The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Thursday, January 13, 2005

"The Handmaid's Tale": pro-choice manifesto?

I used to read lots of dystopiae while I was trudging through school from the ages of 12 to 15. Of these the most popular are 1984 and Brave New World. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is another work in this genre that I read then. I personally think that it deserves to be in this canon - and a lot of high-school teachers agree, as they have been posting their students' book reports up on

Atwood was Canadian, and imagined that her country would remain as a haven for Americans fleeing the US's oppression. This also served as an ironic nod to the Underground Railroad. Accordingly she set her story in the most Canadian part of the US, Cambridge in Massachusetts.

I understand her book as a 1984 for Americans, with reference to Iran. Its Christian-shari'a government, styling itself "Gilead", mandated a right for a Party man to reproduce and further limited the social and economic rights of women. That meant the government had to codify a class of concubines, and that in turn created a market for "Handmaids" - which seems alien to us but is based on the Torah. The Handmaid's job was to conceive a child for a man not her own.

Atwood thinks that if the US went the way of 1984, it would look more like Gilead than like Airstrip One. The reviewers on Amazon - particularly those from Massachusetts and California, for some reason - see a number of parallels between that book and the present day (a terrorist threat claiming the mantle of Islam, resurgent fundamentalist Protestant political activity, lowered fertility among the upper classes, etc).

Based on email and internet discussion, this seems to have the most resonance, if not relevance, for those who call abortion a choice, or (heinously) call it "choice" instead of abortion. The point about being a Handmaid is that she is bearing a child for someone whom she does not love. In one extreme of the "pro-life" movement, there was a slogan in Ireland during the end of its Catholic theocracy, that its anti-abortion policy was so draconian that "men have the right to procreate by rape". At the other extreme, the woman who decides at whatever point that her lover is an unworthy father hasn't been raped, but she didn't make the choice to be pregnant and now she wants the choice to cease being so. The Handmaid's Tale sits between them: the Handmaid isn't being raped, but equally her society hasn't given her any better option.

The Irish slogan is effective, and I agree with its sentiments ... in old Eire and, with amendments, in Gilead. But this is inapplicable to the modern "pro-choice" movement, whose antithesis is not as far along as Gilead and certainly not as Eire.

The Handmaid's Tale has other, better, cautionary lessons for us. Don't let religion get entangled with the state. Promote economic and social independence. Promote this independence for women, too. Don't trust the state in general.

If you are a pro-life feminist, as I hold myself to be, then you will not have a problem with The Handmaid's Tale - or at least you should not have this problem with it.

posted by Zimri on 17:50 | link | 0 comments

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