How far from Gilead is Britain in 2019?

The Handmaid’s Tale has become a cultural touchstone for the modern feminist movement. But as the long-awaited sequel The Testaments arrives, are we taking the warning signs from Margaret Atwood’s dystopia seriously enough? From pro-natalism to lagging literacy rates, Helen Lewis looks at what we shouldn't take for granted

Helen Lewis
Illustration by Renee Nault
Illustration by Renee Nault

Look around: Handmaids are everywhere. One group of women in red robes and white bonnets watched from the public gallery of the Texas state senate as it discussed abortion laws in 2017. Another protested against Brett Kavanaugh, a social conservative accused of a historical sexual assault, by standing silently outside the room where he was being confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. In Ireland, two dozen red-robed figures held protest signs at the parliament ahead of the referendum to Repeal the Eighth. “Walking up the street in pairs, silent, heads down, and completely covered, felt really scary,” Karen Dempsey, one of the demonstrators, said later. “It’s really strange to be in that position and feel the wrath of other people who don’t see me as a person.”

Thirty-four years after the original publication of The Handmaid’s Tale, the recent television adaptation has brought Margaret Atwood’s dystopia to a new audience. Its iconography has become part of the visual language of feminist resistance; it feels like the right story at the right time. Abortion rights are under attack. Over-educated, over-liberated women are blamed by white nationalists for falling birthrates in the West. Here in Britain, women’s rights which were once guaranteed by EU membership — such as the ability to request part-time working, used by 6.2 million women with caring responsibilities — will become more fragile after Brexit. We are living in an era of backlash.

For that reason, The Handmaid’s Tale does not provoke the usual reaction when reading dystopian fiction: thank god this isn’t our world. It is not just a warning of a potential future, but a reminder of our past. For women throughout history, for some women living today, Gilead is their world. In Saudi Arabia, women still need a male guardian’s permission to leave the country. The Yazidi women and Chibok girls can testify that female reproduction is still controlled by men. Across the developing world, female literacy rates lag behind male ones; millions of girls are as starved of words as Offred, hungrily playing Scrabble with her commander.

Even here in twenty-first century Britain, there are echoes of Gilead. As I write, abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland in almost all circumstances. It can be prosecuted as assault, meaning a rape victim who has a termination could theoretically receive a longer prison sentence than her rapist. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood conjures up the cruel image of “shredders”: babies which cannot survive outside the womb. Janine gives birth to such a baby at a ceremony attended by all the Handmaids, before the child is placed in the arms of her commander’s wife. But all her pain — physical and mental — was for nothing. The child is a “shredder”. In Northern Ireland now, women who cannot afford to travel for an abortion face a similar situation, carrying a baby to term which they will never take home from the hospital. Even on the mainland, the default position is that abortion is a crime, with exceptions allowed until 24 weeks of pregnancy, only if the procedure is signed off by two doctors. Our laws proceed from the assumption that a woman’s body is not hers to control. 

As well as banning abortion, the state of Gilead decrees who can, and cannot, have a child of their own. Women who have transgressed against the religious laws have their children seized and given to “morally pure” couples. In south-east England, five hospital trusts recently banned single women from having IVF, ruling that there were “known disadvantages” to being raised by solo parents. But as Genevieve Roberts, herself a single mother through IVF, pointed out, the “one thing solo mothers all tend to have in common is being good parents... these children are so very wanted and planned”. The ruling feels more like an official judgment on who deserves to have children — and what a family should look like. Across Britain, there is a postcode lottery of IVF services and women can be refused treatment on grounds of age, body mass index, or if their partner has children from a previous relationship. The high cost of privately funded IVF — around £5,000 a cycle — puts it out of reach of low-income couples. 

'Women's names still betray our second-class status'

In Atwood’s dystopia, Handmaids act as enslaved surrogates for high-ranking wives. “I cannot avoid seeing, now, the small tattoo on my ankle,” writes Offred. “Four digits and an eye, a passport in reverse...  I am a national resource.” Here in Britain, it is illegal to pay surrogate mothers, to stop poor women being exploited as a “resource” by rich couples. The Law Commission is currently reviewing these rules. It is made up of four men

Women’s names still betray our second-class status. I am known by my father’s surname, and the surname of his father before him. The women of the family, who carried and gave birth to and nursed each new generation, don’t get a look-in. In 2016, 59 per cent of women told YouGov that they expected to change their name on marriage (and 61 per cent of men expected their wives to do so). But really, come on. “Offred” — belonging to Fred — is just a version of “Mrs Smith” — belonging to Mr Smith. To me, this is the genius of Atwood’s novel, taking traditions which are so well-established that they pass unnoticed, and making them strange again. It shocks Offred when a stranger replaces one of her fellow Handmaids. “Where’s Ofglen?” she asks. “I am Ofglen,” replies the stranger. In earlier centuries, name changes made women harder to track through parish records. Today, it nukes their Google results.

