GRIN - The roles of women in "The Handmaid's Tale". A comparison between the relevance of the novel then and the series now (2023)

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Categories of Women in The Handmaid’s Tale

3. The Novel in 1985
3.1. The Rise of the Christian Right and Reagan’s Presidency
3.2. Surrogacy and the Baby M Case

4. The Series now
4.1. What is Different in the Series?
4.2. Misogyny in the White House
4.3. Muting Women’s Voices

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. (Atwood 1985: 66)

This quote is taken from Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale which was first published in 1985. The novel tells the story of Offred, a Handmaid in the state of Gilead which has replaced the United States of America. As the quote points out, the new regime took over gradually without anyone noticing and former US citizens now find themselves in a totalitarian society which is structured hierarchically with women divided into different categories depending on their age and most importantly their fertility. Such a state with strict hierarchy and division of power might at first seem improbable or even impossible. Nonetheless, Atwood herself sees it as a logical outcome of the 1980s United States. The reason for it is that the United State’s first government had been a fundamentalist one with strict rules especially concerning sexes. Countries might change but according to Atwood “something remains of their origins” (Neuman 2010: 138). Thus, the novel is not as far from reality as it might seem at first sight. Everything that happens in it has already happened before in the real world (Noakes/Reynolds 2002: 13). Speaking in Atwood’s words, there is “nothing that we hadn’t already done, or for which we don’t already have the technology. We could do it all, we have done it all. These are the things that human beings do, given half a chance” (ibid. 20). Because of the novel’s great recognition there have been several adaptations of it, such as a movie in 1990 and an opera ten years later (Macpherson 2010: 53). In 2017, the online platform Hulu transformed the novel into a TV series which received just as much positive recognition as the original did back in the 80s. Although time has changed since then, Elisabeth Moss, actor of the main character Offred, describes the story as “present in a sort of this-could-happen-here idea” (Cornish/Shapiro 2017). This raises the question why The Handmaid’s Tale is still relevant today, although it was written more than thirty years ago.

The aim of this thesis is to show that there is still a pressing relevance and a timely message behind the story of Margaret Atwood’s novel in regard to the roles of women. This relevance is especially connected with the gradual takeover of Gilead highlighted in the beginning and the unawareness of the people. The first chapter will provide a short insight into the story and the different categories of women presented in it. After that, the situation of women in the United States back in the 1980s shall be examined, in order to prove the topicality of the novel back then. In the next chapter, this thesis will move on to the series and take a look at the differences between the adaptation and the original. Having done so, the situation in the USA today will be taken into account. Thereby, it will be possible to show that the feminist background of The Handmaid’s Tale still meets with today’s society’s approval. Eventually, this paper will prove that The Handmaid’s Tale is still relevant today, as it has been in the 1980s, because it makes the reader aware of the subliminal fear of a possible backlash concerning women’s rights.

Before starting the examination it must be clarified that the story is set in the United States of America. Although Atwood is a Canadian writer and the novel shows elements of Canadian writing (Keith 1987: IV) it deals with “more generally twentieth-century concerns” (ibid.). Atwood once stated that she could not set it in Canada because “it is not a Canadian sort of thing to do. Canadians might do it after the States, in some sort of watered-down version” (Ingersoll 1990: 223). The whole world is constantly looking at what the US are doing and therefore the story fitted in well (ibid.). This is important for the work of this thesis since the political situation which will be looked at in Chapter 3 and 4 will mostly be that of the United States. The first chapter will now deal with the groups of women in Gilead.

2. Categories of Women in The Handmaid’s Tale

The radio show Fresh Air once described the categories of women in The Handmaid’s Tale as follows: “Women are either pampered but powerless trophy wives, humble servants known as Marthas or fertile breading stock” (Bianculli 2017). Although the show certainly made its point clear, there is a lot more to the roles of women in the novel. Firstly, there are far more than only three categories. All in all women in Gilead can be divided into six groups: Handmaids, Wives, Marthas, Aunts, Econowives, and Unwomen. This chapter will merely describe these groups and their relation to one another which is necessary to understand the further investigation. A more detailed interpretation of the roles of women will then be done in the course of the thesis.

