I recently read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It was published in 1985, 27 years ago, but it is eerily prescient to much of what is or could happen in our society today.
The story takes us to a time, in the not too distant future, where the U.S. has been taken over in a coup, blamed on Islamists, and turned into a totalitarian theocracy by fundamentalist Christians. The coup was partly successful because those taking over the country use the electronic banking systems to freeze the assets of women and other undesirables such as Native Americans, African-Americans, gays, Jews, the list goes on.
Much of the country is a barren wasteland due to the ravages of unchecked pollution and toxic waste. Commanders, the older white men in power, use the military to keep the population in check by staging Salvagings where people are hanged in sexually segregated public demonstrations that the population is required to attend and by setting up extremely rigid rules of behavior in a caste-like system.
The new Government not only makes laws against divorce, remarriage, abortion, and a myriad of other things, but applies the punishments retroactively.
The story is told from the viewpoint of one of the women who, due to her age and ability to bear children, has been conscripted into the life of a handmaid. You learn, in a series of flashbacks, that her husband was murdered and her child was taken away and given to another couple.
This young woman, who has recollections of her previous life as a daughter, student, wife, and mother, has been conscripted into the life of a handmaid. Women are no longer allowed to use their former names. Handmaids are known as Of[insert man’s name here}. A handmaid is given three two-year assignments to live with a Commander and his wife, who are unable to have children. Once a month, when the time is right, there is a rigidly scripted Ceremony where the handmaid lies on her back on top of the Commander’s wife and has her skirt hiked up just far enough for the Commander to penetrate her with the goal being impregnation.
Since many of the Commanders are sterile (it’s illegal to accuse men of being sterile, only women are sterile), many of them and their wives try to find alternate methods to ensure a pregnancy.
When a pregnancy occurs, the system of giving birth and turning the children over to the Commander’s wives is also rigidly scripted.
Much of the population is sterile due to the effects of pollution and some mutated strains of disease. Unfortunately, many of the children that are born are also defective due to these same conditions, and referred to as unbabies. Their fates are unknown other than the fact that they disappear.
Women’s rights are completely suspended. They cannot earn money, own property, read or get an education, express opinions, or even decide their futures or fates. The caste system created for them results in them being divided against one another.
But, men’s rights are impacted, too. Only the white men in power and those who survive the fighting in the military are allowed to have wives. Jews, gays, and non-Christians are required to convert or agree to deportation or be killed.
Handmaids who have completed their assignments, older women, nuns who do not agree to convert, and other misfits become unwomen. They are sent to work cleaning up toxic waste with no protection and where they will eventually become sick and die.
The frightening aspect of much of this is that The Bible is used to support the development of this society. We all know that The Bible has and can be used not only for good but for evil as well. The Bible has been used to support slavery and the subjugation of people throughout history.
I remember watching television in the 60s and seeing a very young black girl being escorted into school by the police while a mob of white adults is screaming at her. One woman is holding and shaking a Bible at her. A Holy Bible. This appallingly vivid image is one from my childhood. I remember, because I was about the same age as this young black girl, thinking how terrified she must have been and how horrible it was to use The Bible as a weapon like that. And all because of her skin color.
So, I have been discussing this book with one of my kids who read it for an assignment in high school. Many of my friends, who are of the same age and generation as me, and I struggled in our early lives with obtaining basic rights for ourselves and for all women – the right to equal work and equal pay, the right to have control over our health care and property, the same rights enjoyed by men. We are appalled that many young women today seem to take these rights for granted and to be willing to let some of these rights slip away.
Many women throughout the world still do not have the right to basic health care and education. Many do not have the right to own property or even to drive a car. Many women are still required to undergo genital mutilation and are sold off in arranged marriages and suffer punishments for actions totally out of their control.
So, we are not so removed from the future depicted by Margaret Atwood some 27 years ago. We continue to have fundamentalists and extremists try to dictate behavior for everyone. We have certain religions trying to assert their strict moral codes over entire societies. We still have people in this country and throughout the world who are racists, homophobes, and chauvinists.
My daughter argues, vehemently, with me that this could never happen in our country. The young woman in Atwood’s tale thought the same thing. As her mother fought for their rights, she took them for granted. Until it was too late.
We do not find out the fate of The Handmaid. But, we can determine ours. We can fight to ensure that the balance of power is intact – that we protect our environment for the future, that we ensure that corporations like banks are properly regulated, that we protect everyone’s rights by working to support them and by voting, and that we never, never, take our rights for granted.
If you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale before or if you haven’t read it in a while, I recommend that you do so.
Note: Margaret Atwood is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist who has won many awards for her works. She has a website and a Facebook fanpage. The Handmaid’s Tale has spent some time on the American Library Association’s most banned books list which is another reason to pick it up and read it.