Feminism in the Handmaid’s Tale

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Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is regarded as a modern classic in the dystopian future genre. The Handmaid’s Tale is a revolutionary dystopian tale which addressed the important issues prevalent at the time of its conception in a way unlike any other. In her most famous novel, Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, tackled issues such as feminism and misogyny, growing conservative sentiment throughout the globe, and the religious fundamentalism that had been budding in the United States and other prominent nations. Unfortunately, as socially progressive and introspective as The Handmaid’s Tale is, there is nothing in this world without faults. Atwood’s seminal novel has come under fire due to the way Atwood writes away race, appropriates the black slave experience, supports so called white feminism, and criticizes the contemporary feminist movement.

Margaret Atwood is considered to be not only one of the most important Canadian authors of all time, but one of the most important authors of the second half of the twentieth century. Surprisingly, while Atwood is best known for her novels, she first came to prominence as a poet in the 1960s. Atwood formally began her career in 1961 with the publishing of her first collection of poetry Double Persephone. Atwood’s first published work was a success among critics and won Atwood her first award, the E.J. Pratt award. Then, later in 1966, Atwood published yet another book of poetry titled The Circle Game, which won her a Governor General’s Award (Overview of Margaret(Eleanor) Atwood).

Atwood’s repertoire does not include only poetry and The Handmaid’s Tale, but also other novels that she has written throughout her half-a-century long career. Many of the famed author’s novels tend to portray themes of pain and suffering, and these themes are often illustrated through female characters. While Atwood often uses female characters, she makes it clear that these women are not passive victims who take the punishment given to them by life without fighting back in some way. Atwood often has clear feminist themes woven into the narrative of her novels. These stories often have a female protagonist who is a modern woman searching for her identity in a difficult and troubling life. Atwood’s feminist beliefs can be seen in many of the novels she has written such as The Edible woman, Surfacing, Life Before Man, Bodily Harm, and obviously in The Handmaid’s Tale (Overview of Margaret(Eleanor) Atwood).While Atwood’s main inspirations whilst writing The Handmaid’s Tale were the rise of conservatism and religious fundamentalism at the time of the book’s inception, Atwood was also influenced by the past.

The parallels between Atwood’s Gilead and the Puritan settlements in North America during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are very clear. Atwood has a connection to the Puritan settlers of North America due to the fact that she is descended from Puritan settlers on both sides of her family tree. Additionally, the Canadian author first became intrigued with the literature of Puritan settlers when she was studying at Harvard. While at Harvard, Atwood was required to take a course in American literature, and this course included works created by Puritan settlers (Dodson).There are many connections between the fictional Republic of Gilead and the historical Puritan settlements established in North America during the period of European colonization of the New World. A widespread misconception of the Puritans is that they wanted to establish a free democratic society where everyone could live as they wanted, free of religious persecution.

In reality, the Puritans wanted to create a world where the only religion practiced was their strain of Puritanical religion. In an interview Atwood said that, “They [The Puritans] were not interested in democracy. In fact, it wasn't even a notion at that time. They were interested in a theocracy, their rules” (Dodson). Similarly, Gilead hoped to establish a theocracy where all the citizens of Gilead practiced their fundamentalist form of Christianity. Furthermore, both Gilead and the Puritan culture forbade any form of fun or vice, and instead wanted the focus to be on hard work and devotion to God. Puritanism has its roots in Martin Luther’s Protestant reformation. Luther’s protestant reformation did away with a lot of the femininity in the Catholic Church; for example, they minimized the role of the Virgin Mary in Christ’s life and greatly reduced the amount of devotion and veneration to the Virgin Mary.

The Protestant reformation also did away with the concept of Saints and the veneration of Saints. Because Saints are the main source of female figures in the Church, Luther’s abolition of Saints greatly reduced the amount of female figures in the Church. While the Protestant reformation greatly reduced the feminine presence in the Church, Luther’s revolution was not completely detrimental to Christian women. Luther’s new Church allowed the Bible to be printed in local languages, unlike the Catholic Church which at the time only allowed the Bible to be printed in Latin. Along with printing Bible in languages local people could understand, Luther also supported teaching women to read so that they could read the Bible and form a closer relationship to God (Dodson).