The group which is most present throughout the whole novel are the Handmaids, since the story is told through the eyes of one of them: Offred. The duty of the Handmaids is to bear children for older, rich and powerful couples who cannot have children on their own due to the infertility of the Wives. In the pre-Gilead period, Handmaids used to be unmarried, homosexual women or women who had already been married several times. Gilead reached them by “declaring all second marriages and non-martial liaisons adulterous, arresting the female partners, and, on the grounds that they were morally unfit, confiscating the children they already had” (Atwood 1985: 316). The Handmaids are always dressed in red. Their flat shoes, gloves, and ankle-long dresses all carry “the colour of blood, which defines [them]” (ibid. 18). Only the wings around their faces which are supposed to “keep [them] from seeing, but also from being seen” (ibid. 18) are white. The Handmaids do not have a prestigious position but are objectified by men and hated by other women. Their role only depends on their ability to reproduce which is pointed out by references to them such as “two-legged wombs” (ibid. 146). Handmaids are never called by their actual name but by the possessive pronoun ‘of’ in combination with the name of their Commander. This takes away the women’s identity and marks them as objects possessed by men (Michael 1996: 154). The Handmaids' ability to reproduce distinguishes them from the second group, the Wives, who are older, infertile women, married to powerful men. The color of their dresses is a light blue (Atwood 1985: 22). As will be examined later on, the Wives are one of the categories of women that obtain some kind of power. Another group of women that is not completely powerless are the Aunts. Their duty is the training of the Handmaids in the Red Center. Part of their uniforms are the “electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts” (ibid. 13/14). The fourth group of women are the Marthas who occupy the household and do the cooking. Their uniforms are shaped similarly to the Handmaid’s clothing but are colored in a “dull green” (ibid. 19). Lastly, there are two groups of women which are only mentioned briefly. The so called Unwomen are former feminists, homosexuals or other non-conformists who did not ensue to the regime of Gilead. They are sent to the Colonies where they clean up nuclear waste. Moreover, there is the group of the Econowives who are marked by their stripy dresses which combine all colors. As these dresses suggest, the Econowives occupy all duties at once. They are married to less powerful men and are still fertile which is why they can bear their own children.

One of many problematic aspects about the division into different categories is that women cannot change their status. Whereas men can gain or loose power, there is “no mobility between the categories” (Michael 1996: 139) of women. The only way of changing the role is by becoming an Unwoman and being sent to the Colonies (Michael 1996: 139). In the state of Gilead the fertility of men is not even questioned (Atwood 1985: 71). A woman’s fertility on the other hand is the main factor for her assignment to one group. For twentieth century readers as well as viewers of the series nowadays the groups of women in The Handmaid’s Tale seem very harsh and far away from our society. However, the categories are only exaggerated versions of the already existing classes of women in the 1980s. The only difference is that in Gilead the division is performed in an overt way (Michael 1996: 139). Merely the category of the Handmaids was deliberately added by Atwood and has no direct counterpart in the 1980s (ibid. 139). Nonetheless, there are comparable cases in the United States which remind of the Handmaids. This will be discussed later by taking a look at the issue of surrogate motherhood in the 1980s. One thing that all the groups have in common is that they are not allowed to read and write since this is forbidden for women in general. Offred points that out when the Commander first mentions his wish to play Scrabble with her (Atwood 1985: 149). Given the importance of language in Western society, this is a harsh deprivation of rights and it takes away women’s ability to be active.

