I talk about the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood a lot. My most re-tweeted tweet was “Dear Republican Party, The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian SF novel, not a how-to manual. No Love, Me.” I blame it in part for my stationery hoarding problem. I reference it in talking about Bitch Planet. It’s kind of a big influence on my life and philosphy.
I read The Handmaid’s Tale when it first came out in 1985 and it had a huge impact on me. It impacted me in a way no other piece of feminist literature ever had. It scared me, it made me queasy, it bothered me on a very deep and fundamental level. And I think a lot of that was, even at 14, in the middle of the Reagan years, even I could see the chipping away at Women’s Rights beginning. I mean, it hadn’t been all that long since women had been allowed to start bank accounts and get credit cards on their own without a husband or father’s signature. And by all that long, I mean the late 70s. In most of the country marital rape wasn’t considered domestic violence, or even a crime. And Reagan and his evil little cronies began the attacks on Roe -v- Wade.
In 1985 when The Handmaid’s Tale made the New York Times best seller list I picked it up, probably off the paperback racks at the Buttrey-Osco in Boise, ID. I read it the summer before my freshman year of high school, and it affected me unlike any book I’d read.
The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred (Of-Fred) after the fall of the United States, when a religious dictatorship rises up, and one of their first acts is to essentially strip personhood from women. And it isn’t overnight, either. It’s things like stripping them of assets and assigning them to husbands and fathers. It’s outlawing abortion and birth control, literacy for women and girls, and it keeps snowballing until women are once more chattel. Offred and her husband decide to run for Canada with their little girl. They are caught. We have no idea what happens to the husband, but Offred becomes “Offred,” a Handmaid, and her little girl is adopted out to a powerful couple in the government. They are called Handmaids after Abram’s wife Sarai’s servant in Genesis 16. When Sarai does not conceive, she offers her husband Abram her handmaid (slave), Hagar. Hagar does conceive, and then the story goes on.
Handmaids are assigned to powerful men who have been unable to conceive children with their wives. It’s funny how often one of these mostly elderly dudes will run through three or four handmaids without conceiving, as in Gilead infertility is always the woman’s fault. In the course of the novel, the man Offred is assigned to starts an emotional affair with her, wooing her with Scrabble, reading and illicit visits to a nightclub-like secret brothel run for the benefit of men like him. The wife in this equation hooks Offred up with her husband’s driver, because she wants a child and she’s pretty sure it’s her husband who’s dropping the ball, so to speak.
It’s a powerful and moving book. It won the first Arthur C. Clarke award (1987), the Governor General’s Award (1985) and was nominated for a Nebula, a Booker and a Prometheus. And it’s a book I think all young women should read. Young men, too, but definitely young women. Because the most chilling part of the story is really the recounting of how the Republic of Gilead came to power, and the methodical way in which they stripped the personhood from women, including hanging women publicly who may have aborted or practiced birth control. This is one of the reasons why the current erosion of women’s rights in the US freaks me out so much.
One of the most tearjerking scenes in the book is when Serena Joy, the wife in question, takes Offred to a party so she can catch a glimpse at a distance of her little girl.
I highly recommend this classic of feminist dystopian literature. Also the movie adaptation with Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway and Aidan Quinn is excellent and highly under-rated. I actually own a copy, which I picked up when a video store near my work went out of business in the late 90s. Of course, it’s much abridged, but it stays very true to the spirit of the source material. If you can find it, I highly recommend it.