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Feminism in 'The Handmaid's Tale'

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Introduction

"The women will live in harmony together, all in one family ... women united for a common end" (p.171). Consider how Atwood portrays the role of women and attitudes towards women in both contemporary society and in Gilead. Does she present a feminist perspective or is she challenging feminist attitudes? Margaret Atwood is the best known feminist novelist in English today. Her attitudes are clear in 'The Handmaid's Tale'. The book provides a brief history and critique of the North American feminist movement since the 1960s, for as Offred reminds us, "Context is all." The feminist movement took place at an appropriate time as women's rights needed to move forward. In Gilead that type of feminist movement is no longer appropriate as society is different and the situation is therefore a different context. Atwood uses the feminist attitudes in a society and takes them to an extreme illustrating the complexity of feminism. Second - wave feminism began in the 1960s and focused on discrimination and cultural, social, and political issues. Books about it included 'The Feminine Mystique' by Betty Friedan and 'The Second Sex' by Simone de Beauvoir. Many ideologies were also around in this time period. Atwood however, refuses to simplify the gender debate or to accept the slogans. ...read more.

Middle

They illustrate that women are just as capable of violence as women. This is a true feminist perspective. In 'The Second Sex' De Beauvoir showed women that their inferior status was not due to their biological weakness but to historical and economic assumptions about femaleness. Friedan placed much more emphasis on women's bodies and issues relating to female sexuality. During the 1970s the feminist movement rapidly gained strength in the United States. The movement won Congressional endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972 and the Supreme Court decision to make abortion legal in 1973. However, opposition campaigns meant that the Equal Right Amendment failed to be ratified in 1982. This was a bitter defeat for feminism. Offred regrets her own indifference to her mother's feminist activism and laments the political apathy of so many younger women which contributed to the rise to power of the extreme right wing creating this society and Gilead. She now realises "We lived as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it." In this case, it is clear that many of the women in Gilead didn't care about feminism in contemporary society. In this new society Offred understands why her mother and others like her mother were feminists. ...read more.

Conclusion

With the sharp decline in the birth rate and reproduction assuming primary importance women are reduced to their biological function as childbearers and denied any sexual freedom at all at any age. The national crisis also affects men's lifestyles as well though. Any male practice which inhibits reproduction is severely punished, so that male doctors who formerly practised abortion or are homosexuals are all executed and their bodies are hung on the wall as a message to everyone. Feminists receive what they wish in Gilead because pornography, sexual violence and infidelity are outlawed but so is falling in love. That is something the feminists never wished to abolish. 'The Handmaid's Tale challenges state tyranny and social engineering which rules out any dimension of choice, emotion or free will for women as well as for most men. Hence, the novel should be seen as being more comprehensive than just a feminist dystopia for its concerns extend to include gender politics and basic human rights. Therefore, Atwood reduces the women's role in this society to the biological function of producing babies and becoming traditional housewives in order to help the men. Atwood's perspectives give us a clear indication that Atwood is challenging feminist attitudes. They wanted sexual freedom and to abolish pornography. They got what they wanted but more. There is no in between in the eyes of Atwood. Everything is to the extreme and this is how Atwood effectively challenges feminist attitudes. ...read more.

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