The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood
Born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Margaret Atwood worked as a cashier, waitress, market research writer and film script writer before publishing her own poetry in 1961. The publication of The Edible Woman in 1969 won her fame as a novelist. Atwood’s novels became part of a new wave of fiction writing by feminists who wrote both to entertain and to dramatize the plight of women. In 1986 Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale. In part, the novel was a response to the decade’s rise of right-wing politicians and preachers who had fomented a backlash against the gains made by the feminist movement in the 1960s and ’70s.
Events in History at the Time of the Novel
Feminism before the 1960s
After women gained the vote in Canada in 1918 and in the United States in 1920, the feminist consciousness seemed eclipsed by other issues. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, clamor for economic reform took precedence over questions of discrimination, and during World War II, women, whether feminists or not, joined the work force as men left their jobs to fight overseas. During the late 1940s and the 1950s, most women across North America returned to the traditional gender roles of mother and housewife.
Although the 1950s may have seemed to have been a tranquil decade—in regard to conventional notions of the family—various trends and events contributed to the evolution of the women’s liberation movement that would gain momentum in the 1960s. In both nations the number of college graduates swelled in the years following World War II, although many women who had achieved some degree of higher education married soon after graduation or even before. In their new roles as housewives, these women often found themselves bored and frustrated with the repetitive domestic routines and unsatisfied in their roles as mothers. It was these educated women who helped form the core of the feminist movement in the 1960s. Secondly, though conventional wisdom preached that a woman’s place was in the home, a growing percentage of wives supplemented their husbands’ incomes by taking jobs. In fact, Life magazine reported Page 136 | Top of Articlethat in 1956 women held one-third of all jobs in the United States. Many of those who enjoyed their work and sought advancement and equal pay were dismayed to find that women had few chances for these rewards and even less legal recourse. Such discriminatory practices also led to an increase in the number of women who became involved in the feminist movement. Finally, successes in the civil rights movement—for example, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling that outlawed segregation in public schools—convinced women that reform was indeed possible.
Feminism during the 1960s and 1970s
In 1963 Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, which divulged the frustrations of women who suffered from a sense of emptiness rather than the contentment that being a mother and housewife supposedly conferred on them. Friedan was the first author to frankly declare that she found housework dull and mind-numbing. She castigated educational institutions, the mass media, and other parts of society that, she argued, had limited women’s opportunities as well as their ambitions.
Friedan influenced thousands of North American women. In the U.S., some of them banded together, forming the National Organization for Women (or NOW) to campaign against discrimination in the workplace and in politics. Other women, many of whom had joined in the civil rights movement, participated in loosely organized protests at colleges and universities.
The activists won significant triumphs. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited employers from discriminating on the grounds of sex. Title IX of the Higher Education Act of 1972 prohibited discrimination on the grounds of sex in educational institutions funded by the federal government. In the mid-1970s, as public support for feminism increased, the Justice Department forced communications giant AT&T to establish affirmative action programs and to pay women who had worked for the company $15 million in back wages. This monumental ruling constituted an acknowledgment of discriminatory hiring and pay practices. The establishment in 1972 of the first shelter for battered wives and the first rape crisis center indicated that activists had convinced at least some part of the public that rape and wife-beating were significant problems and deserved attention. In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue of abortion, ruling in Roe v. Wade that abortion was legal in the first three months of pregnancy and that women’s rights included the right to control their own bodies.
A recital of legal victories does not, however, give a comprehensive understanding of how the feminist activists of the 1960s and ’70s influenced political and social attitudes throughout North America. These activists had sought not merely to reform the laws and practices that confined women to the home, but also to explode myths about women’s natural inclination to serve men and children. It was this daring attempt to debunk age-old stereotypes that earned feminists both admiration and strident reproach.
The reaction against the movement
Throughout the first half of the 1970s the feminist movement continued to gather strength. Public opinion polls indicated that a majority of U.S. citizens supported the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a bill that had been proposed before Congress every year since 1923 and said simply “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex” (Radl, p. 106). In 1972 the U.S. Congress passed the amendment. It then needed only to be ratified by three-fourths of the states in order to become law. Within a month fourteen states had ratified the ERA. The likelihood of passage seemed promising, but then activists for the New Right, a faction of religious zealots and proponents of traditional values, helped turn the public against the ERA.