How else is Britain like Gilead? In a thousand subtle ways. Women are still divided into good and bad girls, based on a sexual double standard. Offred is sentenced to become a Handmaid because she had a child with a man who had been married before. Contemporary British society calls women “loose” and “slags” for enjoying sex, and implies that those who are sexually harrassed or assaulted were “asking for it” by walking home, wearing a skirt — or wandering around inside that endlessly provocative garment, the female body. In Gilead, lesbians are declared “gender traitors” and sent to clean up toxic waste. Here in Britain, they are also treated as “Unwomen”. Their sexuality is co-opted as a fetish by some men, and treated by others as a personal insult to their masculinity.

In Gilead, abortion doctors are strung up on walls. While Britain has not seen the kind of violence associated with the American pro-life movement, abortion providers still report harassment and intimidation outside their doors. In Ealing, there is a 100-metre “buffer zone” around the Marie Stopes clinic, so that protesters cannot target women using its services. Pro-choice campaigners hope that the measure can be copied elsewhere

In Gilead, the fertility crisis is caused by pollution: “chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules”. In our world, fears about falling birthrates intersect with racism and nativism. Far-right websites peddle a conspiracy theory called the “Great Replacement”, which suggests that elite politicians are encouraging mass immigration from populations with high birthrates. Within a few generations, the argument runs, whites will be “replaced”. Neo-Nazis frequently invoke the number 14, a reference to these 14 words: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Gilead’s rulers want to do something similar: ensuring that the right kind of people have children.

'The alternative to Gilead was its own kind of hell.'

Today, even mainstream politicians are pursuing pro-natalist policies tinged with xenophobia. In Hungary, the prime minister Viktor Orban has been vocally opposed to Muslim immigration. “We do not need numbers, but Hungarian children,” he said in February, announcing cash incentives for couples with four children. The rightwing government in Poland, which already has some of Europe’s strictest abortion laws, is trying to tighten them further; right-wing parties in Spain warn about diminishing birth rates among citizens. Britain is not immune to these currents. The grassroots darling of the Conservative party, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is opposed to abortion, even in cases of rape. The backbencher Nadine Dorries, who has repeatedly proposed anti-abortion legislation, was made a health minister by Boris Johnson. As voting patterns become less about economics and more about values, we should brace ourselves for abortion to become a “culture war” issue in Britain, just as it is the United States. 

The Handmaid’s Tale also does something no other dystopian fiction manages quite so well. It shows that the alternative to Gilead was its own kind of hell. “Don’t you remember the singles bars, the indignity of high-school blind dates,” the Commander asks Offred. Women “were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.” Pornification or puritanism: are these are women’s awful options? The Commander — the voice of patriarchy — says so. But can we imagine a different future for ourselves? 

The book’s heroine both admires and resents her mother, a Second Wave feminist who raised her without a father (but was treated as a traitor by some for wanting a baby at all). “She expected me to vindicate her life for her, and the choices she made,” writes Offred. “I didn’t want to be the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas.” At the time Margaret Atwood was writing, the backlash against the Second Wave was in full cry. A group of radical feminists had entered an anti-porn alliance with Christian fundamentalists. (They lost the fight, and dented their credibility in the process.) 

The character of Offred’s mother represents Atwood’s ambiguous attitude to the Second Wave. As a child, Offred remembers her mother’s face, “ruddy and cheerful, like a Christmas card,” as feminists burned books and magazines. One had “a pretty woman on it, with no clothes on, hanging from the ceiling with a chain wound around her hands”. In Gilead, the feminists got what they wanted — porn was banned. But the cost was terrible. In the same way, one form of prostitution, represented by the sex workers at Jezebel’s, was driven deep underground. Yet the more socially sanctioned form, marriage, was elevated to a state religion. Atwood’s teasing ambiguity is what makes The Handmaid’s Tale into great art rather than straightforward polemic. 

The final lesson of The Handmaid’s Tale is how quickly Gilead comes into being. It happened “all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand,” writes Offred. “They shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.” It would be naive to think that the clock could never turn back in Britain. One of the painful pleasures of the book is spotting the real-world parallels for its degradations. In an early scene, Offred and Ofglen are gawked at by Japanese tourists, who marvel at the women’s cloaks and hoods. It is a neat reversal of the pitying gaze western feminists level at their sisters in Iran or Saudi Arabia. It is also a reminder that in the 1970s, you could walk down the street in Tehran and see women in skirts, with their hair uncovered. The fall of the Shah and the creation of an Islamic republic led to the introduction of compulsory hijabs for women. 

“When it first came out it was viewed as being far-fetched,” said Margaret Atwood in 2017. “However, when I wrote it, I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that humans had not already done somewhere at some time.” A world where women are forbidden from reading; a world where “modest” clothing is enforced by the state; a world where lower-status women carry babies for the rich and privileged. This is everything that humans have already done. Some things that humans are doing now. And many things that humans could, one day, do again. 

Helen Lewis is a staff writer for the Atlantic. Her book Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, is published in February. 

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