There’s Little Balm in Comparing Ourselves to Gilead

It’s a daily onslaught: one after another at record pace, draconian laws are being passed restricting women’s rights. Meanwhile, providers of women’s health care are increasingly unsafe, even after one of them was brutally assassinated. And we all spent much of this past week wondering with (somewhat) bated breath whether the Federal Government would actually be brought to a complete and total standstill over the funding of women’s preventive health care and birth control. It feels like a perfect storm. And so for those of us familiar with its parameters, it’s been hard to avoid the comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s fictional misogynist dystopia, Gilead, the society that backgrounds “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” was written by Atwood 25 years ago. It is a sophisticated literary novel exploring the psychological havoc of misogyny and totalitarianism on one woman’s existence, and at the same time it’s a Swiftian “modest proposal” written to show us the logical extension of religious extremist, anti-sex, anti-woman thinking that was nascent in the 1980s (and remains alive and well). Gilead is not a futuristic society. It’s an alternate version of what would happen in America in the case of a cultural and religious shock doctrine.

Two things occurred to create Atwood’s Gilead: one was mass sterility due to environmental and social catastrophe (including, quite eerily “exploding atomic power plants, along the San Andreas fault, nobodys fault, during the earthquakes”) and the other was the subsequent rise of an armed Christianist movement which was already strong, but took advantage of panic and instability to take over the government and corral its citizens into regimented gender roles. For women these include “Marthas”–sterile woman who are domestic servants, “wives,” who perform the social duties of marriage, “jezebels” or prostitues, “aunts” who are brutal enforcers, and “handmaids,” who exist solely to reproduce. Everyone else is an “unwoman” and doomed.

But in the novel, the advent of this cataclysmic change was more subtle and slow than one might think. Atwood’s conflicted narrator, Offred, acknowledges that fact, explaining before the final takeover things were getting worse and worse for women–but the well-off among them were ignoring it:

“Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”

It’s that sort of creeping fascism that’s happening as we speak. The proliferation of “Handmaids Tale” jokes and references in the past six months in the face of an unprecedented “war on women” as well as my own increased use of Gileadean metaphors led me to find myself poring over the pages of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which I’d already read twice, seeking explicit parallels between this world and today’s. Here’s what I discovered in Gilead:

Sanctioned murder of abortion providers, as the recent proposed law in South Dakota would have tacitly encouraged and as the neglect of clinic safety rules presages. Atwood’s language directly overlaps the rhetoric from today’s anti-choice extremists and their violent footsoldiers as she describes the public execution of former abortion providers:

“The men wear white coats, like those worn by doctors… each has a placard hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human fetus. They were doctors, then, in the time before, when such things were legal…these men, we’ve been told, are like war criminals. It’s no excuse that what they did was legal at the time: their crimes are retroactive. They have committed atrocities and must be made into examples, for the rest.”

Men’s “natural tendencies” as justification for the mistreatment of women. Evolutionary psychologists, take note. In Atwood’s novel, “The Commander” who is charged with impregnating Offred, tells her why there are secretly-sanctioned brothels for men like him: “Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. It’s Nature’s plan.” The Commander also uses men’s needs to explain why they created Gilead to begin with and eliminated freedom for women:

“The problem wasn’t only with the women… the problem was with the men. The sex was too easy… there was nothing to work for, to fight for.”

God as the provider of an excuse to regulate women’s reproduction. Atwood is quite subtle in this, but the Commander’s use of “nature” to explain why men get more sexual privileges, while the Aunt’s use of Biblical standards of purity to teach women their new place, illustrates the double-standards that are in place today. Misogynists demand that men submit to their “natural” sex drive while women deny it and stay “pure” vessels for God’s gifts. In Atwoood’s world, women who can’t or won’t provide children because they’ve had their tubes tied are called “unwomen” and sent to their certain deaths in “the colonies.”

“’How could they’, said Aunt Lydia, ‘oh how could they have done such a thing? Jezebels! Scorning God’s gifts…’ ‘They said there was no sense in breeding.’ Aunt Lydia’s nostrils narrow: ‘such wickedness. They were lazy women,’ she says. ‘They were sluts.’”

This contrast of lazy, slutty women, and men ruled by nature leads us to the next parallel, the positioning rape as women’s fault. We see this constantly today, from the “forcible rape” provision in the H.R. 3 bill to the rape apology coming from law-enforcement in Toronto. Few who’ve read Atwood’s novel can forget the following scene, during which the women are being “reconditioned” by giving testimonials of their former lives:

“It’s Janine, telling about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion… But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.  Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison. Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us. She did. She did. She did.  Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen? Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.

