The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Senior Programme Associate
When I first read The Handmaid's Tale at sixteen I was on the cusp of adulthood, finding out who I was as a young woman, how I felt about my gender, my body and my sexuality. The narrator, Offred, immerses us in a brutal dystopia, where women are categorised by their reproductive capabilities and marital status, with no rights or personal freedom. The book captivated and unsettled me, offering a “window” into what it really means to be essentialised as ‘woman’. Until then, I hadn’t thought about biological determinism, that my experiences could be purely determined by my gender and by my ability to have children or not.
My eyes were truly opened – to the forcible removal of children from their mothers, to the demonisation of women deemed immoral by virtue of their sexuality or choices they have made about their own bodies. The world of Gilead is bleak, cruel, and scarily prescient. I’ve read the book many times, and always see something new that directly connects the novel’s dystopian future to the reality of women’s experiences throughout history, and to the treatment of women in the present day.
Amidst the fear, suffering and desperation though, there is hope. The book offers us a redemptive message about the community that women can create against oppression. From different backgrounds, identities and beliefs, and against all the odds, women come together and try to find ways to help each other, and in so doing subvert patriarchal and gendered notions of their abilities and their worth. This deep sense of humanity, solidarity and empathy has shaped me personally, in my academic work as a gender historian, and in my professional roles since.