Feminist Issues in The Handmaid's Tale

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Feminist Issues in The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaids Tale, by Margaret Atwood, can be classified as a distopic novel. The Republic of Gilead in The Handmaids Tale is characteristic of a distopia in that it is not intended as a prediction of the future of our society, but rather as a commentary on current social trends. Atwood has created this nation by isolating what she might consider the disturbing aspects of two diametrically opposed factions of our society (namely the religious right and radical feminism) as a theory as to what would happen if these ideals were taken to an extreme. Because she points out similarities in the thoughts and actions of the extreme religious right and certain parts of the feminist movement, some critics have labeled The Handmaid's Tale as anti-feminist. I would like to discuss the specific parts of the novel that lead to this opinion, and then discuss whether I believe this novel was intended as or can be seen as an attack on feminism.

The issue of pornography is one of the most significant in the Republic of Gilead. Pornography has become illegal and is used as a generalized illustration of the many perceived societal problems before the theocracy gained power. While receiving training at the hands of the Aunts the handmaids are repeatedly shown violent pornographic videos to demonstrate how much better off women are in this time as opposed to previously. Offred's experience of watching these videos is intertwined with her memories of her mother and her participation in anti-pornography riots and magazine burnings.

By placing these instances side by side Atwood shows that pornography is a point at which two extremes of society (here feminist and religio...

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...feminism. By taking this view we can see that Offred could be considered a feminist and that people involved in women's right's movements over changing times may come to represent completely different values than they did originally (which explains the occasional overlap of feminist and religious movements, assuming that religious ideals are static). Freedom from subjugation is at the heart of all feminist movements, regardless of what form they take.


Leavitt, JW, Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750-1950. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Moore, Pamela, Atwood, Margaret: The Handmaid's Tale. Boston, MS: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

Wertz RW, Wertz DC, Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America. New York, NY: Free Press, 1977.
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