Gender significance and feminism in The Handmaid's Tale

Open minded feminism

It is impossible to read The Handmaid's Tale without being aware that issues of gender and aspects of feminism are central to the novel. Atwood is well-known for her feminist views, though she is never narrow-minded, and in The Handmaid's Tale she raises questions rather than simply asserting her views. As Offred comments: 

‘if Moira thought she could create Utopia by shutting herself up in a woman-only enclave she was sadly mistaken. Men were not just going to go away.'

Nevertheless, women are the main victims in the society which Atwood conceives - the Republic of Gilead - and her vision of this society reflects (though it may also sometimes seem to exaggerate, by bringing together several diverse examples) many of the inequalities and abuses faced by women world-wide in the past and currently. In Gilead, female subjection is complete, and as far as the Handmaids are concerned even their identity is subsumed by the male who controls them. They are forbidden to use their real names, but are instead made the property of their masters: Ofglen, Ofwarren, Offred. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.)

Moira, with her masculine-style clothing, taboo language and lesbian proclivities, is the opposite of everything that Gilead wishes to see in women, and as such, through much of the novel, offers hope to Offred that there may be a chance of successful rebellion. But finally it is the men who shut Moira up ‘in a women-only enclave' - which men run for their own pleasure.

Red shoes

In her book of essays, Negotiating with the Dead, Atwood describes how the film The Red Shoes seemed to her to suggest that women could not have both a career and a happy love life. The film depicts a ballet dancer who, unable to choose between love and dancing, finally throws herself under a train. Atwood saw it at the age of nine and was aware that: 

‘the notion of sacrifice was simply accepted... You couldn't be a wife and mother and also an artist, because each one of these things required total dedication.'

Rejecting such limitations on her own life, Atwood shows in The Handmaid's Tale how an oppressive patriarchal régime denies women the right to have a career. It is therefore no accident that the Handmaids are dressed in red and that Offred comments several times on her ‘red shoes'. Her first mention of them, in chapter 2, specifically links them with the film, as Offred comments that her red shoes are ‘flat-heeled to save the spine and not for dancing.'

Women and careers

The women who had had careers before the time of the Republic of Gilead are dismissed when the new régime takes over, as Offred recounts in chapter 28. The director told the female employees that, ‘You can't work here any more, it's the law' - a law being enforced by the men with machine guns standing at the door. Women are no longer allowed bank accounts, or to hold property - it has to be handed over to the control of a male relative. Offred is aware how this affects her relationship with Luke:

‘We are not each other's, any more. Instead, I am his.'

When Offred and the Commander visit Jezebel's (chapter 37) the Commander points out women who once had careers:

‘That one was a lawyer, that one was in business...'. No longer.

The feminist movement

In chapter 28, Offred recalls her mother, an ardent feminist, who took part in the feminist marches against pornography and in favour of abortion. The attitudes of these earlier feminists are explored by Atwood through Offred's recollections of her mother, and through the Aunts' showing documentaries (see chapter 20) of those they call Unwomen. The fact that these ‘Unwomen' were demonstrating against violent sexual attacks on women and calling for greater safety on the streets, makes Offred - and us - aware of the dilemma that enjoying sexual and moral freedom may come at a price.

Offred tells us that she was a child of a single mother because her mother did not want a relationship with a man. She tells Offred that she said to her father:

‘Just do the job, then you can bugger off, I said, I make a decent salary, I can afford daycare.'

Atwood may well be asking us to consider whether such aggressive feminism may contribute to an equally aggressive male reaction such as we see in Gilead.

Gender and language

One result of such feminist movements was the pressure of ‘political correctness' to remove gender-specific job titles. Thus, when she thinks back to her previous existence, Ofwarren talks of herself as ‘your waitperson', not ‘waitress'.

However, Atwood also shows us how, even before Gilead came into being, language had for centuries been dominated by male-oriented choices (for example, ‘man' and ‘he' being used for people in general). At the start of chapter 7 Offred thinks about this, commenting that her ideas on what men might say is ‘pure speculation.' She realises that she does not know ‘what men used to say. I had only their words for it.' The subtle use of ‘words' instead of ‘word' transforms the clichéd expression ‘their word for it' into an observation on male empowerment in controlling language.

Through Offred, Atwood shows the power of language and of being aware of subtleties of meaning (of which Atwood makes us particularly aware through her use of puns.) During her games of Scrabble with the Commander, Offred tastes words as a sensuous experience (chapter 23), and when she writes out, ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundum (chapter 29), she becomes very conscious of the power of writing - an activity usually forbidden to her: 

‘The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains. Pen Is Envy...'

Re-working Freud's idea that women feel ‘penis envy', Atwood sees the ability to communicate through language as the really desirable power.

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