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The Handmaid's Tale: Margaret's Warnings

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is a harrowing near-future story that serves as a cautionary tale. We are like frogs slowly boiling in the water, what will it take to finally make moves to fight back? However, this warning seems to serve a very specific brand of woman. Ghouls discuss the impact of the book but also the negative effects of having such an important piece of literature that lacks intersectionality. Gabe unpacks the messaging of the book while Kat discusses real-world horrors that have inspired and should have inspired the work.

Book Synopsis: 6:00 - 22:26 (skip to avoid storyline spoilers).

Sources in this Episode: Race, Intersectionality, and the End of the World: The Problem with The Handmaid’s Tale Feminism Must Be Intersectional or It's Just an Arm of White Supremacy N. Carolina Bill Proposing Women Who Get Abortions Be Executed Sparks Fury Why Comparing 'Roe v Wade' Overturn to Handmaid's Tale is Problematic Bodies and Sexuality in Gilead: A Queer Ecofeminist Reading of the Handmaid’s Tale The Racist and Sexist History of Keeping Birth Control Side Effects Secret Yes, Women Could Vote After The 19th Amendment — But Not All Women. Or Men

Further Reading on Handmaid's Tale: For black women, The Handmaid's Tale's dystopia is real—and telling - What can The Handmaid’s Tale teach us about intersectionality in institutional life? 'The Handmaid’s Tale' and the History & Future of Queer Oppression Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump


Media from this week's episode:

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

Set in a near-future New England, in a strongly patriarchal, totalitarian theonomic state, known as the Republic of Gilead, which has overthrown the United States government. The central character and narrator is a woman named Offred, one of the "handmaids" — a group of women who are forcibly assigned to produce children for the "commanders" — the ruling class of men in Gilead.

Writer:Margaret Atwood


The Handmaid's Tale: Why We All Lose When We Don't Include us All by Gabe Castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.


The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a near future America where a religious fundamentalist radical group known as the “Sons of Jacob” have assassinated the president and most of congress, and have enacted a coup/insurrection to install their own ideal theocracy. This world, inspired by reality and much in the vein of Atwood’s favorite themes, is one plagued by ecological disaster. Due to nuclear weapons, pollution, and our other dirty habits, the Earth has become infertile, and so have humans. There is a decline in birth rates (though the government, again much like our own, cares for one type of baby in particular) have dropped. Babies that are born are at great risk of deformity or other illness (tabling the ableism for moment). (Remember H1N1 and how it affected births?)

The end of the novel explains how we ended up here and even touches, ever so slightly, on political and racial issues, The reasons for this decline are not altogether clear to us. Some of the failure to reproduce can undoubtedly be traced to the widespread availability of birth control of various kinds, including abortion, in the immediate pre-Gilead period. Some infertility, then, was willed, which may account for the differing statistics among Caucasians and non-Caucasians; but the rest was not. Need I remind you that this was the age of the R-strain syphilis and also of the infamous AIDS epidemic, which, once they spread to the population at large, eliminated many young sexually active people from the reproductive pool? Stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformities were widespread and on the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various nuclear-plant accidents, shutdowns, and incidents of sabotage that characterized the period, as well as to leakages from chemical and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic-waste disposal sites, of which there were many thousands, both legal and illegal—in some instances these materials were simply dumped into the sewage system—and to the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays.

The new world, Gilead, places white, Christian, CISmen at places of power. In Gilead, women are categorized. They are not allowed to read, write, or do much of anything. They don’t have jobs (with the exception of the serving-class, Marthas). They cannot have their own money. Stripped of their rights and privileges, they live only to serve the men.

Our protagonist, Offred/June, is a Handmaid. Women that were divorced, never married, and fertile. Some, even, are labeled gender-traitors for being queer. These women are forced to serve the men in power. Their names are that of the household’s patriarch, “Of Fred.” These women have one purpose, to bear children for these powerful and important men. As Offred explains, “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” Once a month, the handmaids are forced to participate in a cult practice of state-sanctioned rape mirroring the biblical story of Rachel who gifted her husband her handmaid, Bilhah, to use as a wife and bear children. “And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife; and Jacob went in unto her.” (Genesis 30: 3-5) Handmaids wear red dresses and white bonnets.

There are the Commander’s wives who wear blue. They have some semblance of power, being married to the controllers of the country but have failed at their womanly duties, unable to give birth. They don’t have many rights and are also traumatized by this new world but like white feminists today, these wives have worked to uphold the powers of men. They’re not allowed to read, are reduced to the mundane task of knitting (Offred explains this practice could be pointless, suggesting the knitted pieces are later unraveled so that the yarn could be used again), and worst of all, they also participate in the state-sanctioned rape of the Handmaids by their own husband.

Marthas, as mentioned are the servants of Gilead. Either too old or for other reasons, barren. Still, they are of use and made into maids and cooks for the houses. They wear green.

The Aunts are older women who train and indoctrinate the Handmaids. They believe in the future and see it as their purpose to explain the importance of Handmaids, to protect them and brainwash them. Their power reminiscent of certain social experiments in prisons. As the architects of Gilead knew, to institute an effective totalitarian system or indeed any system at all you must offer some benefits and freedoms, at least to a privileged few, in return for those you remove. “When power is scarce, a little of it is tempting,” the “scholars” in the end say about the Aunts.

There are also the Econowives, wearing red, blue and green stripes. They are the wives of the lower-ranking, less important men who are expected to fulfill all the roles of the women listed above in their household.