Taking all these groups of women into account there is certainly a women’s culture in the state of Gilead. However, it is not that kind of women’s culture one would wish for. At one point Offred addresses her absent mother who used to be a feminist: “Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies” (Atwood 1985: 137). The existing women’s culture Offred is talking about is one which was designed by men who now make sure that women do not unite (Michael 1996: 140). There is a strong tension between the main groups. The Wives are jealous of the Handmaids since they get to perform sexual intercourse with their husbands. Even if they might act kind on the surface they refer to the Handmaids as “whores” (Atwood 1985: 125) behind their backs. Handmaids on the other hand envy the Wives. Offred once admits that the Commander’s wife is “a malicious and vengeful woman” (ibid. 170). Lastly the Marthas, being servants, envy both groups which can also be noticed through their behavior towards Offred (Michael 1996: 140). They “are not supposed to fraternize with us” (Atwood 1985: 21) says Offred at one point in the novel. Furthermore, the system ensures that women do not protest against it “by making them believe that they are in control” (Michael 1996: 140). Things like the ‘Particicutions’ or ‘Salvagings’ — group killings and hangings — are one way of doing so. Interestingly, there is another instance that keeps an eye on the Handmaids: the Aunts. Gilead uses women to control other women and as the reader knows from the Historical Notes “there were many women willing to serve as Aunts” (Atwood 1985: 320). In a state where “power is scarce, a little of it is tempting” (ibid.). It might seem paradox that the Aunts torture the Handmaids and at the same time speak up for “camaraderie among women” (ibid. 234). However, Ann Dowd, actress of Aunt Lydia in the 2017 adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, states that from the perspective of her character she loves the girls and thinks she is doing well to protect them (Cornish/Shapiro 2017). This shows the complexity of the characters in Atwood’s novel (ibid.). In addition to that, it leads to the fact that not all women in Gilead are without any power. Besides the Aunts, the Wives also inherit a certain kind of control (Noakes/Reynolds 2002: 12f.). This is pointed out by Offred during the monthly ceremony: “My arms are raised; she holds my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh, one being. What it really means is that she is in control, of the process and thus of the product” (Atwood 1985: 104).

Concluding all that, it can be said that there is a strict categorization of women in Gilead which is often connected with the deprivation of rights. Women all fulfill a task that is somehow connected to reproduction (Michael 1996: 145) and their fertility is what they are being judged on. Their bodies fulfill no other purpose which is highlighted by the fact that their feet and hands are not needed (Atwood 1985: 102). The following chapters will go into further detail and analyze in how far the novel depicts the reality of women in the United States of America back in the 1980s but also today. Of course, The Handmaid’s Tale is a piece of fiction and therefore it does not reflect reality in a direct way. Nevertheless, the male-centered modes of thought which build the basis for Gilead are present in the 1980s and Atwood’s novel has often been seen as a forewarning (Michael 1996: 142f.; Murphy 1990: 26). How exactly this is the case will be shown in the next chapters.

3. The Novel in 1985

As stated in the introduction, Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985. A time when people thought they had overcome gender issues and questions of equality between men and women (Crampton 2017: 16). However, this chapter will examine that this was not the case. Besides obvious examples from around the world there were also visible drawbacks in the United States. In her essay ‘ Just a Backlash ’ : Margaret Atwood, Feminism, and The Handmaid ’s Tale Shirley Neuman shows how much women were still oppressed in different countries back then. One year before Atwood’s novel was published, Ayatollah Khomeini made it illegal for women to visit Iranian universities or have jobs. In Iranian prisons, people were tortured with electric prods and steel cables (Neuman 2010: 140). At the same time in Afghanistan it would have been feminist to believe that women should be allowed to read and write (ibid.). Meanwhile in Romania, the government “monitored women monthly for pregnancy, outlawed birth contro [ sic ], and abortion, and linked women’s wages to childbearing” (ibid. 141). These are obvious cases of violation of women’s right and it is easy to find analog situations in The Handmaid’s Tale. Just like women in Afghanistan, Handmaids are not allowed to read and write in Gilead. Moreover, they are being punished with cattle prods and steel cables in the Red Center (Atwood 1985: 14; 102). Lastly, the situation in Romania is even mentioned in the novel: “Romania, for instance, had anticipated Gilead in the eighties by banning all forms of birth control, imposing compulsory pregnancy tests on the female population, and linking promotion and wage increases to fertility” (ibid. 317). Since this quote is part of the Historical Notes section, in which Professor Pieixoto analyzes the takeover of the Gileadean regime, it shows how Atwood wants her readers to see that Gilead is only the logical outcome of the situation in the 1980s (Michael 1996: 136). In how far the situation of the United States back then correlates with what is depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale will be shown in the following chapter in order to prove that the novel was relevant back then.

