re saying now is that you can’t give people only one job in life because they happen to be half the human race. You can’t say to someone, “Your job is to be a homemaker and to cook and wash dishes and clean because you’re this half of the human race”, and “Your job is to earn as much money as possible no matter what because you’re the other half”. I think what we’re saying now is that people have many jobs and many roles.

HEFFNER: What about the attitude…

DECTER: But nobody…excuse me.

HEFFNER: Certainly, Midge.

DECTER: But nobody’s saying that. Of course, obviously nobody’s saying, “You have to say home and be a homemaker”. Women, we know that. There’s no question about it. Women are out in the work force and more and more many of them are there out of necessity.

FOX: Right.

DECTER: …as you pointed out.

FOX: Absolutely.

DECTER: Not because they just simply feel like fulfilling themselves this way. Many are in the work force because it’s too boring to stay at home. There’s not enough work to do at home, for one thing, anymore. And there’s not very much value put on what women do at home…

FOX: Not enough. Not enough.

DECTER: …anymore either. Not enough…

FOX: Right.

DECTER: …but I would say that we, you know, that something did – I won’t say what – but something did come along to say what women do at home is degrading and disgusting and terrible and oppressive. Somebody said it. I won’t say who. And thereby undermine…I know a lot of women who were staying home who said they felt there was something wrong with them. And they had been made to feel that way by someone. Let’s not specify who. Let’s just say that this reached a certain crisis.

HEFFNER: As we move on into the 80s, is that…

FOX: Let’s just say one thing. There’s been a lot of rhetoric, on your side, on the women’s movement side. It’s only 13 years old. We’re really growing. I mean, we’ve changed the world. We’ve changed society. It’s perhaps the greatest event of the twentieth century. And we’re learning a great deal. It’s only 13 years old. I think in the early days there were women who used all sorts of terms about the kind of work that’s done in the home. Now, I would say what we’re saying instead, and what we’ve really been saying all along, many of us, is that the homemaker who works in the home is undervalued. She doesn’t have security; she’s one man away from welfare. She doesn’t have enough recognition for the value of her work. And this is one of the main goals of NOW.

HEFFNER: Muriel, did you anticipate a dozen years ago and more that there would be this shift in emphasis, if I may call it that, of the feminist movement?

FOX: It’s not a shift. It’s a continuing growth, really.

HEFFNER: Okay, this…

FOX: But we didn’t’ think it would happen so fast. Because frankly, Betty Friedan and I and the rest of us never dreamed that there would be such a change so quickly…

HEFFNER: Well, but let me ask you…

FOX: …there would be so many women in the work force.

HEFFNER: Is that what’s changed?

FOX: Yes, also…

HEFFNER: You said you didn’t think it would happen so fast, and…

FOX: Right. I mean, I think it’s been a miracle, in 13 years, what NOW has accomplished. NOW is only 13 years old.

DECTER: Are you claiming credit for NOW for putting so many women in the work force?

FOX: We’ve helped. But it’s…

DECTER: No. (Laughter)

FOX: No, there have been other factors. And I would say inflation may be the most important factor of all.

DECTER: Well, I would like to go back to the question of the family. Because there is a sense in which it is proper, perfectly proper to say that all kinds of things are families. Only seven percent are a mommy and a daddy and two little kids. Then there is the extended family, and then there is the single-parent family. Well, I would like to get to the question of the single-parent family, because the single-parent family is, you can call it that, or you can say that it is the result of a broken family. It is, a single-parent family is what results from a divorce.

FOX: Not always.

DECTER: By and large – not always, but in the majority of cases – in the majority of cases, and by and large, the single parent, the overwhelming majority of the single parents of the single-parent family are women left with children after divorce or widowhood or something. And I think if one actually examined the experience of many young women who are members of single-parent families, and if you just see…I see them around all the time. I work with them. I see them on the bus. You get on the bus every morning. There are these terrific, gallant girls with their little kids in sneakers going off to the daycare center, and they’re being terrifically organized and brave and all that stuff. And you look at them and you think, “Well, okay. So you’ve found yourself. But were you not perhaps sold a bill of goods to think that this life is better than some, that the life you might have had?” And I think if you ask all these young women, “Would you like for these years the support of a man?” And I don’t only mean the financial support, but I mean that, too. I mean all the kinds of support that a man gives you. The protection, the thing that enables you to be a person who looks after the young. Now, it’s true that there’s technically no reason why anybody can’t be a mommy and anybody can’t be a daddy and all that, except that it doesn’t really work out that way.