The New Right was not exclusively a reaction against feminism. Members of the New Right rallied to combat a myriad of trends that they thought threatened traditional values. Among the trends that caused alarm were the rise in the number of single mothers, the liberalism pervading college campuses, and a growing acceptance of homosexuality. Feminism was linked to these trends and targeted as a prime enemy.
Perhaps the most influential leader of the antifeminist campaign in the U.S. was Phyllis Schlafly, the mother of six children and a longtime Republican Party activist. Schlafly contended that the ERA threatened the traditional family because it relieved a husband of the obligation to provide for his wife and children. “The women’s liberation movement is antifamily,” she claimed. “The Equal Rights Amendment … would take away the marvelous legal rights of a woman to be a full-time wife and mother in the Page 137 | Top of Articlehome supported by her husband” (Schlafly in Falwell, p. 151). Schlafly also objected that feminists aimed to give a mother of an illegitimate baby the same respect as a mother of a child born in wedlock. She founded and appointed herself chairman of STOP ERA, an organization that staged nationwide rallies to foment opposition to the ERA. “Fight,” she urged voters, “against the ERA and … win this battle for God” (Schlafly in Falwell, p. 152).
Schlafly galvanized a campaign against the ERA. Across the nation women spoke out against the amendment. Most insisted that the government could not legislate the equality of the biologically different sexes. Women had been ordained by nature, went one argument, to spend their energy meeting the needs of others. Hundreds of thousands of letters from such organizations as Pro-Family United, Concerned Women for America, Women United to Defend Existing Rights, and Citizens for God, Family and Country helped convince a sufficient number of elected officials not to vote for ratification of the ERA.
Such antifeminist rhetoric appealed to women who felt they had been belittled by the feminist movement. Many stay-at-home wives and mothers resented the contention that housework was mindless or demeaning. In fact, as indicated by articles in the popular press during the 1980s, the antifeminists convinced many women that the women’s liberation movement had brought them nothing but grief. One of them claimed that “[although] women’s lib has given my generation high incomes, our own cigarette, the option of single parenthood, rape crisis centers, personal lines of credit, free love, and female gynecologists!,] in return it has effectively robbed us of the one thing upon which the happiness of most women rests—men” (Charon, p. 25). In reality, what had happened was that many women now shouldered dual burdens—rushing home from low-paying jobs to cook and clean for their families. In return, they blamed their frustrations on the feminist movement that had encouraged them to seek employment.
Schlafly was helped in her campaign by religious leaders who denounced the feminist movement. Television evangelists used scriptural excerpts to convince millions of voters that feminism was not only antifamily, but anti-Christian. One of the most influential of these evangelists was Jerry Falwell. Like Schlafly, Falwell believed that “the Equal Rights Amendment strikes at the foundation of our entire social structure. If passed, this amendment would accomplish exactly the opposite of its outward claims. By mandating an absolute equality under the law, it will actually take away many of the special rights women now enjoy” (Falwell, p. 151). Falwell insisted that the ERA violated the biblical mandate that “the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church” (Falwell, p. 151). Like Schlafly, Falwell believed that God had created men and women with differing needs and to fill different roles; husbands should be the decisionmakers.
The notion of the working woman was repugnant to Falwell and religious fundamentalists like him. He cautioned his followers that the goal of feminists was to take jobs from men and thus undermine their authority as the head of the family. “In a drastic departure from the home,” he lamented, “more than half of the women in our country are currently employed.” “The answer to stable families,” Falwell asserted, “will come only as men and women in America get in a right relationship to God and His principles for the home” (Falwell, pp. 124, 128).
