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The Handmaid’s Tale Through Feminism

1908 words (8 pages) Essay in Literature

08/02/20 Literature Reference this

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Men experience a type of fear that if women are created to be equivalent to them in society that women would become more superior than them. Women were at the hands of the men; they were not granted the same opportunities and constitutional rights as men due to his fear of not being in control. Feminism is defined as the promotion of women’s rights on the basis for both sexes to become equal. It is said that the idea of feminism originated in the 18th century, however, woman have been degraded by society far longer. In 215 B.C. in Ancient Rome, there was a charter that was passed called the Oppian law. This law impeded women from acquiring certain  amounts of gold and other properties. This law was in effect for over 20 years and after the constant protest, it was repealed, birthing the feminist movement (History.com editors). The feminist movement did not become apparent until 1858 when women came together for the Seneca Falls Convention, initiating the first wave of feminism. This wave focused on women’s suffrage and other political inequalities that depreciate their value to society. More than a century later, the second wave of feminism is established. This wave focused more on the true role of women in the workplace, at home, and with their right to control their own body. When examining the first two waves, a continual trend that is seen is that they were both dominated by high society white women. People started to criticize the lack of diversity within the women’s movement, that it inspired the third wave of feminism. This third wave was started in the 1980’s and it continues to prosper to present time (Reading: Feminism).

Throughout all three movements female authors used the power of their words to advocate vigorously for women. One of the most distinguished feminist writers of the 20th century is Margaret Atwood. She is best known for her book, The Handmaid’s Tale, which was written during the second wave of feminism.  This book, set in the future, follows the journey of a handmaid named Ofglen in the Republic of Gilead.  Due to the low rate of reproduction, the purpose of Ofglen and other handmaid’s is to help elite couples reproduce. The new Republic of Gilead is described as a totalitarian and theocratic state that is based on stringent Christian values and defeminization of women. The creation of gender inequality is derived from distinctions, whether empirically motivated or socially established, resulting in a male-centered society.

The right to freely choose for oneself is one of the greatest powers that someone can have, but this is not always given equally between the sexes. Consequently, many of these independent women, like Offred, were forcibly ripped from their world to become breeding stock. “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently” (Atwood 91). The government is degrading these women by making them a “natural resource”. Beforehand, Offred’s body was a reflection of who she was, but now she feels as if her body defines who she is completely. She feels as if she is just an object and her only purpose is to bear children; if she is unsuccessful Offred is stripped from her recognition as a woman and becomes classified as an unwomen.  This feeling of having no control over her body is what ignited the second wave of feminism. In the 1980s, women were not allowed to practice sexual autonomy. Not allowing this increases the likeliness of sex discrimination and lead to women being faced with the difficulty of resisting the physical capacity of men, as well as having their body respected,  due to having a man’s brutality be normalized (Slevano, M.).  The government also defines what a woman is through her clothing. There are the wives, daughters, handmaids, econwives, marthas, aunts, unwomen, and jezebels. “There are other women with baskets, some in red, some in the dull green of the Marthas, some in the striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimp, that mark the women of the poorer men” (Atwood 27). These women are cleaved into their purpose for a society based on their clothing, completely confiscating their identity. The purpose of the handmaid’s is to help with the reproduction shortage of Gilead, however, even though they contain all this power they have no rights. “Caucasian birth rate declined… women who could bear children were therefore vital (literally) to the survival of the regime..there is no necessary relationship between one’s importance to the perpetuation of society and one’s privilege within that society. Significance and status are both constructs manipulated by those in power…” (Davidson, Arnold E). This quote shows that while certain women are imperative to the survival of the Caucasian race, they hold no power nor do they have any rights in a world run by the patriarchy of Gilead. Offred is a tool of the patriarchy, however, they treat her as if she is solely an expendable object that the government can survive without.

In the book, The Handmaid’s Tale, the historians make reference to Gilead’s use of biblical narratives to justify the institution of the Handmaids.  “Out of these four, Amin Malak, Arnold Davidson, and Harriet Bergmann emphasize that the “Historical Notes” are an ironic treatment of the failure of male academic readings of the oral record left by Offred; the future historians fail to treat Offred’s experience with compassion or emotional sympathy” (Deer 225).  The lack of care from men have about the situation in the past shows how little progress was made and that women are still facing biases and inequalities. This is similar to what is currently happening today in the abortion debate.  Laws are being signed, making it illegal to have an abortion after six weeks because the lawmakers want to infringe their personal belief that life begins at conception.  This includes their belief that there is no distinction on how a woman got pregnant, whether accidently, raped, or incest.  Similar to the book, these powerful, wealthy white men and women are imposing their own religious belief on society and not even considering the physical and emotional trauma that a women is experiencing.