Women reading is one point where Gilead and the Puritans diverge, because while the Protestants encouraged women to read, Gilead made it illegal for women to read. Instead of allowing women to read the Bible, Gilead encourages women’s relationship with God by having a ceremony where the man of the house reads the Bible to them weekly, a ceremony that is seen in chapters fifteen and sixteen of The Handmaid’s Tale.While Atwood took inspiration from the strict Puritan societies of the past to create her masterpiece, her main motivation in writing The Handmaid’s Tale was the rise of conservatism and religious fundamentalism around the world at the beginning of the 1980s (Historical Context: The Handmaid’s Tale). In the decades preceding this rise of conservatism, there had been a shift towards liberalism following WWII and the flourishing of the American Economy. In the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights movement made great strides towards equality between colored Americans and caucasian Americans. In 1954, the ruling of segregation as unconstitutional in the Supreme Court case of Brown V. Board of Education was a massive victory for the Civil Rights movement, and it encouraged the Civil Rights movement to keep on fighting their oppression ('Feminism, Second Wave.').

At the same time that the Civil Rights Movements and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were achieving equal rights for colored Americans, the Second Wave of feminism was accomplishing the same things for female Americans. In 1964, both the Civil Rights movement and the Second Wave of feminism had a triumph with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act made it illegal for workplaces, employers, and anyone else to discriminate against any person on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender. While First Wave feminism fought for female employment, female suffrage, and against sexist marriage laws, the Second Wave of feminism pushed for equal treatment in the workplace, the societal acceptance of female sexuality, and a woman’s right to do as she wants with her own body. The biggest accomplishment of the Second Wave of feminism was 1973’s Roe V. Wade, which ruled that a woman’s right to an abortion was protected in the constitution under the American citizen’s right to privacy ('Feminism, Second Wave.').

Beginning in the early 1980s, after the presidency of Jimmy Carter, considered a failure for the Democratic Party by many, the America began to see a shift towards Conservatism mirroring what was already beginning around the world. Many scholars believe that this rise in conservatism was due to a societal pushback to the social spending of the government in the 1960’s and 1970’s, which many saw as unchecked and permissive (historical context). This rampant social spending started during the Great Depression with Roosevelt’s New Deal and continued after that with the most prominent social spending before the 1980s being Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs ('Feminism, Second Wave.').

In the United States, the growing support of conservatism began to manifest itself in the election of 1980. In the 1980 election, the American people voted former Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, to the presidency. Reagan had campaigned for the presidency under the promise that his administration would work to get the “government off of people’s back,” which was an obvious allusion to the tax burden created to support the social spending of the previous decades. Reagan’s administration cut so many social programs while in office, that historians have named the first half on the 1980s the “Reagan Revolution.” Ironically, while Reagan did cut the social programs which had created such a big tax burden on Americans, he turned the United States into a debtor nation with his rampant military spending (Historical Context: The Handmaid’s Tale).

The political shift towards conservatism was also felt worldwide. In 1979, the United Kingdom, a nation that was considered fairly liberal due to the many socialist programs that had been created in the preceding decades, elected a majority Conservative Parliament that appointed Margaret Thatcher as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Thatcher and the Conservative Parliament undid many of the socialist projects done by preceding Parliaments by selling off many state owned companies to private investors (“The Handmaid’s Tale.” Novels for Students). This conservatism also affected Atwood’s native country of Canada. In 1984, the same year Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, Pierre Trudeau, the liberal Prime Minister of Canada since 1968, resigned his position due to the growing conservative sentiment that he sensed in Canada (Historical Context: The Handmaid’s Tale).