Religious fundamentalists like Falwell also opposed the Equal Rights Amendment on the grounds that it would legitimize homosexual marriages. To convince others that homosexuality was a sin, Falwell quoted Scripture—“Tho shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination” (Falwell, p. 181). He went on to connect it to the feminist movement, contending
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that it had spawned a rise in homosexuality by challenging traditional gender roles. “We would not,” said Falwell, “be having the present moral crisis regarding [homosexuality] if men and women accepted their proper roles” (Falwell, p. 183). Elaborating on these proper roles, he again quoted the Bible—“wives submit yourselves unto your husbands, as unto the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22).
Fundamentalists also objected to the teaching of secular humanism in the public schools. They decried the fact that the biblical tale of the creation of the world found in the Book of Genesis had been replaced by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Implicit faith in the teachings of God as recorded in the Bible, they insisted, should not be supplanted with theories formulated by humans.
The American family has undergone some dramatic changes in the later years of this century:
- Divorce rates have risen sharply, as has the number of unmarried couples living together.
- Female-headed, single-parent households, once regarded as “broken homes,” doubled from 1960 to the late 1980s.
- Nearly 60 percent of married women were working outside the home by the late 1980s.
Alarmed at these changes, religious fundamentalists and antifeminists banded together to form a pro-family movement. Its members blamed the feminists for encouraging wives and mothers to work outside the home. They asserted that modern children receive less support and guidance than in the past and yet are exposed to a permissive society replete with sex, alcohol, drugs, and violence. The solution, argued the pro-family movement, lay not only in reversing Roe v. Wade but also in restoring prayer to the public schools and in monitoring the content of young people’s textbooks.
Experts outside the pro-family movement agreed that feminism had indeed made a significant impact on family life. Women exhibited more concern with personal fulfillment than in prior generations and were now more reluctant to sacrifice their own happiness and goals for someone else’s. Such self-determination grew in part from a growing public acceptance that the traditional family was not without its serious flaws behind closed doors. Often, wives and mothers who found themselves victims of abuse, alcoholism, and mental illness had no real options for leaving prior to the era of feminist legal gains. By urging women to consider their own needs and abilities, the feminist minority has influenced the majority of females in the Page 139 | Top of ArticleUnited States. “This is true,” maintain two of the experts, “even among women who claim to reject feminism. Polls have shown … a far greater unwillingness to subordinate personal needs and interests to the demands of husbands and children. A growing majority of women now believe that both husband and wife should have jobs, both do housework, and both take care of children” (Mintz and Kellogg, p. 208). In essence, the experts suggest, the pro-family movement may be alarmed at what only seems to be a breakdown of the American family. The family has not in fact collapsed; rather it is undergoing a transition beyond the old standard of husband as breadwinner and wife as housewife. In other words, it is the survival of the traditional family, not of the family altogether, that appears to be at risk.
The Novel in Focus
“Maybe I’m crazy,” Offred thinks to herself, “and this is some kind of therapy” (At-wood, The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 94). She is reclined on a luxurious bed, her head cradled in the crotch of a fat, leathery-faced women, her skirt pulled up around her waist, her cotton underwear on the floor. Propped on his elbows above the two women lies the commander. The ceremony goes as always. Without exchanging a kiss, the commander and Offred copulate, while the commander’s infertile wife lies beneath them and feigns pleasure. When he has finished, the commander withdraws, zips up his pants, and leaves the two women alone. “Get up and get out now,” his wife snaps (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 95). Offred disentangles herself from the older woman’s body. “Which one of us is it worse for,” she wonders, “her or me?” (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 95).
Offred lives in what was a college town in New England before religious fanatics established the Protestant theocracy of Gilead. In official parlance she is a “handmaid,” a fertile woman living in the house of a commander and his wife. As a handmaid, she is referred to not by her actual name, which she often fears she may forget, but by the name of her commander, Fred, prefixed with the preposition “of.” She is attended to by two “Marthas,” sterile women who cook and clean, and guarded over by “Aunts,” older women who have proven their devotion to the regime. Offred’s purpose is to copulate with the commander so that he and his infertile wife may raise a family. Periodically she is called upon by the commander and his wife so that he may attempt to impregnate her. If, after a few months, she is not pregnant, she will be declared barren and shipped to distant war-ravaged cities to join other so-called “unwomen” as they clean toxic and nuclear waste to prepare the cities for colonization.
