The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel about a handmaid’s transcripts account of her third posting in the early 20th Century of the Republic of Gilead; formerly known as the United States of America. The Republic is a patriarchal regime founded on fundamental Christian response to the declining of Caucasian birth rates. The government rules through force and oppression and also by distorting Biblical teachings as means of justifying inhuman state practices.
Women are classed according to their marital statues, age and reproductive systems, while men are categorised according to age and membership as Commander in the Faith. Older single women, homosexual men and barren handmaids are sent to the Colonies to clean after warfare and toxic spills which will eventually cause their premature death. A Handmaid serves as a surrogate mother for infertile wives of Commanders. The Handmaid’s Tale shares many striking resemblances with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four; both novels tell of a near-future society governed by elite and characterised by distorted language.
It is said that an author’s purpose for writing dystopian novel is to explore the possible developments of societal trends and warn readers of their potentially dangerous consequences, if this true, then in this case Margaret Atwood warning us through the satire images in The Handmaid’s Tale to be aware of political and religious powers that could take away society’s freedom of thought and expression. There are many themes in The Handmaid’s Tale, one of which is feminism.
Feminism is quite difficult term to define mostly because it is not a uniform body of thought in terms of sociological perspectives and have many strands connected to it; the first ‘wave’ of feminism began in the 19th Century and concerned itself freeing women from sexual discriminations especially in the area of employment, feminists then gained equality in employment and the ‘public sphere’ in general by demonstrations such as marching in the streets and chaining themselves, these actions resulted in new laws in Britain such as the Equal Pay Act 1975 which made it illegal for employers to pay a women employees doing the same job as a male employees less.
Even though, the tactics of the ‘first wave’ feminists were thought of as highly controversial, fifty or so years later the ‘second wave’ of feminism broke out. This ‘wave’ of feminism concerned itself with the ‘private sphere’ that is liberating women from female subordination through language and culture and encouraging women around the world to free themselves from male dependency. The ‘second wave’ of feminism sought to create a matriarchal society by making the voice of women heard through contentious demonstrations such as the burning of bras and disrupting beauty contests. In the Handmaid’s Tale, there are references to Offred’s mother belonging to such groups (the burning of pornographic literature in chapter 7).