Several weeks ago, I hosted the first meeting of a monthly book club. The meeting was embarrassingly small (four people), but the conversation was lively, as it’s guaranteed to be when the book is The Handmaid’s Tale. Written in 1985 by Margaret Atwood, the The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel set in the future, in which a totalitarian theocracy has overthrown the United States. Under this new government women are stripped of their rights and considered subservient to men. Women are no longer allowed to read or have access to money, and are re-educated to believe that their sole purpose is to have babies and serve their husbands. Furthermore, women are broken into various “classes”; Offred, the book’s narrator, is in a class of women kept as concubines for reproductive purposes by infertile members of the ruling class.
What’s especially interesting about the story is that all of these extreme changes are supposed to take course over just a few decades. While Offred tells most of the story from her position as a handmaid, she can remember just 10 years ago when she was married with a child, a job, and a bank account. In addition, although women are subservient in the new society, it was partially a group of religious women who called for the creation of this societal structure. Even after the new society is created, it relies on women to train and monitor each other. Through this power structure, women are taught to hate and fear each other and are prevented from forming any true bonds that could lead to an uprising.
Clearly, the book requires you to suspend your belief, as do many political science fiction books like 1984 or Brave New World. Yet the level at which you are required to suspend your belief is exactly what caused the lively and somewhat combative discussion at our book club meeting. Specifically the group was broken into two camps: this is ridiculous because it could never happen; verses, this is horrible yet not completely inconceivable. Group one argued that something like this could never happen so quickly. People just wouldn’t allow it. Sure, we still have religious fundamentalists that want to take women out of the workplace and ban contraceptives and abortion, but this is a very small group that would never be in power!
Group two (full disclosure, my group) argued that while this book was clearly a stretch, some of the themes and even specific scenes were eerily similar to modern day. Abortion clinics being closed throughout the country and doctors who perform abortions being outlawed and killed? Check. A new class of outspoken, educated women advocating that a women’s place is in the home and their duty is to listen to their husband? Check. A country in which financial instability and radical religious fundamentalists have so scared citizens that they were willing to listen to anyone claiming to have an answer? Not quite yet, but unless the economy gets better, not inconceivable.
In fact what continuously ran through my head while reading this book was a 2006 quotes from Presidential hopeful Michelle Bachman. “The Lord says be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.” It would be difficult for a man running for President to say something like this without intense, well-deserved backlash. Yet because Ms. Bachman is a woman, it is somehow seen as less offensive, less sexist, and less crazy. As Atwood herself said:
“This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions.”Do I think Michelle Bachman will be the start of a new society like the one in The Handmaid’s Tale? Not at all. But I do think it’s a sign that we are in a dangerous time in our history when a legitimate Presidential hopeful can make such a statement. As a feminist, I’m exited to see more women in political office. And as a feminist, I am determined to make sure that those women who do get elected never make women’s rights a secondary issue.
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