As a handmaid, Offred is confined to the house of her commander except to take brief walks with another handmaid. The handmaids are expected to walk past a wall each day where various criminals, Catholics, homosexuals, doctors who had performed abortions before the rise of the regime, and other offenders are hanged to provide an example for all. (Jews were not hanged but told they could emigrate to Israel. Taking advantage of this option, they had been drowned en route.) Offred is tempted to commit suicide to escape the monotony and humiliation of her life, but the prudent authorities have removed all sharp objects from her room.
Offred struggles both to repress and to preserve the troubled memories of her life before the Gilead regime. She lived, with her husband and daughter, in what had been the United States at the close of the twentieth century. Like the rest of the nation, she had been shocked on the day that the President was assassinated and Congress machine-gunned. Although the Constitution had been suspended and the nation governed by the military, Offred and her husband had trusted the authorities and assumed they were working to restore constitutional law.
Life seemed to continue as normal. The frequent police raids on libraries or even people’s homes were, Offred assumed, merely reasonable security measures. Yet strange laws began to be passed. Homosexuality was declared illegal and a few supposedly subversive books were banned. Some universities and libraries were closed. Offred has difficulty remembering how quickly the changes took place.
What she remembers vividly, however, was the day the government declared it illegal for women to work or have their own bank accounts. She was sent home from her job. All accounts with an “F” next to the name for “female” were simply frozen by computer overnight. In the months that followed most women remained in their homes for fear that if they wandered the streets the police might arrest them as protesters. There had been a few riots against the police. A post office was blown up, but one could never be sure if the police themselves hadn’t done it merely to justify further raids.
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Offred and her husband resolved to flee with their daughter. They obtained forged passports to cross the Canadian border for an afternoon. They were apprehended, however, and separated from one another. What happened after her capture Offred remembers only dimly. She recalls long nights spent awake on a cot in the gymnasium of what had been a high school. There she endured a sort of retraining. She and hundreds of other fertile women were informed that they were to be the mothers of the next generation. They were to serve as worthy vessels for the children of high-ranking officials.
Now Offred’s only hope is that the commander, who, she fears, may be sterile, will impregnate her. However grim her life as a handmaid may seem, she dreads being sent to work as a slave in the colonies. To avoid that fate she risks execution by sleeping with the commander’s chauffeur in the hopes that he will impregnate her.
Offred is terrified, though not surprised, when police come to the house to arrest her because, she thinks, of her affair with the chauffeur. “It’s all right,” the chauffeur assures her. “It’s [the resistance]” (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 293). Offred resigns herself to her fate with the one hope that these policemen are indeed traitors to Gilead come to ferret her to safety across the Canadian border. She disappears behind the closed doors of the van, while the commander’s wife watches and mutters, “Bitch … after all [we] did for you” (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 294).
Parallels between Gilead and religious fundamentalism
The closing pages of the novel are a transcription of the proceedings of a “Symposium on Gileadean Studies,” (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 299), supposedly held on June 25, 2195. They reveal that the Gilead regime fell sometime during the mid-twenty-first century, and in its place arose a society more like that of the twentieth-century United States. The Gileadean police destroyed almost all written material, leaving little record of life under their regime. Offred’s tale, which was unearthed in an old footlocker, has become a resource for historians eager to research the Gileadean period.
“Certain periods of history,” one of the speakers cautions, “quickly become, both for other societies and those that follow them … the occasion for a good deal of hypocritical self-congratulation” (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 302). He intends to warn his audience against passing hasty judgment on the Gileadean society. Religious intolerance, sexism, and perverse and brutal rituals, he insists, were common long before Gilead. “There was little,” he points out, “that was Page 141 | Top of Articletruly original with or indigenous to Gilead” (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 307). The novel’s attachment of these remarks to the end of Offred’s tale intimates that although the surreal story takes place in the future, it borrows ideas from the present. Presently, for example, a married woman is often referred to by her husband’s last name. The practice of referring to a handmaid by her commander’s name can be viewed as an extension of such a custom.
