Threatened by Female Empowerment

“The Handmaid’s Tale”

Like much of the world, I have been focused on the story of the 14-year-old Pakistani girl who heroically defied the Taliban by publicly advocating that girls have a right to education and who is in critical condition after being recently shot by one of the militants. This literal war against women—not the metaphorical war we have been seeing in our own country—recalls Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

I’m sure there have been more direct fictional treatments of the kind of oppression experienced by Malala Yousafzai, but Atwood’s novel is the one I know. Furthermore, it has the advantage of making very clear the issues at stake. Handmaid’s Tale reveals how certain men find independent women to be such a threat that they will go to extreme lengths to silence them. Even if, as in Malala’s case, they are only children.

Atwood’s novel is set in some future dystopia where extreme Christian fundamentalists have seized control of America and have imposed strict laws reminiscent of what the Iranian mullahs imposed on their women following the Iranian revolution. (The events in Iran were probably an inspiration for Atwood’s novel.) Exacerbating the situation are environmental disasters that have rendered much of the population sterile so that those women who can still bear children are assigned to the ruling class to provide babies for them. The main character, Offred, is one of these “handmaids.”

What should we make of Atwood linking Islamic fundamentalists with Christian fundamentalists? On the one hand, it seems a bit extreme (although the ecological catastrophe makes extreme reactions more credible). No one in the United States is talking about restricting women’s access to education. But the urge to control women and the urge to control their reproductive freedom have some disturbing overlaps.

In a recent article in The New Republic. Armanda Marcotte argues that the abortion fight is not really about the sanctity of life. Rather, she says, it is about who controls women’s bodies:

The biggest difference between legal and illegal abortion isn’t how often it happens, except insofar as abortion tends to be more common in countries that heavily restrict it. No, the biggest difference between legal and illegal abortion is who controls abortion, and therefore who has power over women’s bodies and lives. Prior to Roe v. Wade, if a woman wanted a safe abortion, her best bet was having a wealthy man to help her. Women rarely had the connections or the financial ability to set up illegal abortions with reputable doctors for themselves. For women who weren’t the mistresses or daughters of wealthy men, it was either take your chances on the black market or have the baby.

Unlike Atwood, Marcotte doesn’t believe that we could return entirely to the 1950’s:

Of course, you can never really go back. We live in an era of affordable pregnancy tests, and women control much more money than they did then. Banning abortion wouldn’t suddenly shift all this power back into male hands, as women of means would probably just create the connections to safe providers themselves. All a ban on abortion would really do is hurt poor women, with no material benefit for men at all.

Atwood, however, would point out that even wealthy women might run into difficulty finding “safe providers” if enough of our current anti-abortion politicians get their way. How seriously should we take the increasingly extreme stances on women’s reproductive freedom that we are seeing from politicians? It’s not clear that they are paying a political price, which is worrisome. Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, for instance–he who claimed that women can’t biologically get pregnant if the rape is “legitimate”–still has a shot at winning the Missouri Senate race. And then there is this from another pro-life representative who is running unopposed in the state of Georgia:

“All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, the Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell,” U.S Rep. Paul Broun said in an address last month at a banquet organized by Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Georgia. “And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”

These two men, by the way, aren’t merely ignorant Congressmen. They are also members of the House of Representatives Committee on Science. In other words, they have influence over legislation. And let’s not forget the man who, in last week’s debate, said this:

I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do.

And then later:

All I’m saying is, if you believe that life begins at conception, that, therefore, doesn’t change the definition of life. That’s a principle. The policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

This man could well be our next vice president. Michelle Goldberg of The Daily Beast sums up Paul Ryan’s views:

[O]n abortion and women’s health care, there isn’t much daylight between Ryan and, say, Michele Bachmann. Any Republican vice-presidential candidate is going to be broadly anti-abortion, but Ryan goes much further. He believes ending a pregnancy should be illegal even when it results from rape or incest, or endangers a woman’s health. He was a cosponsor of the Sanctity of Human Life Act, a federal bill defining fertilized eggs as human beings, which, if passed, would criminalize some forms of birth control and in vitro fertilization. The National Right to Life Committee has scored his voting record 100 percent every year since he entered the House in 1999. “I’m as pro-life as a person gets,” he told The Weekly Standard’s John McCormack in 2010. “You’re not going to have a truce.”

Romney hasn’t sounded quite as extreme as Ryan. But he has come out in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade, and as president he would have the power to appoint justices who would do that.

So just because we can’t imagine at present returning to the old days of back alley abortions doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. It’s worth listening to Atwood’s warnings, even if only to stay vigilant.

For instance, she notes that what seems abnormal to one generation can seem normal to another. The Akins, Brouns and Ryans could become a new normal, especially if they are (as in a few months they could well be) in the Senate, House, and White House. Here’s Offred thinking back to her old life and being incredulous at how much freedom she used to have:

Is that how we lived, then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.

It all begins, in The Handmaid’s Tale, with an extreme instance here and an extreme instance there. The following passage reminds me of the murder of George Tiller, the Wichita, Kansas abortion doctor, following inflammatory statements by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly:

There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

In Handmaid’s Tale, doctors who in the past performed abortions are hung and publicly displayed. Sometimes women in the novel are made to participate in their executions.

All of this is a long ways from Malala Yousafzai, and I don’t want to make our own concerns overshadow her far grimmer struggle and fight for life. But we fool ourselves if we think that the only people capable of extreme positions are Muslim fundamentalists.

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  • Barbara

    There’s an interesting science fiction trilogy by Suzette Elgin: Native Tongue, The Judas Rose and ?? that talks about the ability of language to free people (in this case, women) from their oppression. I haven’t read them in years but I thing they are worth a re-read. Do you know them, Robin?

  • http://investmeinmymotley.worppress.com Ellen Collington

    Thank you for reminding me of this powerful novel.

    Margaret Atwood is a brilliant and provocative author… her stories stay with me long after I have finished the book. I have just been rereading Cat’s Eye, looking at it in regards to bullying, and the nasty way girls treat each other.

    And of course, Edible Woman was so prescient about eating disorders, long before we even knew such a thing existed.

    For our next reading group I have chosen The Children of Men, by P.D.James… another dystopian novel about fertility and the right of a woman to make her own choices. It is grim and disturbing, and very relevant. I don’t espect my friends to enjoy the book, but I hope we have a good discussion!

    I really appreciate your ability to discover and explore the connections between literature and contemporary life. It reminds me that although circumstances of time and place may change, the essentials of the human condition, challenges in relationships, and ethical decision making remain the same!

    What better way to explore an issue than to step out of the contemporary scene and address a “case study” in a superbly written book?

  • Robin Bates

    Thanks for the kind words, Ellen. I’m going to track down the P. D. James book.


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