By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College
The Handmaid’s Tale has been criticized for promoting feminism. The story takes place at an unspecified future when infertility is sweeping across the world, and Puritan fundamentalism has resurfaced, seeing infertility as God’s judgment on a secular society, where women engage in sex purely for pleasure and avoid the consequences of birth control and abortion.
A Dystopian Future
In The Handmaid’s Tale, the Puritans assassinate the president and Congress to take control of the government. Then, they blame the Islamic fundamentalists for these actions. This enables them to suspend the Constitution, establish martial law, and eventually institute a Christian theocratic government known as the Republic of Gilead, in which women are denied the right to own property, have money, maintain a job—even read.
All women not with their first husbands are considered adulterous wards of the state. The few who are fertile are re-educated in boot-camp-like “red centers”—where they’re cruelly indoctrinated into their “duty” to God and country to “ensure the survival of humanity” by bearing children for the elite of the theocratic government. Upon graduation, these “handmaids” are forced to wear red habits and white bonnets to indicate their status.
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Story of One Woman
The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of one such woman whose name, revealed in the Hulu series, is June. As the second wife of a man named Luke, with whom she had a child, June is the perfect example of what Gilead is looking for.
Captured upon trying to flee to Canada, her child and husband are taken from her, and she’s sent to a red center—and then to serve as a handmaid for a commander in the republic named Fred. Because she now “belongs” to him, she’s known simply as Offred: “of Fred.”
Her main duty is to conceive a child, which she must attempt to do in a horrific ceremony where she lays between the legs of Fred’s wife, Serena Joy, while the commander tries to impregnate her.
To justify the ceremony, commanders quote scripture before it begins—Genesis 30, where Jacob’s barren wife Rachel offers up her handmaid Bilhah so that Rachel “may also have children by her.” The act is for procreation only—Offred’s red habit is merely lifted, and she still wears the bonnet.
Learn more about the sexual politics in The Handmaid’s Tale.
It’s Too Real
The Handmaid’s Tale does not involve, as Margaret Atwood puts it, “any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws”. Still, people point to it and call it science fiction because it’s set in a dystopian future, much like we see in 1984 and Brave New World.
Interestingly, however, it also does not involve any imaginary atrocities. Atwood did not, “put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the ‘nightmare’ of history”. Governments have been toppled, and women have been treated in exactly the ways it describes.
One of the motivations for the novel comes from Atwood growing up during World War II and learning, as she puts it, “It can’t happen here [can’t] be depended on. Anything [can] happen anywhere, given the [right] circumstances.”
Does The Handmaid’s Tale Promote Feminism?
Since The Handmaid’s Tale depicts the plight of women in an abusive patriarchal society ruled by religious fundamentalists, one of the most common questions people ask Atwood about her work is: Is it feminist? Does The Handmaid’s Tale promote feminism? Atwood herself is very careful in her answer:
If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings—with all the variety of character and behavior that implies—and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure, and plot of the book, then yes.
In that it aims to carefully clarify definitions, this answer is very philosophical. But while it illuminates what Atwood thinks of her work, since we don’t rely on authorial intent to determine a work’s meaning, it doesn’t answer the question.
Learn more about Atwood’s satire.
The First and Second Wave of Feminism’s Ideals
The Handmaid’s Tale endorses first-wave feminist ideals. In Gilead, women have been robbed of all the rights the first-wave acquired. The place of the women is once again in the home—only in the home—and reproduction and the care of husbands and children is their only role. Men dominate and control society, and women, like Puritans, did in the 1600s. One moral of the story must be to not take the accomplishments of first-wave feminism for granted.
The question of whether The Handmaid’s Tale endorses second-wave feminism does not have a straightforward answer. In some respects, it does. For example, second-wave feminists became famous for their protests of the Miss America pageant in the late 60s. They likened the pageant to a cattle parade, where women are treated like slabs of meat—sexual objects instead of human beings.
In Gilead, women are treated essentially the same way, especially the handmaids: as breeding stock. Their worth is determined by their fertility rather than their humanity. The aunts who run the red centers even tag the ears of handmaids and use cattle prods to keep them in line. “We are for breeding purposes,” Offred says in the novel. “We are 2-legged wombs, that’s all.”
Common Questions about The Handmaid’s Tale
In The Handmaid’s Tale, the events occur in a dystopian future where an authoritarian government has taken power and deprived women of their rights.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, the women who are not with their first husbands are considered adulterous wards of the Republic of Gilead.
The Handmaid’s Tale endorses first-wave feminist ideals. In Gilead, women have been robbed of all the rights the first-wave acquired.