The rise of conservatism in America was followed by, and also fueled by, the rise of the so-called Moral Majority in the United States. The Moral Majority was an American electoral group made up of religious fundamentalists, more specifically Christian fundamentalists. The Moral Majority was created by Jerry Falwell, a southern Baptist Televangelist and the host of Old Time Gospel Hour. At the height of the Moral Majority’s power, its official members numbered in the millions. Due to its high number of official members and unofficial supporters, the Moral Majority was able to influence the government and its decisions. The Moral Majority supported socially conservative and traditional values, and as such they often came to clashes with feminists and other progressive groups. The Moral Majority supported many causes such as having mandated prayer in schools, funding schools which taught students Christian doctrines and values, amongst many others.

As mentioned before, the Moral Majority often clashed with socially progressive movements, such as the feminists, due to the fact that the Moral Majority supported social conservatism. Falwell’s voting coalition publicly opposed many issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment, the legalization of and easy access to abortion, the government recognition of non-traditional family structures, and any kind of obscene material, especially pornography (“The Handmaid’s Tale.” Novels for Students).

While the Moral Majority was at the height of its power, it was able to influence the government and the voters, and was able to accomplish many of its goals. The Moral Majority was able to stop the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, cut federal funding for abortions, and cut the federal funding for the National Endowment of the Arts because they felt that much of the art produced by this program was too obscene (Historical Context: The Handmaid’s Tale).Initially, Atwood believed that the concept of The Handmaid’s Tale was too unlikely, but as the globe shifted towards conservatism, she began to change her mind. After seeing the rise of religious fundamentalists in places like the Middle East, where the Taliban and other Islamic revolutionaries were taking power in the 1980s, and in America where religious fundamentalists and the Moral Majority were gaining popularity, Atwood began to believe that the Republic of Gilead was becoming more and more probable.

The rise in conservatism seen worldwide, especially in Atwood’s native Canada and the neighboring United States, also influenced Atwood’s belief in the likelihood of Gilead (Dodson). Due to the widespread success of the Moral Majority and other religious fundamentalist groups in the United States and abroad, Atwood made religious extremism and fundamentalism one of the main themes of The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood sets her cautionary tale in the United States, more specifically the area that the book is set in is Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, obviously influenced by Atwood’s time spent studying Puritan Literature at Harvard University. Atwood says that she set her novel in the United States because when she tried to set it in Canada it felt wrong because she felt that it was just not a very Canadian thing to do. The Canadian author says that America is far more extreme than Canada, and that a religious theocracy established in America would be far more aggressive than a religious theocracy established in Canada. Atwood says that this is due to the fact that historically America has always had a harder time keeping Church and state separate than Canada.

Atwood blames America’s issue on its Puritan ancestry. America was built, at least partially, on the foundation established by the Puritans that came before when they settled the the New World in order to escape religious persecution in Europe. Unfortunately, as mentioned before, the Puritans did not come to establish religious freedom for all people but instead to establish their own religious regime (Mervyn).Due to the cautionary purpose of The Handmaid’s Tale and its illustration of a perverted utopian ideal, The Handmaid’s Tale is classified as a dystopian work of literature (Mervyn). The Handmaid’s Tale cautions against the religious fundamentalism and the conservatism of the early 1980s by creating Gilead, a hypothetical, and exaggerated, product of this sudden shift.

Many of the main characteristics of Gilead, such as the robust patriarchy and control of a woman’s body, are an amplification of the perceived issues with the beliefs of religious fundamentalists.Gilead is depicted as a complete patriarchy where all real power is held by the men of the society, more specifically the men who led and supported the uprising. The men control the government and create the laws which dictate what the women can do, while the women are relegated to the domestic spheres as wives, Marthas (servants), or Handmaids.

