Commentary Media

There’s Little Balm in Comparing Ourselves to Gilead

Sarah Seltzer

Just how close is today’s reality to Margaret Atwood’s fictional misogynist dystopia, Gilead, the setting of "The Handmaid's Tale"?

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:

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“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.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

News Law and Policy

Court Blocks North Carolina’s ‘Discriminatory’ Voter ID Law

Imani Gandy

“[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision," Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court, describing the North Carolina GOP's voter ID law.

A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s elections law, holding that the Republican-held legislature had enacted the law with discriminatory intent to burden Black voters and that it therefore violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ruling marks the latest defeat of voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures across the country.

“We can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court.

HB 589 required in-person voters to show certain types of photo ID beginning in 2016, and either curtailed or reduced registration and voting access tools that Black voters disproportionately used, including an early voting period. Black voters also disproportionately lack photo IDs.

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Republicans claimed that the law was intended to protect against voter fraud, which has proven exceedingly rare in Republican-led investigations. But voting rights advocates argue that the law was intended to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.

The ruling marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters, which had asked the Fourth Circuit to review a lower court ruling against them.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder in April ruled that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the law hindered Black voters’ ability to exercise political power.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed.

“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” Motz wrote. “This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”

The Fourth Circuit noted that the Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in 2013, immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which struck a key provision in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 4 is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia before making any changes to election laws.

The day after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee announced the North Carolina legislature’s intention to enact an “omnibus” election law, the appeals court noted. Before enacting the law, however, the Republican-dominated legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.

After receipt of the race data, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration, all of which disproportionately burdened Black voters.

“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its actions, the State offered only meager justifications,” Motz continued. “[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The ruling comes a day after the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and one of the primary organizers of Moral Mondays, gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention that brought convention goers to their feet.

During a protest on the first day of the trial, Barber told a crowd of about 3,500 people, “this is our Selma.”