In Gilead, the only thing that can redeem women from their fallen state, of course, is procreation: pregnancy is seen as as “saving” sexually active women and providing their most crucial role in society. Offred describes shopping and running into another handmaid who is pregnant: “one of them is vastly pregnant…she’s a magic presence to us, an object of envy and desire. We covet her. She’s a flag on a hilltop, showing us what can be done; we too can be saved.” This, of course is an echo of both the political currents which oppose birth control, and the twinned social obsessions with “baby bumps” and “sainted motherhood” which we experience in culture today. 

In the reproductive justice community, it’s commonly understood that behind the drive against abortion is a drive against birth control, women’s agency, and sex for its own sake. In Gilead, Offred’s experience with sex, at first, reflects these new rules which eliminate pleasure from sex and reduce it to its biological basics:

“What’s going on in this room.. has nothing to do with passion or love or romance or any of those other notions that we used to titillate ourselves with… it seems odd that women once spent such time and energy reading abut such things, thinking about them, worrying about them, writing about them. They are so obviously recreational.”

Readers of the book know that this lack of passion ends up affecting Offred’s choices even more than her lack of freedom does.

But this lack of personal freedom and passion doesn’t just hit enlightened women like Offred–it affects its own architects. In light of Bachmann and Palin-mania, another aspect of Gilead to remember is the fate of conservative women who made money telling other women to stay at home.  Atwood’s memorable character Serena Joy was modeled perhaps on Phyllis Schlafly, but who knew that a new generation of Schlaflys would gain even more power? Still, imagine what it would be like for Palin or Bachmann if they were bound by their own rules:

“Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all…she doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word.”

It’s a chilling fate, even for one’s ideological opponents.

Of course, not every aspect of Atwood’s vision in “The Handmaid’s Tale” was prophetic or relevant to what’s happening right now, and her culture-warriors aren’t perfect extensions of today’s. It’s fiction, after all. But just as Orwell, Huxley’s and others dystopian visions allow us to measure how far our world has spun off the axis of rationality, so is Atwood’s vision an appropriate yardstick for measuring entrenched government misogyny. And sadly, the world she created with logic, imagination and writerly brilliance still has frightening resonance–not just to a world that could be, but to the world that we live in at this very moment.

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  • ack

    I finally read this book a couple of weeks ago. I was riveted. I almost started reading “Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement” right after, but I thought I would jump off a cliff.


    I didn’t read it just because it was on my list. I read it because everything I knew about the book reflected dystopian realities that I’ve been seeing for a few years. The assaults on abortion rights. The refusal to acknowledge the wage gap. The increased limitations on contraception. The relegation of women and girls to breeding stock. 


    I’ll come back and point out some of the passages I highlighted as I read, but the book was particularly disturbing because of its relevance. Thanks for writing this.

  • forced-birth-rape

    ~ “Expositors having once convinced themselves that Nature (they would not own to doing it themselves), has outlined a certain “sphere” for women, whereas man is at liberty, under God, to outline his own “sphere” ~

    ~ Quote from (Katharine C. Bushnell’s book: God’s Word To Women.)

  • preeti

    Giving birth to a child is a right of women whether she wants to give birth to a child or not. It cannot be stopped lawfully or forcefully. Sterilizing women forcefully is a very serious problem. There are many other ways to control population but sterilizing women is not the right way to control the population.

    I would like to suggest a documentary based on this  “A Woman’s Womb”

    To watch the documentary please visit –

  • arekushieru

    Not donating organs is a right of everyone, everywhere, whether they want to donate organs or not.  Really, do you seriously not see the world as anything MORE than utilitarian?

  • sarah-seltzer

    Really looking forward to what you found! Quiverfull is a great read, too!

  • ack

    I’m not quite sure where you’re going with this, but if I’m understanding you correctly, I think you’re saying that all women and girls have the right to give birth, even if they don’t want to exercise it. Forced sterilization is absolutely a problem. The feds did it to Native women as recently as the 1970s.


