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Am I a bad feminist?
So is the Devil. Back in , the main premise seemed — even to me — fairly outrageous. Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship? In the book, the Constitution and Congress are no longer: The Republic of Gilead is built on a foundation of the 17th-century Puritan roots that have always lain beneath the modern-day America we thought we knew.
The immediate location of the book is Cambridge, Mass. The Secret Service of Gilead is located in the Widener Library, where I had spent many hours in the stacks, researching my New England ancestors as well as the Salem witchcraft trials. Would some people be affronted by the use of the Harvard wall as a display area for the bodies of the executed? They were. In the novel the population is shrinking due to a toxic environment, and the ability to have viable babies is at a premium. Under totalitarianisms — or indeed in any sharply hierarchical society — the ruling class monopolizes valuable things, so the elite of the regime arrange to have fertile females assigned to them as Handmaids.
The biblical precedent is the story of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their two handmaids. One man, four women, 12 sons — but the handmaids could not claim the sons. They belonged to the respective wives. Why do we never learn the real name of the central character, I have often been asked.
Because, I reply, so many people throughout history have had their names changed, or have simply disappeared from view. That was not my original thought but it fits, so readers are welcome to it if they wish. It has been translated into 40 or more languages. It was made into a film in It has been an opera, and it has also been a ballet.
It is being turned into a graphic novel. In this series I have a small cameo. The scene is the one in which the newly conscripted Handmaids are being brainwashed in a sort of Red Guard re-education facility known as the Red Center.
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They must learn to renounce their previous identities, to know their place and their duties, to understand that they have no real rights but will be protected up to a point if they conform, and to think so poorly of themselves that they will accept their assigned fate and not rebel or run away.
Her fault, she led them on — that is the chant of the other Handmaids. It was way too much like way too much history. Yes, women will gang up on other women. Yes, they will accuse others to keep themselves off the hook: We see that very publicly in the age of social media, which enables group swarmings.
Yes, they will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power: All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none.
Some of the Aunts are sadists. Some are opportunists. And they are adept at taking some of the stated aims of feminism — like the anti-porn campaign and greater safety from sexual assault — and turning them to their own advantage. As I say: real life. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes.
Why interesting and important? Because women are interesting and important in real life. They are not an afterthought of nature, they are not secondary players in human destiny, and every society has always known that. Without women capable of giving birth, human populations would die out. That is why the mass rape and murder of women, girls and children has long been a feature of genocidal wars, and of other campaigns meant to subdue and exploit a population.
Margaret Atwood | Poetry Foundation
The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet. Of those promoting enforced childbirth, it should be asked: Cui bono? Who profits by it?
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Sometimes this sector, sometimes that.