|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 215 February 2018
Last year’s powerful TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale received rave reviews, and won a clutch of Emmy and Golden Globe awards – a second season is due in April. The original novel by Margaret Atwood has become a dystopian fiction classic – and was based on contemporary social and political reaction. HELEN PATTISON reviews.
"There’s nothing in the book that hasn’t already happened at one time or another", Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, has repeatedly said in interviews. The dystopian novel, written in 1985, is set in part of the US and depicts an authoritarian regime where, thanks to war and pollution, fertility rates have been devastated and only a handful of women can have children. As a result, schools have been closed down; there is no one to teach. Some have been turned into ‘red centres’ where fertile women are forced to train as ‘handmaids’. This is what happens to the central protagonist, June, as she is called in the TV series although she is never clearly identified by that name in the novel. Handmaids are referred to as ‘of’, followed by their commander’s name, so June becomes ‘Offred’.
Flashbacks detail some of the environmental destruction that caused the crisis in fertility and the huge disorientation in society through which the Gilead regime has taken power. It assassinated the president, abolished the constitution, and removed all democratic structures. Now June is the handmaid for one of the architects of the regime.
The latest TV recreation of the book has made a huge splash. It was released in the backdrop of some of the biggest International Women’s Day marches for a generation and after the amazing global women’s march against Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president in January 2017. Given the growing movements for women’s rights and defensive battles that have taken place over the last few years, many watched The Handmaid’s Tale not only in the context of the history of women’s oppression but in relation to women today and our possible future. But is the rise of a reactionary force such as Gilead on the horizon? Would it be possible for such a force to subjugate women in that way?
The Gilead regime
The plummeting fertility rate is linked by June to the mass pollution, nuclear and chemical warfare that has taken place. Yet the new regime, including June’s commander and his wife, in part blames feminism. They say it distracted women from their purpose of reproduction, that infertility and child mortality were punishments from God for second marriages, promiscuity, rape, abortions and the use of contraception. So when one handmaid gives birth to an ‘unbaby’, a term that covers stillbirth and foetal abnormalities, the rumour spreads that it was conceived illegally.
The social, economic and environmental disasters have created the space for the Gilead movement to come to power and, once established, to consolidate its regime to control every part of women’s lives. Women’s bank accounts are frozen. They are banned from owning property and then from working. A new colour-coded dress law shows women’s status and role in society. Handmaids wear modest floor-length red cloaks. Their duty as fertile women is to provide children for the ruling elite. Abortion has been totally banned, as is the case today in six countries.
That said, a shocking 25% of the world’s population live in countries with such restrictive laws that an abortion is only permitted if the women’s life is at risk. This is true in Ireland, where people are preparing to go to the polls in a referendum over the Eighth Amendment which gives equal weight to life of the foetus and woman. Theoretically, an abortion can be performed in Ireland to save a woman’s life, yet the abortion rights movement has been given new impetus in part through recent deaths of women who were denied lifesaving abortions and died as a result. Restrictive abortion laws mean forcing women to travel to access services and suffer huge damage to their health. Trump has also faced opposition to his attacks on abortion rights, such as the ban on US foreign aid going to organisations that provide abortions.
When Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party gained a majority in parliament it moved to ban abortion. That resulted in over 100,000 people protesting in hundreds of cities. Videos circulated of women and men walking out of church as religious leaders told them to support the measures. Around the world there were protests outside Polish embassies in solidarity, such as in London where 100 people gathered to drape the embassy building in coat hangers. The abortion ban was dropped amid huge opposition which shows the real strength of ordinary people protesting.
Off the back of such victories it is hard to imagine – as in June’s flashbacks – that people will fail to resist, especially on the basis of a fighting programme. Moira, June’s best friend, and her mother are shown as being involved in campaigns and political movements around women’s rights in pre-Gilead society. They also campaign against the Gilead movement and attacks on women’s rights. Present-day June reminisces that her husband was indifferent to some of these restrictions, such as when her bank account was frozen and she was sacked, saying he would happily buy her anything she needs. The idea being that men will not fight alongside women against sexism and oppression, even though research points to a majority of people today supporting equality and that over half of financial decisions by couples are made jointly. The opposition to attacks on women’s rights in Poland, Ireland and from Trump have all attracted support from both women and men.
Could it happen today?
Atwood was clearly influenced by the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the subsequent attacks on women’s rights under the right-wing Islamist regime, just a few years prior to the book being written. Articles in papers such as the Telegraph picked up on this connection. They used the oppression in Iran since 1979 as proof that The Handmaid’s Tale dystopia could happen. More accurately, the attacks on women’s rights were the consequence of a successful counter-revolution against a heroic struggle by the working class.