    Choice means that women can choose whether, when, and how many children to have. That includes being free from intereference in her efforts to have children

  • plume-assassine

    I think he has also seriously confused the difference between “right” and “duty”

  • grammaragious

    Love the book, love the article. I just don’t like the jab at evolutionary psychology. There’s a difference between saying “Men are, on average, more promiscuous than women” is not the same thing as saying “Promiscuous women are bad” or “It’s okay for men to cheat/rape/etc” (I assume that this is an example of one of your problems with evolutionary psychology). If any scientist is saying the latter they’re not really scientists. Science helps us collect and explain facts about the natural world, it doesn’t tell us what’s good or bad.

  • plume-assassine

    I’ve always had a love for dystopian fiction, and asked my mom for some recommendations (she’s a voracious reader of absolutely everything). She told me that I would love “The Handmaid’s Tale” and I did. It’s still as relevant as when it was first published. Reading it was a chilling experience. It essentially illustrates one of the outcomes of taking anti-woman/anti-choice philosophy to their logical extremes. I wish that this book would be required reading in high school and/or college lit courses. This and other dysoptian novels really get people thinking about their own beliefs. And if we had more avid readers & thinkers out there, then maybe we wouldn’t be witnessing the slow erosion of our rights today.

  • sarah-seltzer

    I probably should have made it clearer that I meant pop evo-psych folks who DO use it as an excuse to justify misogynist patterns…there are a lot of them!

  • arekushieru

    Grammaragious, I have a problem with evolutionary psychology, in and of itself, especially when it’s used to explain behaviour from a biological perspective (as it most often is), rather than an adaptive one, as its name would suggest.  I prefer a form of sociobiological feminism, that explores the matter that arises from culture rather than the other way around, though….

  • ldan

    This has been my issue with evo. psych. as well. I can usually guarantee when I see an article on it that it’s going to explain how some behavior is based in biological destiny without detailing how they managed to disentangle the strong cultural effects.


    Add in the penchant for the pop psych crowd to use it as justification for all kinds of crap, and it’s difficult to take it seriously.

  • goatini


    Closer and closer every day.  I just found out today that the new propped-up-by-the-Vatican “order” of nuns in NYC, the so-called “Sisters Of Life”, call their female volunteers (gag) HANDMAIDS.


    “Handmaids: Women with the “heart of Mary” who befriend a woman in a difficult pregnancy. Handmaids might go out for a cup of tea, chat on the phone or take a walk; in short they help keep hope alive.”


    (Yeah, that cup of tea or little phone chat REALLY helps a desperate woman… NOT.  Disgusting liars!!!)


    Link to their disgusting patronizing brochure:


  • crowepps

    They need real medical care.  It’s outrageous that women who need real medical care are instead going to be fobbed off with somebody who will “chat on the phone”.  Barf.

  • plume-assassine

    Wow, what fresh hell is this? So many different “titles” for a bunch of people highly skilled in the art of coercion, bribing, and useless proselytizing.


    This reminds me… you all really need to watch 12th & Delware, if you haven’t already.

  • plume-assassine

    continuing on that note…


    One of the most memorable moments: a woman in the film was being lectured by a CPC worker and then stepped outside to make a phone call. She then said to the camera, “This bitch getting on my fuckin nerves. She‘s not gonna be there. If I have the baby, she’s not going to get up in the middle of the night and make a bottle … Maybe because she thought she bought me McDonald’s, I was gonna change my mind.” so true

  • elburto

    The CPC worker’s abhorrent view that a WOC a) was too stupid to know what abortion meant and b) could be ‘bought’ with a Mickey D’s.

    Was it 12th&D that had the teen girl who’d been talked out of the abortion she wanted, and was filmed later on, heavily pregnant and desperately sad? I get an ache in my chest when I think about her. She was bullied into carrying a child she could not support and did not want. Why are some people so opposed to the idea that every child should be a wanted child, and that someone who actively does not want a baby is the last person who should be forced to carry, birth, and raise one?

  • elburto

    It’s one of my all time favourite books. I fell in love with Margaret Atwood at 14, after we studied a short passage of Cat’s Eye at school. Her description of the bullying rang so true to me, the bullied child. She struck me as that rare person, an adult who knew the truth, who didn’t view childhood through rose coloured lenses. I sought out everything I could, saved up babysitting money to buy Cat’s Eye and The Handmaid’s Tale. I still have them here 18 years later, in pieces from the constant re-reading!

    I can see Gilead happening in America already. With every complaint of “Why should those sluts abort when I can’t even get pregnant?” or “You shouldn’t abort it’ll make you infertile! Give your baby to a couple without children”. With every new bill and law aiming to essentially punish half the population for being born female, and the increasing power of the ‘Christian’ right, you’re all sliding ever closer to a dystopian nightmare. Will it be like the book, where your country is an oddity, a tourist attraction for the rest of us to gawk at in horrified fascination, or a lesson in what happens when God and politics mix?

