Feminist Dystopia in Margaret Atwood “The Handmaid’s Tale”
Feminism is a political and social movement; it shares a recurrent goal which is to achieve political, economic, personal, and social equality of sexes (IWDA). A dystopia is a society that is crumbling, decaying or in a tyrannized and terrorized state. They divulge the public’s eminent trepidations. In most dystopian literature an oppressive administration is trying to subdue and dominate its citizen and residents by taking away their individuality as people (Kendall). “The Handmaid’s tale” by Margaret Atwood is unquestionably a feminist dystopia and it effectively connects with the second wave of feminist ideals. The book portrays a cynical future where subjugation of women has reached inexplicable heights at which most of them are valued on their capability to generate offspring (Shuman). The women in The Handmaid’s Tale are suppressed in every possible way, most specifically through rape and the ceremonial confiscation of their reproductive rights. This loss of literary awareness and power over their procreative liberty is threaded and demonstrated throughout the book. Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. Religious fundamentalist have won the war against the United States making it a totalitarian and theocratic state that has replaced the preceding government. Because of drastically low procreation rates, Handmaids are assigned as child bearers for high ranking couples that have difficulties conceiving. Women are now in an inferior status assigned to them by an inadequate reading of the bible (Shuman).
As has been referred to previously, the plummet in pregnancy rates doutlessly due to environmental contamination, the expansion of sexually transmitted diseases, the improvement of awareness about women’s rights and the promotion of abortion, have become intolerable to the founders of Gilead. The group deceptional exploit of the Bible as the basis for a fertility cult and has skillfully enslaved appropriate women into a state of surrogate motherhood, calling them the Handmaids, on behalf of the sterile Wives of the Commanders. Although they are obliged with adequate food and hygienic shelter and housing, there are no remuneration or any privilege for them to make their own choices (Nakamura). The Handmaids are nothing but ‘two-legged wombs, … sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices’ (HT 156); arousal or orgasm, which apparently belongs to the mind, is now regarded as unnecessary, or ‘outdated’ as in Nineteen Eighty-Four (HT 110). If any of the Handmaid’s failed to become pregnant and deliver a child, they would be branded as Unwoman, and sent to the Colonies with other dissidents, where people must keep burning rotten corpses or sweep ‘the toxic dumps and the radiation spills’ without any protection (HT 283). In these ways, the Handmaids are commodified into performing the monotonous function of a purely reproductive body, not being left any chance to escape the dystopia (Nakamura). The ‘second wave’ is a term used to denote feminist activism in the United States from the mid-1960s to the end of the twentieth century and possibly beyond. The ‘first wave’ consisted of the long struggle for women’s suffrage that began with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and concluded in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which granted women the right to vote (Evans).
The second wave was commenced by literate, middle-class women whose lives had been significantly changed by their growing access to tertiary school and labor force participation. Their lives were at odds with traditional middle-class gender ideology (which the feminist author Betty Friedan later named the ‘feminine mystique’) and they faced constant discrimination (Evans). In 1963, writer and feminist Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a nonfiction book in which she contested the post-World War II belief that it was women’s destiny to marry and bear children. Friedan’s book was a best-seller and began to raise the awareness of many women who conquered that being a housewife in the suburbs sapped them of their independence and left them unsated (Khan Academy). Margaret Atwood wrote “The Handmaid’s Tale” shortly after the elections of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, during a period of conservative revival in the West partly fueled by a strong, well-organized movement of religious conservatives who criticized what they perceived as the excesses of the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s one of which was Schlafly who was a mother of six children and a long-time Republican Party activist. Schlafly contended that the ERA threatened the traditional family because it relieved a husband of the obligation to provide for his wife and children. (Moss). Mr. Reagan pledged to implement Federal laws barring discrimination against women. Yet to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission he selected individuals with no expertise in those areas. Reagan promised that despite his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment he would support equal rights for women and work actively to advance women throughout society. These were promises that President Reagan had not kept. (REAGAN VS. WOMEN). Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned employers from discriminating on the grounds of sex. Title IX of the Higher Education Act of 1972 restricted discrimination on the grounds of sex in educational institutions funded by the federal government (Moss). The establishment in 1972 of the first shelter for battered wives and the first rape crisis center indicated that activists had convinced at least some part of the public that rape and wife-beating were significant problems and deserved attention. In the ruling of Roe vs Wade that abortion was legal in the first three months of pregnancy and that women’s rights included the right to control their own bodies (Moss).
In the Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood explores the consequences of a reversal of women’s rights. Feminists argued for liberation from traditional gender roles, but Gilead is a society founded on a “return to traditional values” and gender roles, and on the subjugation of women by men. Women in Gilead are not only forbidden to vote, they are forbidden to read or write. Atwood’s novel also paints a picture of a world undone by pollution and infertility, reflecting 1980s fears about declining birth rates, the dangers of nuclear power, and -environmental degradation. The book brings about various concerns that reverses the accomplishments of the feminist movement in the 1960’s.
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