While men hold the true power in the society, women are granted some roles of power in the society. One positions of power granted to women is as a wife. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the wife is given full control of the house and all things related to the house. By having power over the house, the wife has full control over the Marthas and the Handmaids. As leaders of the house the wife is given permission to punish the Handmaids and marthas as she sees fit. Realistically the power of a wife only applies to wives of commanders, and not the econo-wives given to the male citizens by the government. Econowives hold no real power because they are found in homes with no Handmaids or Marthas, and as such the econowives are tasked with performing all the duties of the Handmaids and Marthas. The only other role with real power granted to women in Gilead is the role of Aunt. Aunts are the women that the government has tasked to create Handmaids for the commanders. This gives the Aunts a lot of power over the women designated to become Handmaids, which also gives the Aunts an indirect line of influence over the commanders. Even with these miniscule roles of power, women in Gilead are subjugated and oppressed with few, if any, freedoms (Themes and Construction: The Handmaid’s Tale).

While Atwood depicts Gilead as a patriarchy that would be terrible for women everywhere, she also makes it clear that Gilead is not some sort of haven for men. Due to Gilead’s religious fundamentalism and strict adherence to certain biblical constraints, the lives of men are heavily restricted. These restrictions affect all the men in the society, including the men with power such as the Commander. Eventually the very men who created these restraints went on to break their own laws by establishing brothels amongst other things. A prime example of somebody with political clout breaking the laws is Offred’s commander who not only takes her to the brothel, but also meets with her when he isn’t supposed to, gives her contraband, plays scrabble with her, and allows her to read (Malak).Much like other great dystopian novels, Atwood’s novel forces us to confront the issue of free will and participation. Often times people see totalitarian and authoritarian regimes and wonder to what extent do the population support this regime and if they do not support it then why do they do nothing to push the regime towards its downfall.

In The Handmaid’s Tale the reader is pushed to question degree to which the people of Gilead are forced to support the government's actions even though these actions go against their own moral beliefs. In The Handmaid’s Tale the reader sees that there appears to be little resistance to the Republic of Gilead amongst its citizens, which is meant to make the reader question whether or not the people support the government’s actions (“The Handmaid’s Tale.” Novels for Students). While see certain acts of rebellion in Gilead are depicted, such as the Mayday organization and the Underground Femaleroad, which shows that not all people accepted their new rulers, there are also people who are fully dedicated to the government such as the Aunts and some of the Handmaids.

Atwood did this to show the reader that no matter how evil a government might appear to be, there will always be people who support its rule.While The Handmaid’s Tale does share many things with classic dystopian literature, it does differ in some regards. The most important difference between Atwood’s novel and other dystopian classics is Atwood’s inclusion of the “Historical Notes” chapter at the end of the novel. In the “Historical Notes’ section Atwood describes an academic discussion in the year 2195 on the topic of The Handmaid’s Tale. In the realm of the novel The Handmaid’s Tale is an autobiographical work written by Offred while she was on the run in the Underground Femaleroad. This section of the novel is very significant because it shows that eventually all tyrannical reigns will come to an end. By showing how Gilead has become another piece of history to be discussed by a more modern society. (“The Handmaid’s Tale.” Novels for Students)A central theme in The Handmaid’s Tale is feminism and the oppression of women. As mentioned earlier, Atwood was influenced to write this novel after witnessing the rise of religious fundamentalists such as the Moral Majority who would often clash with the feminist movement of the time. These religious fundamentalists would often say they were fighting to protect the traditional American family.

The traditional American family refers to the traditional heteronormative patriarchy where the husband would work and be the head of the household, while the wife would stay at home to cook and care for the kids while doing as her husband asks. In the 1980s, when Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, the patriarchy was still very power, and despite the many victories gained by the First and Second waves of Feminism women were still very opressed in the workplace and at home. Gilead was created to be an extreme, but hypothetically possible, form of this patriarchy. As stated before, Gilead is a complete patriarchy where all the power is held by men, and the work is done by men, while women are forced to stay in the home. Gilead mirrors the traditional male-focused family structure on a nationwide scale. (Themes and Constructions: The Handmaid’s Tale)In Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, she states that men often define women in relation to themselves. This leads to men not seeing women as fellow human beings, but degrades women down to simply being pieces of meat used for sex. This view is exemplified in the role of the Handmaids.

