Women’s rights haven’t progressed as much as men would like us to believe

By: Faith Arcuri

“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”

Don’t let the bastards grind you down. It’s such a shame that they keep trying. Even worse? They might succeed.

The novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale” was meant to be a dystopian novel about a future society and future that would never happen. Now, it has become a grim present.

The 1985 novel is set in an indeterminate dystopian future, perhaps around the year 2005, with a fundamentalist theocracy ruling what used to be the United States but is now the Republic of Gilead. The fertility rates in Gilead have diminished because of environmental toxicity. As a result, fertile women are a valuable commodity owned and enslaved by the powerful elite. Individuals are segregated by categories and dressed according to their social functions. Complex dress codes play a key role in imposing social control within the new society and serve to distinguish people by sex, occupation, and caste.

Hierarchy is essential to this society. Women have lost control of their bank accounts, their homes, their families, and most importantly, their bodies. There is a passage in which the Commander, one of the leaders of Gilead,  describes to the protagonist, Offred, why Gilead was formed and what it was about feminism that fundamentally offended the male population. He claims that there was simply “nothing for them anymore.” He creates an excuse for controlling the women around him, one about how he felt as though he lost his purpose in life as a provider and protector.

Margaret Atwood, the author, conceived the book as “speculative fiction,” a work that imagines a future that could conceivably happen without any advances in technology from the present. In her words, “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” Every aspect of the book was inspired by social and political events of the early 1980s, when she wrote it.

In a 2017 interview, Atwood said that she does not predict the future so much as that her stories “are actually about the now.”

“However, it’s also true that you generally look ahead of you where you’re going,” she said, “and that’s what those kinds of books are like. They’re like blueprints of the possible future that help us to decide where that is where we want to go.” 

Atwood didn’t just look to the past for inspiration. Her contemporary world in the 1980s provided influence over the material, drawing from the U.S. being founded as a theocracy rather than a republic, and the Chrisitan conservatives at the heart of the American government even then.

Unfortunately for contemporary readers, these features are not surprising. Around the world, particularly in the U.S., this type of controlling theocracy is trying to rear its head, including the overturn of Roe v. Wade, asserting control over women’s bodies.

In June 2022, the Supreme Court proved just that with their decision to overturn the 1973 court case Roe v. Wade. That decision protected a woman’s right to abortion, but now the case has been overturned, and states using their power to ban abortions are on the rise. Nine states have already implemented abortion bans. Another dozen are in the process.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito said the ruling reaffirmed Roe “must be overruled” because they were “egregiously wrong,” the arguments “exceptionally weak” and so “damaging” that decision amounted to “an abuse of judicial authority.”

Alito said that abortion is a matter to be decided by states and its voters. “We hold,” he wrote, that “the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion.”

While this should be sound logic, there’s one major problem. The Constitution was written by men, for men. There is no mention of women in the Constitution, so it is not surprising that the document wouldn’t refer to reproductive freedoms. 

Before the Constitution, the Bible was written by men, for men. Representation for women has been an issue from the beginning, and Adam and Eve are the prime example. The story of Eve says that she was the first woman on Earth, and she is punished for defying God and giving into her desires.

In the world of Gilead, this is not just the story, but the ideal. That is because “Adam was first formed, then Eve” that women must “be in silence” and never “usurp authority over the man.”

This is one of the many references to fundamental religion baked into the novel. The titles that many of Gilead’s residents are given come from the Bible. For example, the Rachel and Leah Center, what Offred refers to as the Red Center, is a reference to the Old Testament story of Rachel and Leah, two sisters who were married to Jacob, the younger brother of Esau who was first introduced in Genesis 25.

According to the Biblical account, Rachel had trouble conceiving children, but Leah did not. Rachel was frustrated by this, so she decided to give her handmaid, Bilhah, to Jacob. She was to be a vessel, as the handmaids are vessels, for Rachel’s child. Bilhah eventually gave birth to two sons who were turned over to Rachel.

This story is the precedent that the founders of Gilead turned to to create the Handmaid program. The fertile women are the Handmaids, unwillingly given to the Commanders by the Wives. 

Throughout history, the Bible has served many of the world’s worst leaders and societies as an excuse for dangerous, oppressive, and even murderous practices. That makes its centrality in Gilead more easily perceived to its citizens.

One of the more obvious connections to the idea that women are just wombs with legs is the belief that promiscuousness and sex are sins. Women in Gilead are not supposed to have sex appeal or a sex drive. Their only desire should be to have children for the Commanders to whom they are assigned.

Phrases like “May the Lord Open” and “Blessed be the fruit” are allusions to the Hebrew scriptures passages in Deuteronomy 28, part of the Blessings of Obedience. They are meant to encourage faithfulness in those who hear and speak them, only supplementing the iron grip that the men of Gilead have over their women.

This story is not only a precedent of the founders of Gilead, but the underlying precedent for America. This country runs religion, disguising it as democracy in order to safely function.

The only positive thing in the story is that the Handmaid’s fight back. After habitual abuse, the Underground Female road, paralleling the Civil War era Underground Railroad, works to help women in Gilead escape to a life where it is the women who choose what to do with their bodies, not politicians who think they know what’s best. That is the life women in America should be living right now.