In many countries and cultures, men are constantly undermining women in who they are and what they can attain. In the book,  A Thousand Splendid Suns, it gives the reader a point of view, from a specific culture, about how poorly women of this time were treated. It expresses how a girl does not get a say in her own future, and is typically brought into womanhood at a very young age. Growing up in Afghanistan in the 1970s, Mariam lived with her mother, Nana, secluded from anyone else because she was an illegitimate child. Her father, Jalil, would visit her every Thursday and Mariam saw this as affection and love, however, Nana saw through this facade and knew it was how Jalil would keep his name clean. When Jalil announces to Mariam and Nana that his youngest wife is expecting another child, he asserts this will be his tenth child. Nana then states, “Eleven, if you count Mariam, of course” (Hosseini 21). Jalil’s disregard for the mother of his child and his daughter shows the lack of care he feels for Nana. This relationship reflects how many men in Middle Eastern societies act towards single mothers. According to the United Nations, “Most of the 5,000 honour killings reported to take place every year around the world do not make the news, nor do the other myriad forms of violence inflicted on women and girls by male family members” (Impunity for domestic violence, ‘honour killings’ cannot continue – UN official). These “honor” crimes are justified as acceptable due to the idea that the male family members are just following their tradition/ culture.  As it often is in real life too, a severe double standards is in place in the novel as Jalil maintains a high social status after Mariam’s birth while Nana’s reputation is forever damaged and she is confined to a home barely more than a shack. In these cases, men are the ones creating these stigmatizations which prevent the women from living the lives they wanted before having an illegitimate child. Another women who faces inequality at the hands of a man is Laila. After her parents die in a bombing, Laila’s neighbor Rashid takes care of her and offers his hand in marriage. For a number of reasons, Laila accepts and marries him only to later find out the many restrictions he would put on her livelihood as well as the abuse he would put her through. Once Laila was married to Rashid, he does not allow her to further her academic studies and he objectifies her to an analogy of a car. Of his many rules and expectations, he asserts, “I ask that you avoid leaving this house without my company” (Hosseini 200). Rashid’s demands to put Laila into isolation and prevent her from pursuing a career or be anything more than a stay at home wife. These laws and ideas that allow women to be deprived of their own natural rights is something that was empirically constructed throughout culture and traditions of the household.

Until women experience the same rights as men society as a whole will never reach its full potential. Throughout the centuries women have been fighting for the rights pertaining to political institutions, their body, and even more representation of minorities in overall society.  Men need to recognize that the lack of equality of women is also suppressing their capacity. Think of the the equality of women and men like the wings of a bird.  A bird can fly if one wing is stronger than the other but it will never attain its full potential as it would if both were equally strong.

Work Cited

  • Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor Publishing, 1998.
  • Davidson, Arnold E. “Future Tense: Making History in The Handmaid’s Tale.” Margaret Atwood, Chelsea House, 2000. Bloom’s Literature, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=104830&itemid=WE54&articleId=477470. Accessed 21 May 2019.
  • Deer, Glenn. “Rhetorical Strategies in The Handmaid’s Tale: Dystopia and the Paradoxes of Power.” ESC: English Studies in Canada, vol. 18 no. 2, 1992, pp. 215-233. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/esc.1992.0032
  • Editors, History.com. “Feminism.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 28 Feb. 2019, www.history.com/topics/womens-history/feminism-womens-history.
  • Hosseini, Khaled. A Thousand Splendid Suns. Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd., 2018.
  • “Impunity for Domestic Violence, ‘Honour Killings’ Cannot Continue – UN Official | UN News.” United Nations, United Nations, news.un.org/en/story/2010/03/331422.
  • “Reading: Feminism .” Lumen, Lumen Learning, courses.lumenlearning.com/alamo-sociology/chapter/reading-feminist-theory/.
  • Slevano, M. “Abuses of Female Sexuality in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’” Abuses of Female Sexuality in “The Handmaid’s Tale”, dystopiaofchildbearing.wordpress.com/.
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