The Handmaids are reduced to their biological functions, and are seen only as vessels to carry the children of men (Malik). Men not viewing women as the human beings they are is especially terrifying because men are the ones who unjustly hold the power in the world. Due to the fact that the patriarchy is ingrained into our society, men are typically the ones placed into power and because of this they are given the ability to assign the roles in our society. This is taken to its plausible extreme in Gilead where the men in power assign women their limited roles in society and create strict authoritarian laws which dictate what women can and cannot do. Regardless of its famous feminist message, The Handmaid’s Tale is not just a piece of feminist propaganda.

Atwood has claimed in an interview with Mervyn Rothstein that her novel was meant to be an, “examination of character under certain circumstances,” and was ultimately a study of power between men and women. The Handmaid’s Tale became a study of power between men and women because Atwood believes that if a totalitarian regime were to take control of the United States the struggle of power would ultimately be between men and women(Rothstein). Additionally Atwood’s novel is not considered a piece of propaganda due to the way Atwood builds her characters. Atwood makes each character rounded and well developed so that they are not two dimensional figures used to push her feminist agenda (Malak).

In Atwood’s classic novel not all men are evil as there are men who oppose the patriarchy and oppression visible in Gilead, such as Nick and other male Mayday members. Conversely Atwood depicts several women, such as the Aunt Lydia and the other Aunts, who openly support the male-centric government of Gilead, showing that not all women are against a patriarchy(“The Handmaid’s Tale.”: Novels for Students).While Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is often heralded as a dystopian masterpiece that addresses several of the pressing issues of its time, in the eyes of some it is emblematic of the issues of so-called white feminism and cultural appropriation. White feminism is a term used to describe the idea that mainstream feminism is more concerned with the issues facing middle and upper class white women than the issues facing lower class women, especially lower class women of color.

While many regard the First and Second Wave of feminism as incredibly important due to the amount of freedoms they won for women, they concede that the first two waves of feminism were focused on issues that affected mostly privileged white women more so than poorer women of color. Ultimately this led to the Third Wave of feminism that began in the late 1980s and continued into the 1990s.

The Third Wave was initially a discussion within the feminist movement about white feminism, and it ultimately led to a focus on attempting to solve many of the issues faced by poorer non-caucasian women. There are many people who claim that Margaret Atwood is a white feminist and that The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic example of white feminist thought. These people accuse The Handmaid’s Tale of white feminism due to the main protagonist being a middle class white woman and because none of the characters in the novel, female or male, are black (Cottle). Because Offred and many of the other Handmaids are white women who come from the middle-class many of the injustices in Gilead are seen through this lense, while ignoring how the religious revolution would affect a poorer working-class woman of color. Many of the women depicted in the novel are women who were able to get a college education and work well-paying jobs, while no mention is made of lower-class women who did not have the opportunity to go onto higher education.This lack of diverse characters in the novel also brings up the issues of race that many claim Atwood ignored while writing her novel.

Many accuse Atwoof of writing away the issues of race present in the United States in order to focus on the effect the revolution would have on white women. Throughout the novel if a character’s race is ever mentioned they are described as white. While it is subtly implied that some of the Martas are black women, which harkens back to the role of women as servants during the days of slavery, none of their races are ever explicitly described. In the novel people of ethnic minorities, specifically blacks, are referred to as Children of Ham by the Republic of Gilead, an allusion to the Biblical Curse of Ham which was once used by Christians to justify slavery (Cottle).Another issue people have with Atwood’s handling of race in the novel is her appropriation of black history. Many people say that what makes Atwood’s lack of racial diversity in The Handmaid’s Tale even worse is that she appropriated the black female slave experience in her depictions of the Handmaids and the Marthas (Cottle).