HEFFNER: Are you…

DECTER: Doesn’t really work out that way. I think if you ask the young women themselves, “Do you want a man to husband you while you bring up these little children?” I think you would find most of them now saying, “Yes, I wish I had one”. And now you find…

HEFFNER: You mean someone to pay the rent. Well, sure, that would be fine.

DECTER: Excuse me. You see, I said something much, that you reduce…If I say, “To husband you”, and you reduce that to paying the rent. It’s you who have reduced it. That isn’t what I mean by husbanding one at all. There really, there are differences between the sexes. And a husband is not the same thing as a wife. Now, there are marriages in which the man plays the wife and the woman plays the husband. And I think by the time these marriages reach middle age, you will find that they are not very satisfactory.

FOX: I’m sorry, I have to disagree with that. My husband and I have been married 24 years. We’re partners. I think it’s as loving and caring and supportive a relationship, and I see no reason why he has to be the boss and the supporter or I have to be…

DECTER: I didn’t say, I didn’t say…

FOX: No, I think it’s very important…

DECTER: But you see, if you use the word “husband” and you immediately say, “Pay the rent, be the boss”, you’re already involved in a tradition of discussion of this…

FOX: I’m talking about partnership. I think that’s…

DECTER: …human relation, but you are already in a tradition. There’s already a habit of description of this relation which reduces it. It’s reductive to say, if I say “husband” to you, it’s reductive to say “pay the rent”.

HEFFNER: But I think Muriel is using that seven-percent notion, and I think she is translating what you’re talking about, in the seven-percent terms that you’re talking about; that a traditional relationship, which you say doesn’t exist any longer…Is that fair?

FOX: Well, there are fewer traditional relationships, and there’s all sorts of variations of them also.

HEFFNER: Okay. But I guess the question that I would pt to Midge and then to you is: Are you suggesting, Midge, that that seven-percent relationship, the traditional American family, which Muriel says really doesn’t exist to a very great extent in this country, that that is the relationship that you would embrace because you thought it was more nourishing of the human condition?

DECTER: Well, you see, I don’t know. She has so pejoratively described this family that I cannot say “yes” to you.

HEFFNER: You mean the boss?

FOX: No, it’s not pejorative.

HEFFNER: The man as the boss, and the woman…

DECTER: Yes, yes, it is. Of course it’s pejorative.

HEFFNER: Oh, come on…

FOX: Well, but I think that seven percent…

DECTER: “The man goes to work and the wife stays home and uses her wiles” is the way you described it.

FOX: All right.

DECTER: Yeah. I think whether a wife goes to work or stays home is not as relevant an issue as you make it.

FOX: I agree. No, that’s what I say, the seven percent can be a happy family or unhappy. I don’t think that…

HEFFNER: But what is relevant, it seems to me…

FOX: Yes?

HEFFNER: …is the values you respectively put upon the traditional notion of family. Let’s forget about the boss and the slave. But upon the values coming from the notion that the woman was essentially a homemaker and the man was essentially the breadwinner. Putting it in those terms. I wonder what values you respectively place upon that relationship, without getting into the fact that in some of those relationships the man was the boss and the wife was the slave. And in many other relationships it wasn’t true.

DECTER: And in many others it was quite the reverse.

FOX: Right. What’s happening is perhaps those seven percent are those who choose that particular role. And I think that’s fine. That’s one of the options. But we have to have other options. We have to have other jobs, other roles. I think it’s much healthier to have maybe seven percent fulfilling that role. You know, let’s hope they’re happy. I think a lot of these women who are divorced, if you said to them, “Would you go back to the man you were married to?” would say, “No. I’d love to have a wonderful man, but I haven’t found him yet”.

HEFFNER: Muriel, I guess the question that I’m really trying to get at is again your respective evaluations of the – Midge on another program here had talked about transactions between men and women, traditional transactions between men and women, that they were more nurturing of both – and I gather what you’re saying is: Let is be where it is. Those who choose one kind of relationship, God bless them, if it works well for them.

FOX: Sure.

HEFFNER: And I have the suspicion that you’re saying that your sense of what human beings are like doesn’t preclude other relationships, but makes us put our emphasis upon that traditional transaction.

DECTER: It doesn’t preclude other relationships. But I think that this is, I do believe now and I have all along believed that this is an arid way to discuss central human experiences to begin with. The question…

HEFFNER: And I think, Midge, I think I just got a signal. Am I correct? That we’re at the end of our time? No? We can go on, and that’s not what it means? Fine. Go ahead.

