The Truth of the Handmaid's Tale
Tigerlily Theo Hopson
September 16th, 2018
Loneliness. Harassment. Rape. Pain. The night I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood it took me hours to fall asleep. A deep terror had settled into my soul. A story very similar to the Handmaid’s has happened before in the years of slavery, and could happen again today in America.
I am not the only one who fears this dystopia becoming real. Starting on the first day of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, women entered the Hart Senate Office Building dressed in red with big white bonnets covering their faces, the uniform of the Handmaids. These activists stood silently at Kavanaugh’s hearings, imprinting a powerful message of what could happen if Kavanaugh becomes a Supreme Court Justice. Brett Kavanaugh, who was recently accused of assaulting a girl while both were in high school, has the power to potentially overturn the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade if made a Justice. This could mean women losing the right to have control over their own bodies, which is how it all started for the Handmaids.
The horrors of the The Handmaid’s Tale seem unthinkable, but really this story is as accurate as a history book. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a dystopian novel based in a world where a woman’s only value is how many children she is able to birth. The narrator of the story is Offred (of Fred), who is a Handmaid. Most households are assigned a Handmaid, whose primary goal is to reproduce. Even though this is a fictional story, as Atwood says in her 2017 book release introduction, everything that is written in this book has happened before in history. Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis looks deeply into the racism Black women faced in slavery, and years after. Davis breaks down the horrors of sexual abuse which was a daily reality for female slaves. While reading these books, one thing is made clear: The Handmaid’s Tale is not a work of fantasy, but describes the day to day life of African American women during slavery as explained in Women, Race and Class.
Handmaids and enslaved women both have to suffer men claiming their bodies as a commodity and the fear of harsh punishment if they refuse sexual exploitation. In The Handmaid’s Tale each household has a “Commander.” He is the head of the household, and has control over the body of his Handmaid, similar to how a slave master had control over the body of a female slave. One evening in The Handmaid’s Tale, the Commander, Fred, takes Offred, his handmaid, on a secret outing. He dresses her up in a revealing outfit and slathers makeup, which is forbidden, on her face. He brings her to a hotel where many Commanders roam, picking which woman they want to sleep with. At the end of the evening the Commander takes Offred to a room upstairs where, “He’s stroking my body now, from stem as they say to stern, cat stroke along the left flank, down the left leg. He stops at this foot, his fingers encircling the ankle, briefly, like a bracelet, where the tattoo is, a Braille he can read, a cattle brand. It means ownership,” (p. 254).
The tattoos each Handmaid has, like how slave women were often branded, are a constant reminder that they are nothing more than property of the head of the house. In this situation Offred feels trapped. She is uncomfortable, but if she refuses his sexual harassment she knows she will get a far worse punishment. By refusing sexual harassment she is threatening the power of her “commander.”
This is similar to how Black women felt in the presence of a slave master, or later, their white boss. In Women, Race and Class, Davis points out, “From Reconstruction to the present, black women household workers have considered sexual abuse perpetrated by the ‘man of the house’ as one of the major occupational hazards. Time after time they have been victims of extortion on the job, compelled to choose between sexual submission and absolute poverty for themselves and their families,” (p. 91). Black women were, and still are, cornered into a place where sexual harassment is their norm. As Davis says in her book, during the time of slavery if a Black woman refused rape she would be violently punished and psychologically demeaned. Even after slavery a Black woman could be physically hurt for refusing sexual debasement or, in the workplace, lose her job. The Commanders use the same fear mongering tactics as slave masters to silence their Handmaids. The Handmaid’s Tale is not just a fictional story, it is telling the story of the African American women who faced hundreds of years of harassment.
Female slaves, like Handmaids, only were valued by their ability to reproduce as breeders and surrogates, yet never entitled to have a relationship with their child. In The Handmaid’s Tale there is a frequent ritual called the “Ceremony.” This is where the Commander has sexual intercourse with his Handmaid, hoping to impregnate her. It is forbidden to make this evening at all romantic or sensual, it is simply a job for the Handmaid, and not supposed to be enjoyable. If a Handmaid ever does give birth, the Commander’s wife is supposed to be the only motherly figure in the child’s life. In the book, women are used as breeders and surrogates, not respected as people.
This is exactly what slave women had to go through. Often female slaves were seen as nothing more than breeders used to increase the slave population. As said in Women, Race and Class, “In fact in the eyes of the slave holders, slave women were not mothers at all; they were simply instruments guaranteeing the growth of the slave labor force. They were ‘breeders’- animals, whose monetary value could be precisely calculated in their ability to multiply numbers” (p.7).
Slave women were forced to reproduce, and when they did their child would often be stripped away from them and then sold. This was a tactic to make female slaves feel like they were nothing more than a herd of cattle. They were not allowed a motherly connection with their own children. Davis also describes in her book how Black women were used as even gestational surrogates. Black women are equivalent to the Handmaids in this way, they are the ones carrying the white man’s baby, but when they give birth the white mother is the one who is celebrated. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the Commander’s wife is the only one congratulated for the baby, while the Handmaid who did all the work does not even get to see or name her own child. While many might wince when reading about the fictional life of the Handmaid, the gruesome truth is that slave women had it just as bad, maybe even worse.
Additionally, both Handmaids and female slaves were deprived of an education in order to hold up the hierarchy, yet they all yearned to learn. Women want to be educated. In Women, Race and Class, Angela Davis says, “With the exception of Maryland and Kentucky, every Southern state absolutely prohibited the education of slaves. Throughout the South, slaveholders resorted to the lash and the whipping post in order to counter their slaves’ irrepressible will to learn. Black people wanted to be educated,” (p. 106). Slaves naturally wanted to learn, but their masters would enforce harsh and painful punishment if they were ever caught reading or writing. Fear was distilled into their minds that reading would only lead to pain.
Reading and writing is also forbidden in The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred has one cushion in her small white room which has the faded word FAITH embroidered on it. This one word is a perpetual reminder of how much she yearns to read. “I can spend minutes, tens of minutes, running my eyes over the print: FAITH. It’s the only thing they’ve given me to read. If I were caught doing it, would it count?” (p.57). That last sentence tells the reader that she too is afraid of reading, she is terrified of being caught. The “man of the house” for slave women and Handmaids uses deprivation of education as a form of oppression. It is a clear way of showing that women have low status. Preventing education is also a way to prevent rebellion. It is much harder to plan an uprising by word of mouth than if they could they write out the information. People try to hold down slaves and Handmaids by bereaving their right to an education, but that does not stop them from wanting it and trying to get it in any way they can.
The Handmaid’s Tale conveys the story of the female slave as described in Women, Race and Class by disclosing the everyday realities of sexual harassment, being used as breeders, and deprivation of education. As The Handmaid’s Tale is read and reread, and people watch the T.V. show with a bag of popcorn or chips on their lap, it is important that we remember that this story is not one made up of fantasy. It has happened before, and could happen again; we must raise our voices and use our votes.