Marthas are forced to do all of the cooking and cleaning in the houses similar to black female servants during slavery, and similar to the female house slaves the Marthas have to answer to the wife of their owner. The Handmaids experience also has certain parallels to the experience of black female slaves, such as being forced to have sex with their masters, being forced to move against their will, being separated from their loved ones, and not being allowed to leave the house without special permission from their master. Since the Handmaids and Marthas share so many experiences with female African slaves, Atwood’s omission of ethnic minorities from the novel is especially heinous.

Even though many profess Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to be one of the most important feminist works of fiction to be published, there are those that say that Atwood actually criticizes the feminist movement of her times during the novel (Greene). These criticisms are voiced through the novel’s narrator Offred, the daughter of a well known and devout feminist. Throughout the novel Offred speaks of the fault she perceives in her mother and in Moira, who were both examples of contemporary feminist thought. Offred states several times that she believed that her mother and Moira were delusional if they believed that they could cut out of their lives entirely. Offred’s mother mentions that the only thing she believed men were good for was making children, which is best seen when the reader is told that Offred’s mother had sex with a man just to conceive her and then told Offred’s father that he was not needed anymore. Offred also criticizes Moira for believing that she can stay in her lesbian communities and hide away from men for the rest of her life.

Another criticism levied against the feminist movement at the time of the novel’s writing is Offred’s criticism of the burning of pornogrpahy. In the novel Offred mentions how she was forced to go to a feminist rally by her mother were the feminist attendees were burning pornographc magazines, and while she was at the rally Offred refused to burn any magazines. This scene is seen as Atwood criticizing the feminist burning of pornogrpahy. Atwood criticizes the burning of pornography because she believes by burning pornogrpahy feminists are romanticizing the female body in such a way that it restores the old stereotypes that the feminists had previously fought against (Greene).Ultimately this connects to the view that many people hold that Atwood is actually an alleged bad feminist. There are several instances in which people claim that Atwood has gone against perceived feminist values in her literary works and in her personal life.

In one of Atwood’s other novels, The Robber Bride, Atwood came under fire from feminists for writing a manipulative femme fatale character in the novel. Early feminists fought for the femme fatale character to be stopped being used in literature because at the time women were often being depicted as either weak and needing help or as manipulative and evil, with few depictions of women variating from these two stereotypes. Feminists fought for new positives depictions for women to be used in literature, and attempted to stop all uses of the femme fatale or weak women stereotype in literature. Atwood wrote a femme fatale character because she believed that it had been long enough since the femme fatale had been removed from literature and that considering that there were manipulative women in the world she should be able to depict them in her novel (Overview of Margaret(Eleanor) Atwood).

This perception of Atwood as going against the feminist movement has continued on until today. More recently Atwood came under fire from the #MeToo movement for her support of an open petition to hold the University of British Columbia accountable for firing Steven Galloway because of an alleged sexual harassment claim against him. The University of B.C. fired Galloway before they had performed an inquiry into the claims, an inquiry which ultimately found Galloway innocent. Atwood criticized how the #MeToo movement believes that quick action is needed in order to ensure that if the allegations are true, the accused cannot do any more harm. Atwood has said that she believes that this quick action had led to a witch trial like environment where people are presumed guilty before innocent and that the burden of guilt is put onto the accused and not the accuser. Atwood has called the #MeToo movement, “… a symptom of a broken legal system.” (Atwood, “Am I a Bad Feminist?”)

Ultimately The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a revolutionary piece of dystopian literature that masterfully uses the genre to address the issues of sexism and the patriarchy at the time it was written. Atwood’s classic is influenced by the rise of conservatism and religious fundamentalism in the United States and round the world, and skillfully exposes many of the apparent flaws present in the burgeoning movements of her time. Even though Atwood’s masterpiece is incredibly progressive, it is not without its flaws and The Handmaid’s Tale is plagued by a lack of diversity in the race and background of its characters, and its appropriation of the black female slave experience in America. Ultimately the messages about the oppression of women under the patriarchy are just as moving and relevant today as they were when The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985.

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Feminism in the Handmaid's Tale. (2021, Apr 08). Retrieved July 13, 2024 , from

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