DECTER: The word “roles” is itself already symptomatic of a mechanical, of a political, an ideological and political description of what are very complex and delicate human relations. It seems to me that if we don’t agree that there’s something wrong with the American family, if we say, “Well, you know, there are a lot of different options, and seven percent take this and 22 percent take that”, if we don’t begin with the proposition that there is something wrong, that people, that the lives of people in their early thirties have been disrupted, feel disrupted, that there is an extremely high divorce rate which is a symptom of something – and I’m not against…

FOX: Or maybe that divorces are easy to get, also, and that people who were locked together very unhappily for the wrong reasons are now able to escape.

DECTER: Well, divorce…Right. I am not against divorce. I am really not against divorce at all. On the other hand, I think we have to concede that things are not simply everybody taking advantage of his options or her options. There are, we are, there is a kind of crisis in American family. It’s a crisis of attitude. It has to do with the resentment of young men at being, about being domesticated, because young women refuse to domesticate them anymore. It has to do with the resentment of young women…

FOX: What do you mean by “domesticated”?

DECTER: What I mean by domesticated is, I mean brought in, and brought into a stable family, is what I mean by domesticated. I mean brought into a domestic arrangement. This used to be the woman’s, this was the woman’s role, not to enslave…

FOX: This I really would like to argue…

HEFFNER: Let’s hear it.

DECTER: …not to enslave. But if we don’t begin, I wish we had begun the other way around, because if we don’t agree that there is something wrong with the family situation in the United States right now…

FOX: There’s always been something wrong.

DECTER: …and something wrong not being that society, the government hasn’t provided institutions that make it possible for women to go to work or something.

HEFFNER: Muriel?

FOX: Yes. There’s always been something wrong with families. People have been unhappy. They’ve been married together. There’ve been resentments. People have had one role or another role. They couldn’t get out. Also, they all had to work so hard just to make a living, or they were working on the farm. Now we do have more options. I think that’s why families are choosing more options. I think it is the time of transition. I’m not saying it’s a happy time. But I think it’s no unhappier, considering all the other pressures, including inflation and war, etcetera.

DECTER: But what about children?

HEFFNER: Excuse me.

FOX: It’s no unhappier than it was before. But I think I really want to argue with one thing. I really argue with your concept that it is the woman who traps the man or entices a man into marriage, and he finally agrees because he can’t get off the hook. I think marriage is the greatest institution, if it’s a good marriage. And I think there’s as much for both of them to get out of it.

DECTER: Of course there is.

FOX: And I think we’re finding this. But again and again – now, perhaps this is outdated in your book – but you talked again and again about this being something that the woman tries to lure the man into.

DECTER: Of course it is.

FOX: It’s a partnership.

DECTER: That doesn’t mean that it’s not a partnership. It means that a man is someone who needs reassurance on this score, and a woman is someone who does not.

FOX: Well, that’s not true anymore. Today, I think…

DECTER: Young men fear getting married, and young women don’t…

FOX: I don’t agree.

DECTER: And I simply, I think if people were honest…

FOX: That’s not true anymore.

DECTER: If young men and young women were honest…Well, now young women also fear it, so you’ve got young men fearing it, and everybody is afraid of it now.

FOX: I think they’re going into marriage for the right reasons. I think before a lot of them went into a marriage for the wrong reasons. One of the reasons was because a woman could not be unmarried. She had no place in society. And also, of course, she had no financial security. So now, if a woman chooses to be married, it’s because she wants to make a long-term commitment with a man, and I think this is why the man makes the choice also.

DECTER: But you haven’t mentioned children. You talk about families. You haven‘t mentioned children once. It turns out that the arrangement in which, even if it’s not altogether sunny, in which there is a father and a mother, is, with all its shortcomings, on this head, is the best arrangement in which little children grow up.

HEFFNER: We now, really – believe me, this time I checked – we have about 30 seconds left.

Muriel, how do you respond to that? Because I think that is basic. That it’s not the option you have for this arrangement or that arrangement or the other arrangement, but for children, the traditional, in the sense of mother-father-children arrangement is best, healthiest?

FOX: I don’t have time. I would like to go into it at great length. I just want to say a happy family is good for children. And an unhappy family where the woman is frustrated or the man feels trapped is unhappy for children. My parents were married 25 years and it was unhappy because they didn’t get along. My husband and I get along very well. This is happy for our children.

HEFFNER: Okay. That’s the point at which we end. And obviously, you’re both going to have to come back another time.

FOX: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Thank you so much for joining me today, Midge Decter and Muriel Fox.

Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.