Iran shows that if capitalism is not challenged with independent working-class leadership then reactionary forces are waiting in the wings. From below, a mass movement in Iran forced the abdication of the Shah – a dictator backed by US and British imperialism – expressing people’s aspirations not just for democratic rights but for an end to poverty as well. It was only when the working class did not take power that a popular front government was established and, over the following years, women’s and workers’ rights were restricted.
Off the back of big battles around women’s rights, both offensive and defensive, it’s hard to imagine the lack of resistance June describes in The Handmaid’s Tale. Huge changes have taken place in women’s lives even since the novel was written. The number of women of working age doing paid work has been on the rise and, in 2013, reached 67%, just 9% behind the proportion of men in work. Today, a number of trade unions have a majority women’s membership.
If women were sacked en masse, with such a high proportion of them already directly involved in the trade unions, it would be an attack on the unions as a whole. Transport workers are a small portion of the organised workers in London but are regularly able to bring the city to a standstill. United in the organisations of the working class, it is easy to see how women workers would do the same in response to attacks.
There is a lack of political leadership. Both Moira and June’s mother are part of small, quite middle-class feminist groups. One produces a magazine but then is quickly forced underground when they face reprisal – they are not involved in mass work. Mayday, a resistance movement which June comes into contact with, seems to operate as a guerrilla movement. Neither offer the leadership needed to prevent the growth of Gilead or offer a genuine alternative.
There’s also the question of what forces would be available to subjugate women in this way. During the flashback where women are sacked the boss says that state forces are outside insisting he makes all the women leave. But who makes up these forces? Women are half the population. During the Russian revolution, triggered by women’s strikes, women approached the soldiers not to shoot the demonstrators. The strikers were working-class people, just like the soldiers’ sisters, mothers and wives. In the end, the soldiers could not be trusted to perform the needs of the state. So where would the mass forces needed to subjugate half the population come from?
There have been big battles which have engaged women in struggles over the decades since the book was written, which have had an important effect on women’s expectations and their confidence to fight back. In Britain, events such as the miners’ strike pulled women into the struggles of the working class. They played an important role, building campaigns and on the picket lines.
The role of handmaids in Gilead society is not really for reproduction but for divide and rule. The regime uses reactionary ideas mixed with the rewriting of religion to win power. To maintain support, the regime uses the subjugation of women to offer a way out of the multitude of crises facing society. At different points, both Serena Joy, the commander’s wife, and June expose this fact. In her desperation for a child, Serena suggests that June has illegal sex with another man to try and get pregnant. In doing this, she implies that the commander is most likely infertile. During her monthly check-up, June’s doctor suggests the same.
June, with bitterness in her voice narrating the TV series, highlights that Serena must be infertile, too, or they would not need a handmaid. In both circumstances, their infertility, a sign in lower-class women that is used to ‘slut shame’ and demonise, is inconsequential to the ruling elites. It has no effect on their status in society. In fact, the commander’s fertility is not questioned at all. If handmaids really existed to repopulate the planet then surely the commander’s fertility would be an issue. The fact it isn’t shows that handmaids actually play a different role entirely.
The religious ceremonies which surround handmaids are consciously manipulated to meet the needs of the regime. In one scene, the commander discusses with other leaders of Gilead about ‘how to sell’ the idea of handmaids to upper-class wives. They decide on involving wives in the ‘ceremony’ by having handmaids lie between the legs of the wife holding her hands, while they are raped by their commanders.
The book closes with academics discussing The Handmaid’s Tale. Tape recordings have been found since the fall of Gilead society, which June presumably made of her time as a handmaid. Over 150 years later, a professor is giving a talk. He warns the audience to "be cautious about passing moral judgement upon the Gileadeans. Surely, we have learned by now that such judgements are of necessity culture-specific. Also Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure demographically and otherwise was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free". It is an indictment of this post-Gilead society that they are so restrained, after listening to the harrowing diary of a woman whose life has been totally changed, trapped in a reality she did not want. We can and should condemn the oppression of women and others in society.
Maybe Margaret Atwood didn’t want to give a happy-ever-after ending so did not write about a society free from sexism that was fair and equal. Maybe she has never believed it is possible. But ending oppression is not a fairy tale. Mass revolutionary movements of women and the working class have taken place in the past. They will also happen again as the best and only tool to protect women’s rights and fight for a society without oppression.