Gender Inequality: The Handmaid’s Tale

Written in 1985 by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that presents a totalitarian theocracy that has replaced the United States and forces the few fertile women left to bear children for elite couples that have trouble conceiving. The main protagonist in the novel is referred to as Offred and she is a handmaid in the newfound Republic of Gilead. Being a handmaid means that she is owned by a male commander, and is required to perform monthly insemination ceremonies with the goal of producing a child for him and his wife. Offred’s freedom, like the freedom of all women in this Republic, is completely restricted. They have been reduced to state property and the “Eyes”, Gilead’s secret police force, watch their every move. What may seem like a terrifying fictional future in this story, is actually more realistic than anyone ever thought. In fact, two main fundamental principles that are challenged in the novel such as gender equality and a female’s right to protect her own reproductive system, are being significantly questioned today. That could assist in explaining why this 1985 novel has recently topped best-selling charts, as it speaks to the fears of readers in the country about the dangers that their human rights are in.

A common theme in The Handmaid’s Tale explores the oppression of women in a male dominated society. In the Republic, every privilege is stripped away from women. They are told how to dress, how to act, and also that they aren’t even allowed to read store signs. Ultimately, this is all done by the men of Gilead in an effort to control women’s minds and bodies. The idea of gender equality is not one that is supported in the society in which Offred and all of her fellow Handmaid’s live. There are two quotes in particular from the novel that further demonstrate how unequal the balance of power is within the Republic. In the first quote from Offred she says, “They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then” (Atwood 34). This quote exhibits how Offred is reflecting on the past. It shows the twisted ordeal of how women are forced to be/act in Gilead. They had the choice of how to represent themselves, however, nowadays they are confined to either being a wife, handmaid, or aunt. In another quote Offred explains, “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others” (Atwood 99). This statement shows how Offred falls into the suppressive ways of the Republic by valuing her own name as worthless. The idea that Handmaid’s must be identified as “Of” their commanders name, makes them feel like a lesser version of themselves. This recurrent theme of gender inequality in the novel can be related to the United States workplace as women continue to be underrepresented in high-level, highly paid positions and overrepresented in low-paying jobs. A statistic from the Institute for Policy Studies states that, “women make up 63% of workers earning the federal minimum wage, a wage rate stuck at $7.25 since 2009. By contrast, women represent only 5% of CEOs at Fortune 500 firms” (“Gender Inequality”). That data suggests that the workplace is generally dominated by males and that there is little room for female advancement. In addition, women of color and transgender individuals experience particularly higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and other economic hardships. Gender discrimination is a sad part of reality in this country, and since this novel brings much attention to the issue, that could be why it has had a renewal of popularity.

Another common theme in The Handmaid’s Tale investigates female reproductive rights. In this novel, the patriarchs of Gilead want to control women’s bodies, their sex lives, and their reproductive rights. Women are required to submit to state-sanctioned rape by their commanders, and are not permitted to have any romantic love of their own. In addition, the women frequently see the bodies of slain abortionists on the wall which drives home the point that giving them authority over their bodies is considered to be a horrifying crime. Two specific quotes from the novel assist in explaining how women had very limited rights to their own bodies. One quote from Offred says, “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping” (Atwood 88). As Offred sits in the bath, she contrasts with how she used to think about her body to the way she thinks about it now. Before, her body was an instrument, an extension of herself, but now her body is only important because of its “central object,” her womb, which can bear a child. Offred has internalized Gilead’s attitude toward women, which treats them not as individuals, but as objects important only for the children that they can bear. Another quote from Offred states, “Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us” (Atwood 14). This quote shows how the handmaids are cloaked in red as a reminder of their fertility. Red not only symbolizes menstrual blood or blood resulting from birth, but it is a constant reminder of a threat of death if they were to behave disobediently. Discussions of female reproductive rights are extremely prevalent in today’s world, and that could be an additional reason as to why this novel has regained popularity. Due to the tense political climate currently in this country, as politicians are threatening the possible overturn of the Roe v. Wade case, feminists have taken it upon themselves to form a movement to advocate for barriers to government involvement in certain matters such as birth control methods. They will not let the federal government take away their rights to their own bodies like the Republic of Gilead did in the novel. In addition to the current fight to keep abortion an available option for all women, the recent #MeToo movement also greatly relates to the theme of female reproductive rights. As huge waves of women are coming forward with sexual assault allegations, it shows how they will no longer allow male figures to abuse them. As the novel deals with rape culture, more women are reading it and are making sure that their voice is heard so that they can steer clear of being a victim of sexual violence.

Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, may be considered as a fictional story however, it touches upon many important and controversial topics that are being dealt with in this country today. Two of the topics include gender inequality and the unfair ways in which female reproductive systems are handled. Even though this novel was introduced 32 years ago, it has had a significant renewal of popularity because Americans are able to relate to the story more than they ever have. The novel provides a foundation for further discussions regarding how the nation must deal with these problems so that citizens never have to live in a society like that of the oppressed Republic of Gilead.