3.1. The Rise of the Christian Right and Reagan’s Presidency

The first government of the United States was a fundamentalist government … a very strict theocracy especially with respect to sex. Countries continue the way they began; they rearrange the symbols and structures but something remains of their origins. And the Presidents of the United States have continued to quote the first theocrats, who referred to their colony as a ‘city upon a hill’ and ‘a light to all nations.’ Reagan, for instance, repeated these early Puritan references to the Bible. (quoted in Neuman 2010: 149)

The 1970s were a decade which brought up a lot of progress in connection with women’s rights. By 1984, totalitarianism and other groups had managed to attack many of these progresses (Neuman 2010: 140). Around that time Margaret Atwood wrote her novel, given the “conservative climate of the United States” (Michael 1996: 135) where Ronald Reagan was President (Bianculli 2017) and the Religious Right was on its way to success (Noakes/Reynolds 2002: 11). The political situation is certainly visible in The Handmaid’s Tale and Atwood herself once stated that she did not only use elements of the soviet system and the puritans, but also of the Christian Right (PBS Newshour 2017). She looked at what these so called ‘Evangelicals’[1] were going to do if they had enough power, always keeping in mind that people do things if they get a chance. A historical example she named was Hitler who wrote down all his fantasies in his book Mein Kampf in 1920. When he had reached enough power, he put them into practice (Penguin Random House 2017). Since history tends to repeat itself, it is the logical consequence that the Christian Right would also realize its aims if they were given a chance. By creating a society like Gilead in which women are oppressed overtly, Atwood manages to show the covert oppression of women in the 1980s with a “society [that] sets glass ceilings that women only rarely smash, while men of no greater accomplishments still dominate positions of power” (Michael 1996: 139). The difference between the United States in the 1980s and the situation in Gilead is therefore only “one of degree but certainly not of kind” (ibid. 138). This chapter will examine the aims of the Christian Right and the situation of the United States under President Ronald Reagan in respect to women’s rights. Afterwards, a comparison between the beliefs of the Christian Right and the situation in Gilead will be drawn in order to show how the novel points out the ongoing, subliminal oppression of women in the 1980s.

Firstly, it is necessary to explain what the Christian Right stands for. In his book Lobbyisten Gottes Martin Sterr defines the Religious Right as a “movement that rejects the modern societal development of the United States and postulates a return to the primary democracy, […] to traditional forms of community, as well as to religiously coined American values”[2] (Sterr 1999: 21). The only way out of a crisis is the return to God (ibid. 175). Therefore, the Evangelicals stick to the laws written down in the Bible and see themselves as “warriors in the name of God”[3] (ibid. 175/6). Concerning their political activities they bring in both religious thinking and rational reasoning (ibid. 179). The movement is against pornography and abortion (ibid. 180) which was once pointed out by the Christian Right supporter Jerry Falwell: “Is there a hope for our country? I think so. I believe in God and pray as we Christains [ sic ] lead the battle to outlaw abortion” (ibid. 177). Falwell’s reference to the process as a ‘battle’ does not only highlight the importance of the topic but it also shows how the Christian Right approached things. In 1980 the movement achieved the best results in an election so far (ibid. 183). One reason for this success might be that a political system like the one of the United States makes it easy for groups such as the Religious Right to reach popularity. The Christian Right immediately became interesting for voters as well as for politicians since the movement was highly motivated which attracted many people. Furthermore, they already had a good connection to many voters which made them interesting for politicians. Another reason for its high recognition were the rituals and emotions the Christian Right could offer. They conveyed the feeling of being part of something bigger. Another advantage was the fixed basis of the Christian Right which they could always rely on: religion. All these factors contributed to the success of the movement (ibid. 185). Their overall aim was “putting God back in government” (ibid.). The pro-family activists of the Religious Right wanted to go back to traditional roles, with the husband who has the “God-given responsibility to lead his family” (quoted in Bouson 1993: 135) and the woman staying at home (ibid.).


[1] The members of the Christian Right, as well as the movement itself are often referred to by various names. This paper will always refer to the movement as ‘Christian Right’ or ‘Religious Right’ and to its members as ‘Evangelicals’.

[2] Own translation; original quote: “Bewegung […], die die moderne gesellschaftliche Entwicklung der USA negiert und eine Rückkehr zur Ur-Demokratie, […] zu traditionellen Gemeinschaftsformen, sowie zu religiös geprägten amerikanischen Werten postuliert.” (Sterr 1999: 21)

[3] Own translation; original quote: “Krieger im göttlichen Auftrag” (Sterr 1999: 175/6)

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