    I hope it can be averted, but from the outside, honestly? You’re closer than you think. You know how some of us dream about winning big on the lottery, and how we’d spend our money? I’ve gone from wanting a big house full of puppies, to wanting to airlift women and girls out of the US.

  • therealistmom

    I got to the point where that patronizing bitch was buying the McDonald’s and bragging how she was keeping the woman there to the camera to try and make her change her mind and had to turn it off. Knowing the pregnant woman turned around and had that to say… gladdens my heart a bit.

  • jrm83

    Yes.  She pretty much confirms that the only reason that she continued the pregnancy was because she was told that abortion was really dangerous to her health.  I think she might have also said that she felt like having a baby was going to ruin her life, but it’s been awhile since I’ve seen it.

  • genevieve-dusquesne

    Right.  I’m not discounting the possibility that some pregnant woman might want someone around for moral support (though I’m guessing the majority of those who are carrying to term have at someone who they actually know who they can rely on for this; women who have abortions are more often the ones who don’t want anyone knowing about their situation).  But if someone is “experiencing a difficult pregnancy” (which reads to me as though they don’t have a lot of resources as far as housing, food, money, medical care, etc) go, they don’t need a cup of tea as much as they need…inexpensive or free medical care.  A place to live.  Nutrious food, prenatal vitamins, maternity clothes for themselves, clothes/crib/stroller/other things for the baby.  Lots of expenses.  Oh, and also a lack of judgment.  Too many CPCs purport to have all of these services, but they’re usually limited at best (a few hand-me-down clothes and a package of diapers), or nonexistant (in Dr. Susan Wicklund’s memoir, she writes of calling up a CPC about a patient who had come to her for an abortion, but would prefer to carry to term, but didn’t have the money.  She called the local CPC and had to use a lot of caljoling and shaming to get them to pay for the woman’s prenatal care–something they never did otherwise).  And even those which provide care and a place to stay (such as the CPC/group home on an episode of 30 Days did) have a strong religious message to go along with it, which I assume would be quite noxious for many nonreligious (or non-Christian) women.

    So if these ladies want to call themselves sisters of life, how about making it legitimately easier on women to carry their pregnancies to term?  How about lifting some of the financial burden? 

  • plume-assassine

    That scene was so so sad. A heavily pregnant girl staring out her window, only 15 years old, who was bullied and scared into continuing her pregnancy, talking about how she was afraid that abortion would’ve killed her. It was heartbreaking.

  • elburto

    So heartless to scare a kid into keeping an unwanted pregnancy by telling her she’d die if she didn’t. As if the girl wasn’t frightened enough in the first place. It should be illegal for people not medically trained to give medical advice. Nobody ever appeared to tell her that carrying to term and birthing is even more dangerous. I hope she’s doing well.

  • ack

    I finally have a moment to breathe and I really wanted to come back to this post. Not only because it’s excellent, but because I wanted to go back and look at what I’d highlighted in the book while I was reading it. These are just a few relevant quotations and passages I tagged.


    All children are wanted now, but not by everyone.


    I think this gets at the complexity surrounding abortion and social services. Some pregnant women and girls don’t want to be pregnant and don’t want to raise a resulting child. Anti-choicers/fiscal conservatives REALLY want them to stay pregnant and raise the resulting child, but they don’t want to offer support after the child is actually here. And some women and girls want to be pregnant and raise a child, and the anti-choicers/fiscal conservatives REALLY don’t want to support her because she’s young, or poor, or of color.

    We have learned to see the world in gasps.


    Just thought that phrasing was beautiful. It also summarizes some of the feelings I’ve expressed with women who simply can’t believe the things that are happening around us.

    Maybe none of this is about control. maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.


    That passage struck me for a couple of reasons. The difference between getting away with something and being forgiven for it is potentially monumental. The former implies that either no one noticed or no one thought it was wrong, while the latter implies that people knew it was wrong but forgave the person. I’d never thought of it that way, but we both a lot for different groups of people.


    And, come on. Patriot Act, anyone? Bush/Gore election? Iraq war…   :

    That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.

  • arekushieru

    and the anti-choicers/fiscal conservatives REALLY don’t want to support her because she’s young, or poor, or of color.

    Or unwed.  ><; *Sorry!  I’ll stop now…!*