Sexual Oppression in ‘the Handmaid’s Tale’

Oppression, by definition, refers to an authoritarian system that controls its citizens by denying certain individuals purposeful human rights. It’s a type of injustice that prevents people from being equal. Sexual oppression of women has continuously been one of the most crippling forms of oppression seen throughout humanity. In many societies around the world, women have perpetually been held back from achieving the same opportunities as men. If there’s one person who is not afraid to express the issues of sexual oppression it is author, Margaret Atwood. In Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, she produces a thought provoking novel about domination of women by men. Atwood does so, by presenting a dystopian society where women’s freedom is entirely restricted by extreme policies put forth by men. The purpose of Atwood’s story is to provide a message to her audience to prove that a society like made-up “Gilead” happens when, “certain attitudes about women are taken to logical conclusions”. By certain attitudes Atwood means conservative expectations of women in a patriarchal society such as women staying home, them caring for children, and not being provocative. By exploring Atwoods different examples of oppression in her story,

The different classes of women in a Handmaid’s Tale is most quintessential form of oppression in the novel. For the “Handmaids”, like Atwood’s main character and narrator, Offred, their main purposes revolves around bearing children for their Commanders. Handmaids are forced to have sex for procreation, and are seen merely as possessions to high ranking males. There names, “Offred and Ofglen”, are these women’s given names based off their Commander, “Of Fred” or “Of Glen”. These women wear all red, a symbol of menstrual blood which is significantly related to their purpose. They are also forced to wear headwear that completely obliterates their face, not only keeping the world out but keeping them from seeing what’s around them. The next class are the “Marthas”, these women are classified as slighter higher than the Handmaids. They are unable to bear children, so they are forced into servitude. Martha’s wear drab dull colors, and are indoctrinated to hate the Handmaid’s because they consider them privileged. Mathas, however, are able to keep their names, and have a slight amount of freedom. The next rank are the “Aunts”, who are postmenopausal older women, that work in service to “Wives” by providing them Handmaids. Aunts wear brown, and are named after household products used by women. Lastly, are the “Wives”, the highest ranked females in Gilead society. The Wives are considered the pure women in Gilead, and are allowed to become wives of Commanders. The wives wear blue, which is supposed to represent the Virgin Mary. Regardless of the ranks, all women in Gilead are stripped of their right to read, write, vote, or hold any position of power. While Wives my seem to be the highest rank, and Handmaids the lowest, Atwood conveys how all women based on their moral perception that the men have given them. No woman in Gilead is free from the control of men.

The regime in Gilead controls almost every aspect of a woman’s life by using fear to force women to conform to their societal roles. Fear is another recurring means of oppression used in Atwood’s novel. For a Handmaid, sex outside of placement is grounds for death, and if they are infertile for their Commander’s they are subjected to harsh punishment. Punished women in Gilead are placed in to “The Colonies”, where they work as slaves to clean up toxic waste. They are known as the “Unwomen”, the waste of society:

“They figure you’ve got three year maximum, at those, before your nose falls off and your skin pulls away like rubber gloves. They don’t bother to feed you much, or give you protective clothing or anything, it’s cheaper not to. Anyway, they’re mostly people they want to get rid of.”

It is not just the infertile Handmaid’s that are forced into Colonies. It’s any woman that is seen as a waste, or threat to the Gilead Society such as lesbians, feminists, nuns, female criminals, and some old women. Fear of being sent to The Colonies is what keeps women in line. For some women, like Offred’s old friend Moira, she becomes a “Jezebel”, basically a prostitute to avoid “The Colonies”. Fear completely dehumanizes the women in Gilead. In Gilead society men have reached a position of such high superiority, that women are paralyzed by their control.

A common tactic of totalitarianism is to scare people so they do not resist. So it is no surprise that Atwood incorporates how fear perpetuates oppression. In Time Magazine’s review of the Handmaid’s Tale television series, based almost exactly off Margaret Atwood’s book, Time Magazine writer Olivia B. Waxman, draws real life parallels of the Gilead society to historical events in American society. Waxman mentions an author, Scott W. Stern, who wrote a book, The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women, entirely devoted to the “American Plan”. The American Plan, was one of the largest and longest quarantines in U.S. history in the early 1920s. Under the plan, tens of thousands of women suspected of being promiscuous and having a venereal disease were incarcerated (). This is shockingly similar to “The Colonies” that Atwood’s women in The Handmaid’s Tale would be sent to for similar reasons. The context for the plan was one in which women were pushing back against old traditions, the early 19th century was when feminist movements became relevant, similarly to how women were in pre Gilead society modernized to the Gilead described by Offred.

The justification of the treatment towards the women in Gilead is alluded back to the bible, and how men are considered the more “superior” species. In Genesis 1-3, the bible says that “For Adam was formed first, then Eve”, setting up this thought that the first born has more importance than those who come after. Men are more importan than women. Gilead completely abuses the biblical and religious values as their ideology to establish laws in the government.

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Sexual oppression in 'the handmaid's tale'. (2021, Mar 17). Retrieved August 10, 2022 , from

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