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.