Lessons from “A Handmaid’s Tale”

By PatricaWilliams Lessane 

 This summer, my 17-year-old son had to read Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” as part of his summer reading at Porter-Gaud School. Listening to my son’s interrogation of the novel’s themes of slavery, individualism, misogyny, religious fundamentalism, violent and oppressive patriarchy, and women’s struggles for agency and liberation were heartening and encouraging. I must admit that I envy his courage and ability to complete the entire novel. I, myself, have tried to watch the award-winning Hulu series of the same title, but could not get past the halfway point of the first season.  

Like most who praise the heart-wrenching performances of the show’s actresses, I found myself too emotionally invested in the characters’ plights. Not only was I racked with fear for the protagonists whose cruel circumstances were reminiscent of the tribulations of enslaved African women documented in the classic slave narratives by writers such as Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, but I was struck to my core by the familiarity of the characters’ collective hubris and fatal folly of disbelief in the erosion of their collective rights happening right before their eyes.  

The series’ graphic violence is recounted by handmaid Offred’s  secret self-reflection and probing analysis of her world’s undoing and the unfolding of a brazen and barbaric new and scary one before her eyes—one where women’s rights slowly become undone until fertile women become the slaves of a male-dominated elite class. Here Atwood re-imagines the historical subjugation and oppression of black and brown women in the Americas, and recasts white women’s bodies as the universal tableau upon which women’s struggles for liberation and self-determination are written. 

By episode five, the similarities between the series and this current moment – in the wake of the #MeToo movement, when issues like abortion and equal pay for women lay in the judicial balance—were just too much for me and I chickened out on watching the rest.  

My son, however, did finish the novel, and our conversations about it forced me to acknowledge what “The Handmaid’s Tale” had brought up for me: a deeply rooted fear. But not some fleeting, here-today-gone-tomorrow fear of the unknown. Watching the series in tandem with the nightly news and updates on social media about pressing issues of the day — the inhumane separation of women and children at our borders, the increasing erosion of legislation in place to protect women in the workplace and ensure equal pay for equal work, continued attacks on Roe v. Wade along with the pending confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh  to the high court – are proof of real life imitating art. 

The truth of the matter is that times are challenging for women — especially black, brown, poor, queer, trans and disabled women from all walks of life. More than 50 percent of white women who voted voted for the president in 2016, seemingly voting against their self interests when it comes to equal pay, quality health care, and proposed changes to Title IX rules that would redefine what constitutes “sexual assault” and extend protection to not only the victims in sexual assault cases, but the accused as well. I have to wonder whether some women like Atwood’s character Serena Joy have forsaken other women with the hope that in the final analysis, they will be seated alongside white men at the table? 

But,  if the national women’s marches that sprung up just after the election, the uptick in women running for elected office and grassroots advocacy around women’s issues are any indication, many women have had an awakening and are planning to march to the polls during the upcoming midterm elections and cast votes with all women’s interests in mind, not just their own. Time will tell. 

The truth of the matter is that we are not characters in a dystopian novel. American women from all corners of the nation have a great stake in the upcoming elections and looking ahead to 2020. Black women especially have a lot riding on the upcoming elections. At a time when women continue to be paid far less than our male counterparts, black women earn just 63 percent of what white males make for doing the same job, meaning that it takes them roughly 19 months to earn what their white male counterparts take home in 12 months.1 Federal and state attacks on Title X policies that include much needed funding for free and affordable health care screenings and services provided by Planned Parenthood and  continued attempts to cut and gut the Affordable Healthcare Act disproportionately impact poor women, especially black women and those living in rural areas. The relentless fight to reverse Roe v. Wade should frighten us all. Regardless of what side of the argument one falls on, the debate about what a woman can do with her body should be a non-starter because what she does to and with her body is her right. Yet here we are some 40-plus years after Roe still fighting to hold on to our right to decide if and when we will choose have a child. 

These are scary times, but I come from a line of women who believed in “making a way out of no way.” They believed even when equipped with very little, you used all that you had, did all that you could to change your circumstances. After talking to my son about the parallels between Atwood’s novel and our current political landscape, I had to remind myself that this is not the time to get mired down in fear about what could happen, but rather it is time to get energized by that reality. 

Dr. Williams Lessane is the executive director of  College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture where she is a tenured faculty member in the library. She has a BA in English from Fisk University, a MALS from Dartmouth College and a doctorate in anthropology from University of Illinois at Chicago. Patricia is co-PI on the Race and Social Justice Initiative at The College of Charleston. Her 2015, New York Times editorial, “No Sanctuary in Charleston” gave personal and social commentary about African American life in Charleston following the massacre at Mother Emmanuel Church and she frequently writes opinion pieces about the intersection of race, gender and class in black life in the United States.  She is the mother of two amazing teenagers and loving Boxer/Hound named Sadie Mae.