The Handmaid’s Tale: A Feminist’s Must Read

Women have only certain roles: wife, breeder, or servant.  These are the options, and the choice is not up to you to make.  The government will make the choice for you.

Last weekend I finally finished The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.  I didn’t have a good understanding of what I was getting into and by the time I realized it, it was too late.  I knew I’d have to finish.  I will not sugar coat this: it is an unpleasant and difficult book to read.  Before I go much further I want to make two things clear: 1. It was one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read, with a frightening look at look a future American society.  2. More people need to read this book.  Male, female, young (not too young), and old.  Read this book!

I say this because given our current political climate, social strife between the right and left, and what some politicians are trying to do, or declaring they will do if elected President, all of these things going one way or another can be a stepping stone to a version of the country that is laid out in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Denying women the right to work, have their own bank accounts, abolishing marriage and moving to arranged marriages, girls no longer educated or allowed to read or write – or even know how to – are just some of the measures put into place in this dystopian novel.  The New York Times review when the book came out in 1986 even shares it as a warning of what will happen if trends continue. While Times piece points out that the book never really points to what is that is currently happening that brings us to this alternate place with a religious fundamentalist takeover, today that is another story.  If you’ve been watching any of the GOP debates this fall, this book will sound eerily familiar. Take much of what is stand and move a few more steps down that path, and you’ll find yourself in a whole new world.

I spent a few weeks asking peers if they’d read the book.  I received many blank looks and questions about it.  While my parents were visiting at Thanksgiving I told my mom I was reading it.  I knew she’d know it, and know what it was bothering me.  Her face was mostly one of disgust, but she agreed, it needs to be read, at least once.

In my search for peer reaction I found few takers.  Much thanks to Amy Tannenbaum for sharing her thoughts with me!  Amy told me:

It brings into focus the type of religious extremism we have seen in recent legislative battles here in the US.  It’s chilling how this book resonates with contemporary readers; the parallels with attacks on choice, access to reproductive care, and sexual education policies ring true in our current political climate.  Atwood brings up so many issues relevant to the feminist movement in the US and globally… Despite the progress made by feminist movements, could this ever become a reality in this country?” 

Everything I read in newspapers, on blogs and magazines, all seemed like they could have been pulled into this book.  As I’ve already said – it’s not a pleasant book to read.  But I couldn’t walk away from it either.  I had to finish and know the whole story. Atwood spends a lot of time mentioning pieces of the past and you spend the next twenty pages hoping the rest of that story will play out, and you’ll have all the information.   The book is written in an interesting and sometimes, annoying format, jumping between the present and the past.  She also leaves you at the end of the book with questions unanswered.  For example, how exactly did we get here?  How did we get to that one point when everything changed?  The warning is not complete, but it is still clear.

Fighting against extremists, demanding equality for everyone is something we have to keep fighting for.  Can all the accomplishments of the feminist movement be wiped out and forgotten?  Not as long as we continue fighting together, and ensure what we have remains, and what remains to be seen is accomplished.  Working together, despite difference needs, missions and end goals, the bigger end goal is always the same: equality, for all.

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  • This is the second time I have been told about this book, and the first person called it intense – in a word. Your description definitely makes me want to check it out too! Sometimes the hardest books to read are the best.

    Thank you for the suggestion! 🙂

  • I just finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale yesterday. I thought it was terrific, although deeply disturbing. I agree with you that it is a book everyone should read, especially given the current political climate.

  • Showie

    I read it in Grade 13. It was definitely an “ah ha!” moment for many women in my class who had never identified as feminist, and some men too. Power to the male feminist teacher who brought it to our young minds. I have always, and will always, look on Handmaid as my favourite Margaret Attwood novel.

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  • Cartolo Bolon

    I was going to recommend that Paul Ryan and his Tea Party goons read this, but then I remembered that they can’t read.