Gloria Steinem on Patriarchy and Power in The Handmaid’s Tale

How Margaret Atwood's classic shows the significance of reproductive freedom.


Before the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the 2017 Hulu series returned the public's focus to The Handmaid's Tale, Gloria Steinem chose Margaret Atwood's classic dystopian novel as one of the books that influenced her the most. First published in 1985, the story focuses on women's rights—and especially women's reproductive rights—in a way no book had ever done before. Below, Steinem examines what exactly makes Atwood's novel so compelling, necessary, and eerily similar to our current society.

It's no secret that The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, the great Canadian novelist, took religious and rightwing attempts to control women's reproductive lives one step further and created a dystopian future. As always with good future fantasy, it was fun to watch her spin believable gold out of current dross, complete with everyday detail and made-up scholarly notes. This was the focus of reviews when the book came out in 1985, and again when it became a movie five years later.

But in the last two decades, I think we've learned that Atwood's novel should be read—or read again—as a warning about patriarchy and its control of reproduction as the underpinning of everything undemocratic, from our own powerful rightwing minority to totalitarianism.

Let's just say this novel is not exactly fiction.

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  • Photo Credit: Still from "The Handmaid's Tale" (2017), via Hulu

I should explain that in Atwood's future, the religious/military/economic groups among us have gradually turned the United States into the Republic of Gilead. You might say that the Moral Majority has finally lived up to its name. Powerful people are so white, religious, and universal that they are assumed to be everyone except the workers they command.

However, the big problem is that women's ability to bear children has been diminished by radiation and other modern excesses. That's why acceptable young women are tested for viable ovaries, and compelled to become breeders for men of the ruling class.

Since sex outside of marriage is forbidden by extreme religiosity, as is divorce, sex between two women or two men, and any form of sexual expression that can't end in conception—the wife must become part of this process by literally holding down the young woman while she has monthly intercourse with the husband. Among the wife's rewards is that there is yet another category of women who do all the housework of the ruling class.

To make sure that this female hierarchy remains happy or at least compliant, all females are forbidden to be literate—which is why signs for, say, shopping, are made up of pictures instead of words. If there are female rebels, they are sent to work in dangerous colonies, or underground clubs as prostitutes for ruling class men; illegal but tolerated. Up and down this female hierarchy, women also police each other in order to survive.

In other words, it's familiar enough to be plausible.

Of course, Atwood makes clear that men in power aren't all that happy either. For instance, though the husband has helped to design this system, he is lonely enough to hide in his study and play Scrabble with his young breeder—she still remembers how to read from her free past—in a serious transgression for both, since they are forbidden even to speak. With this kind of detail, we learn that patriarchy isn't great for anybody.

Related: 20 Books Like The Handmaid's Tale

However, I thought reviewers of both the book and the movie missed the boat when they compared them to other science fiction. Even Mary McCarthy, who reviewed the novel for The New York Times, complained that it wasn't as frightening as Nineteen Eighty-Four or A Clockwork Orange. Since the role of critics is to put creative works in context, they could have explained that pretty much everything Atwood describes has already happened somewhere. After all, to control the number of workers and soldiers, maintain divisions of race, caste, or class into the future, and make sure that the patriarchal family keeps right on normalizing other hierarchies—all require controlling women's bodies.

The bottom line is that men have to control the one thing they don't have: wombs.

For instance, here is Hitler describing the most important requirement of a fascist future: "It must be considered as reprehensible conduct to refrain from giving healthy children to the nation." After he was elected on a platform of restoring male supremacy to the Fatherland—and we should remember he did get the votes of a plurality of Germans before he was appointed and eliminated elections—his first official acts included padlocking the family planning clinics, declaring abortion a crime against the state, and creating camps where Aryan women were impregnated by Aryan men. That's most of Atwood's plot right there.

Also, Hitler first ridiculed and then punished the feminist and homosexual movements that had been stronger in Germany than anywhere else, with more women elected to the Parliament, and a vibrant gay community. Hitler's prescription for Aryan women was Kinder, Kuche, Kirche—Children, Cooking, Church. Lesbians and homosexual men had to wear a pink triangle, just as Jews had to wear a yellow star, and many ended up in concentration camps for promoting non-procreative sex. That's an Atwood-like reality, too.

Other totalitarian regimes also controlled reproduction. After President Ceausescu of Romania was ousted as part of the overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe, for instance, his legacy was discovered: nurseries full of malnourished, unloved, unheld children, many of whose mothers had died from too many childbirths or illegal abortions. "The fetus is the socialist property of the whole society," he had declared. He required all employed women up to age 45 to prove they weren't shirking their child-bearing duties by submitting to regular fertility exams, or be punished as military "deserters."

Related: 20 Gloria Steinem Quotes That Light a Fire In Your Soul

When Romanian citizens marched in the streets to overthrow communism, they carried banners that read "Liberty, Democracy and Abortion."

In our own country, and far more so in poorer countries like India, the powerful may employ women as surrogate wombs to gestate sperm or fertilized eggs. Go on the web, and you'll find headings like Wombs for Rent. This bodily servitude costs more than $70,000 in the US, and less than $12,000 in India. Some women would choose to be surrogate mothers, even if they could make the same money another way—but how many?

And just this year, Boko Haram, a militant group in Nigeria, took more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls as prisoners. Those men could have kidnapped people in power, demanded ransom, and got money, arms, and food they needed. Yet they wanted one thing even more: wombs. A roving band of male outlaws was one generation, but only young females could give Boko Haram a future.

Soon, there were also reports that the men of the newly decIared Islamic State known as ISIS were advertising on the web for Muslim women as "ultimate wives of jihad," who would do "feminine manual labor" and give birth to more jihadists—men who wage a holy war on behalf of Islam.

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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

In the United States, the rightwing has chipped away at the reproductive freedom of minors, poor women, and women in the military—who can't get an abortion, even if they're raped while on duty—but criminalizing abortion by Constitutional Amendment has failed. Also their years of picketing and firebombing clinics—plus murdering eight abortion doctors and proposing legislation that would make such murders "justifiable homicide"—have proven mysteriously unpopular. These advocates of compulsory pregnancy are now striving to eliminate abortion by imposing impossible conditions on clinics state by state, and challenging contraception as part of national healthcare. In North Carolina, only the ruling of one female judge struck down a legislative requirement that a woman's body must be penetrated by an ultrasound device and she must see and hear the fetus's description, even if she asks not to, before being granted a safe and legal abortion.

Nonetheless, books on economics begin with production, not reproduction—if they get to it at all. In fact, power over our own bodies, regardless of sex or gender or race, is a basic civil right, at least as basic as freedom of speech. Reproductive freedom and justice is the biggest single determinant of a woman's health, education, economic status, life outside the home, and life expectancy.

Women's bodies are a place of birth all right—the birthplace of democracy—yet I've never seen a political text that starts there.

The Handmaid's Tale is a rare book, and the only novel I know, that portrays reproductive freedom as the basis of everything else.

Maybe it's time we read it again.

Download Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale—and then tell us what you think!

About the Author

Gloria Steinem is an American feminist, activist, writer, and editor who has shaped debates on gender, politics, and art since the 1960s. Cofounder of Ms. Magazine and a founding contributor of New York Magazine, Steinem has also published numerous bestselling nonfiction titles. Through activism, lectures, constant traveling as an organizer, and appearances in the media over time, Steinem has worked to address institutional inequalities of sex, race, sexuality, class, and access to power in the United States and abroad.

Featured image: Cover of The Handmaid's Tale special edition audiobook; photo of Margaret Atwood courtesy of Alchetron