Like modern religious fundamentalists, officials in Gilead contend that a woman’s place is in the home. The majority of women, left sterile because of wars and nuclear and toxic waste, serve as nothing more than domestics who prepare food, maintain a clean house, or worse, clean the waste and debris from wars and nuclear accidents. The few fertile women are procured by the commanders to bear children.
The policies of Gileadean regime, like the convictions of religious fundamentalists, are founded on interpretations of the Bible. Homosexuals are hanged because the Bible decreed homosexuality immoral. To justify the use of handmaids, officials cite the story of Rachel, from Genesis 30:1-3. An infertile woman, Rachel instructed her husband to have children by her maid. The Bible provides the infallible source for all law in fictional Gilead. Offred mentions that “[the wives of commanders] can hit [handmaids], [because] there’s Scriptural precedent” (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 16).
In a confession ceremony, Aunts harass the handmaids, encouraging them to admit their sins and become worthy vessels for the seed of a commander. When one handmaid confesses that she was, as a girl, raped by several men and subsequently became pregnant and had an abortion, an Aunt remonstrates, “But whose fault was it?” Other handmaids chant, “Her fault, her fault, her fault.” When the Aunt asks, “Who led them on?” the handmaids reply, “She did, she did, she did” (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 72).
The notion that a victim of rape provoked the attack is not peculiar to Gilead. Even during the era in which the novel was written, many Americans held the belief that a woman’s dress or comportment might tempt a man to rape her. According to this view, the woman’s indiscretion is as much to blame as the rapist. It was argued that “virtuous women are seldom accosted by unwelcome sexual propositions or familiarities” (Schlafly in Radl, p. 119), intimating that only an immoral woman could be harassed or raped.
Although Atwood’s novel is set in the future, she herself has described it as “speculative fiction” rather than science fiction because it extrapolates from the existing world rather than inventing an entirely new one. “A lot of what writers do is they play with hypotheses,” she commented during a discussion of her novel. “The original hypothesis [of The Handmaid’s Tale] would be some of the statements that are being made by the ’Evangelical fundamentalist right’” (Atwood in Bouson, p. 135). Atwood asserted that she “didn’t invent a lot” and described the novel as merely a “logical extension of where we are now” (Atwood in Bouson, p. 136). Her decision to set the novel in the United States rather than Canada was influenced by her perceptions that “the States are more extreme in everything,” and, as she explained to one U.S. interviewer, that “our television evangelists are more paltry than yours” (Atwood in Ingersoll, p. 223).
Most critics welcomed The Handmaid’s Tale as a gripping dystopian novel in the tradition of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. One critic found the novel “disquieting and not nearly as futuristic nor fantasmatic as we might wish” (Bouson, p. 136). Another observed that Atwood’s projections, though startling, were not illogical. But a few critics complained that Atwood’s novel taxed their credulity. “I just can’t see the intolerance of the far right,” one critic commented, “… leading to a super-biblical puritanism” (McCarthy in Hall, p. 150). Another reviewer dismissed the whole novel as “paranoid folklore about what the future may hold for women” (Ehrenreich in Hall, p. 155). While these critics felt that Atwood’s vision of the future was a far-fetched exaggeration, even they found Offred’s story engaging. One of their reviews, for example, described offered as a “sappy stand-in” for the hero of 1984 yet admitted that Atwood had nevertheless written “an absorbing novel” (Ehrenreich in Hall, p. 156).
For More Information
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
Bouson, J. Brooks. Brutal Choreographies. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.
Charon, Mona. “The Feminist Mistake.” National Review (March 23, 1984): 24-7.
Conover, Pamela, and Virginia Gray. Feminism and the New Right. New York: Praeger, 1983.
Falwell, Jerry. Listen, America! New York: Doubleday, 1980.
Hall, Sharon, ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 44. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987.
Ingersoll, Earl. Margaret Atwood: Conversations. Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review Press, 1990.
Mintz, Steven, and Susan Kellogg. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: Free Press, 1988.
Radl, Shirley. The Invisible Woman. New York: Dell Publishing, 1982.