I’m not sure how this happened, but I finally read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale this week. Why it took me over seven years to get to it, I have no idea and am thoroughly kicking myself now for have letting it happen.
Atwood’s novel chronicles a woman, Offred, living in a dystopic future where women have next to no rights and are used like chattel by older couples to have children. It is the early days of the society, and Offred (whose real name is never given as she goes by her Commander’s name) can remember the days before the U.S. government was hostilely overthrown by what appear to be backwater conservatives who don’t care for Jews and are looking to preserve the white race.
The story runs the contrast and complexities of the lives of women before and after the fundamentalist takeover. There is an internal feminist struggle of what the boundaries are between women and how they see themselves in relation to each other. Offred jokes that this is their female society and the irony of women working against each other like tools for men isn’t lost on her. In the days before, Offred was the second wife of her husband, which was the excuse used to strip them apart. However a pertinent detail was that Offred and her husband were having an affair when he was married, and her friend Moira pointed out that she had stolen another woman’s husband.
Later, at the training facilities where women are to become chattel for child-bearing, they are instructed by the Aunts, older infertile women who brainwash and reign them in. Again it is ironic that it is women acting against other women. This becomes more evident when the Wives are resentful of the Handmaids ability to have children. Women will so easily sell each other out for status among men would best sum this book up. If one ever read Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Women, it would be easy to draw the parallel that women constantly have this need to one up each other in front of men in order to earn status, and that they cannot establish their own system of worth on their own.
Even though the novel was published well over twenty years ago, a large number of the issues retain their relevancy to the gender divide and the complex problem of being a “feminist.” What I’ve seen in growing numbers of professional women sticking the disclaimer on themselves that they are “not feminist” in a desperate bid to seem… I don’t know, not a crazy die-hard feminazi? I really think this plays into what Atwood displays about women and feminism in the twentieth century, it’s the idea that feminism, female assertion, is a threat that other females try to put down just as much as men do, if not to a greater extent in order to assert their status. Contradictory and hypocritical? Highly. But it’s not an issue that feminists and anti-feminist women across the board seem to want to address.