The Handmaid’s Tale – Possible in Real Life?

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel written by Margaret Atwood in 1985.

This might be a novel, but it’s a useful way to introduce social policy and the family! It’s also an example of a type of secondary qualitative data!

The novel is set in the United States and imagines a future where the majority of women have been rendered infertile because of environmental toxins, and the few women left who are fertile and able to bare children have become ‘handmaids’.

‘Handmaids’ are given to elite families, required to have ritualistic sex with the male heads of households so that they can bear the families children.

The country is run by a totalitarian state (called ‘Gillead’) which subscribes to a conservative christian ideology and maintains tight control over many aspects of people’s lives, but especially the Handmaids – these are brought up in ‘convent like’ schools, and educated into their role as ‘breeders’ – they effectively get passed around from elite family to elite family to bear multiple children for them.

The novel is told through the eyes of the main character, Offred. What is particularly bleak is that Offred remembers life before Gilead, when things were relatively normal – declining fertility rates eventually lead to a slide into this totatlitarian control over women.

The novel is nicely summarized in the video below.


You can also watch the TV adaptation on More 4 here.

Social Policy and the Family in the Handmaid’s Tale

Government policy towards families is extremely controlling of women in htis novel. The Gilead Theocratic State has near total control over women’s reproduction – fertile women effectively have no right to control their own fertility – that right is given to the elite families.

Fertile women also have no right over their children, these are given away to the families the Handmaid belongs to.

Could this level of control over women happen in real life?

Atwood refers to her novel as ‘speculative fiction’ – a situation which could happen in the future.

The book was a commentary on the political and social climate of the United States in the 1980s, with the widespread embrace of conservatism, as evidenced by the election of Ronald Reagan as president, the increasing power of the Christian right and its powerful lobbying organisations such as the ‘Moral Majority’ and ‘Focus on the Family’, as well as the rise of televangelism.

Commentators such as Joyce Carol Oates and English professor SC Neuman have suggested that the book is a Feminist crititique of the attempted restriction of women’s reproductive rights which various Christian Fundamentalist lobby groups were trying to bring into law – such as giving civil rights protections to foetuses, which would have effectively made abortion illegal.

Atwood herself says that the Handmaid’s Tale was inspired by two real world social polices:

  • Nicolai Ceausescu’s preoccupation with boosting female birth rates in Romania, which led to the policing of pregnant women and the banning of abortion and birth control
  • The idea of ‘giving’ the offspring of lower classes to the ruling class came from Argentina, where a military junta seized power in 1976, subsequently ‘disappearing’ up to 500 children and placing them with selected leaders.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Even more relevant today?

The handmaid’s tale might be even more relvant today given the recent shift in US politics with the election of Donald Trump dovetailing with fears of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and his vice president’s anti-gay and anti-abortion beliefs.

Handmaid costumes even became common at protests of laws intended to limit women’s reproductive freedom.

Sources: Some of this post was adapted from this blog post.

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