I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the late 1980s when I was in high school. It alarmed me on the first reading, scared me on the second, and, as I continued to re-read it over and over again that year, made me downright paranoid. It was, after all, the ‘80s and, while the religious right wasn’t born that decade, it had become significantly more high profile during the Reagan years. As a teenager reading The Handmaid’s Tale, the notion of a society taken over by fundamentalists who categorically stripped all of women’s rights did not seem hard to imagine.
Flash forward several decades, and I have just re-read Atwood’s novel again as I prepare to teach it in a college liberal arts seminar on dystopias. In between reading, I watched the Republican National Convention launch in the wake of Todd Akin’s mostly-renounced “legitimate rape” comments. Mostly renounced. Even while many Republicans have distanced themselves from endorsing misogyscience, the platform adopted by the party this year leaves no wiggle room when it comes to abortion. As The New York Times reported Aug. 28, as happy as conservatives may have been at the 1980 convention, that year’s platform at least acknowledged the existence of differing viewpoints on abortion. This year’s approved platform, however, simply states that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.” Period.
There is no abortion in The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel depicts America remade as theocracy and renamed the Republic of Gilead. As in all dystopias, the leaders of this brave new world believe they have created a better society by eliminating many of the choices once available to citizens. Society has been restructured so that women have one purpose: to bear and raise children. For biblical reasons, women can no longer work, have money, or read. Those with viable ovaries live as Handmaids, helping to provide children to childless members of the older power elite. Punishments for failing to obey the strict rules of Gilead are severe: loss of limbs, public hangings, death-labor camps.
The doctrines of Gilead are, then, extreme, but hardly impossible to imagine. For every restriction on women’s lives in Atwood’s book, there are many real places in today’s world where women (and men) live under comparable totalitarian thumb. Indeed, Atwood reportedly wrote the novel after visiting Afghanistan and Iran in the late 1970s, and in response to those in America who believed such manifestations of religious fanaticism could never happen in this country.
The most compelling element of Atwood’s book is the voice of the first-person narrator, a Handmaid who lives in this new reality, but spends much of her time remembering the one that was plundered for its inception. That was a world in which she had a husband and a daughter (relationships nullified in the new republic, which doesn’t recognize second marriages); a job and a bank account; friends and purpose. It is the America we live in now, essentially, with the same signs of environmental, political and cultural unrest. The narrator’s losses are collateral and comprehensive. She has been wrongly imprisoned and silenced, with no visible means of escape. Her desperate thoughts are pretty much how most of us would feel if the desires of a few became law.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, America has been dissolved and Gilead now fights a visceral—not legislative—war on women; it’s a civil war fought with weaponry, promulgated by propaganda, resisted through a shadowy underground network. Its leaders—who overthrew the government via mass assassination and wrested the economic system by pushing a button—believe unwaveringly in the moral and religious rectitude of their system.
“We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away,” the narrator’s Commander tells the narrator one night, citing singles bars, meat markets and plastic surgery as problems women no longer have in Gilead. Even women who had men in pre-Gilead, he says, had to worry about their husbands leaving them, about leaving the children in daycare, about going on welfare. “No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they’re protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement.”
Although the Commander is hardly a sympathetic character (nor is he able to uphold Gilead’s strictures; he sneaks the narrator reading material, among other offenses), his justification strikes me as being at the heart of the GOP’s current stance on abortion rights.
Acknowledging differing viewpoints on controversial subjects—as the GOP did in its 1980 platform—is at the heart of civil discourse and democracy. Allowing no leeway for divergent views requires a pathological lack of empathy for other people’s happiness, sorrow, and autonomy. For women and men, reproductive choices sometimes come with heartache and conflict. As with any life choice, it should be sovereign, not under the power of those who would seek to remake the world to suit their own beliefs. As I watch and listen to the GOP convention, I am struck by the willingness of the party to adhere to such prescriptive and rigid thinking in the face of opposition. Its anti-abortion stance may be framed as protecting the rights of fetuses, but what it truly does is eradicate the rights of women to exist for reasons other than child-bearing, regardless of circumstance. The so-called “culture wars” that Patrick Buchanan referenced in 1992, are not just alive and well; they are thriving and everyone is losing.
Gilead’s patriarchal leaders aren’t the only ones who believe they have given women a new type of freedom. As one of the “Aunts” —women who are given just enough power to train (brainwash) and oversee (beat if necessary) the Handmaids—notes: there is more than one kind of freedom: “Freedom to and freedom from.” Gilead, she continues, has given women freedom from. “Don’t underrate it,” she says.
That the current position of the GOP regarding women’s reproductive freedoms is comparable to that of fictional sadists and power-fiends is just as frightening as Atwood’s imaginary world. Or perhaps it’s even scarier since it is, after all, real.