by Rebecca Bratten Weiss

Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, has been made into a television series, and as many remark that its themes seem especially relevant at this time, I can’t help but wonder: was there ever a time in which the theme of the appropriation of female fertility was not relevant? Is there any respect in which this story is more pertinent for contemporary women – many of whom identify as feminists, most of whom recognize our own bodily autonomy in one way or another – than for women in the past?

The story is set in a right-wing religious militarist theocracy, in which women are relegated to distinct classes of possession or utility: wives, handmaids, “aunts” (slave-drivers, really), “unwomen.” Fertile women are forced to work as handmaids, offering their breeding services to infertile upper-class couples, in set rituals designed to emphasize male authority, wifely submission, and the ultimate erasure of the handmaid who lends her services. While the phenomenon of fertility itself is fetishized, those who possess fertility are little more than slaves, kept secluded in rooms, spied on, even dressed in red robes and deep hoods that mark their status. The erotic and the procreative are firmly separated: the breeding rituals are just that, with nothing of desire or affection or even flirtation about them.

Parallels with historical situations are obvious. The role of “handmaid” in the novel is based on the Old Testament tradition in which infertile women sent their handmaids to their husbands for sex, then claimed the offspring as their own. Please ponder, for a moment, just how debasing a slavery and forced prostitution this was.

Women through Greek and Roman, up to early modern times, were selected, rejected, traded, divorced, replaced, based on their ability to reproduce. Even the acceptablility of the age gap between older men and younger women is based on the pragmatics of reproduction. A young, docile, fertile wife is easily controlled and guaranteed to provide ample (male) heirs to bear the (male) family name, and inherit the estate.

Because such patriarchal control of female fertility is a present in nearly every culture, how can it be that Atwood’s novel is especially relevant now? Are women of today simply speaking from a stance of ignorance of history, not seeing that threats to our own freedom are in no way new, but as old as civilization itself?

One respect in which the patriarchal power-structures in Atwood’s novel differ from those in parallel historical situations has to do with the economics of scarcity, and environmental degradation. Catastrophic ecological events have adversely affected human fertility – female fertility, in particular, or at least so the regime presumes, although there is a hint that it simply isn’t acceptable to blame men for a failure to conceive.  This is a distinctly modern scenario, and connects the commodification of female bodies with problems associated with capitalism, technology, the military-industrial complex, and neoliberal globalism.

Another difference lies in the fact that the laws, customs, and trappings of ritual utilized by those in power are not derived organically from a vital ongoing tradition, but wrested awkwardly from the past, decontextualized, so that in spite of the fervor of the faithful who serve the regime, it all rings a little hollow, and a lot ridiculous. It’s not exactly a successful hegemony.

But this is just an overview. We at Catholic Women Speak hope to initiate further conversation on the relevance of this story, how we contemporary women involved in work for equality within religious traditions can relate (or not relate) to the characters, and what they undergo – on what we can learn from this story –on the effectiveness of such a story in an audiovisual medium – on different understandings of religion, love, marriage, power – and conflicts in our own homes, communities, or nations that make this story seem especially important, right now.

We will be posting a series of pieces discussing the novel, the series, and themes from both. Please join our conversations!

Image: Jaap Noordzij, The Handmaid’s Tale, via Instagram