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"The Handmaid's Tale" on the History of Oppression of Women

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

By Eres Croker

Image via Trusted Reviews

The Handmaid’s Tale is a popular Hulu original television series based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name. The story takes place in a dystopian future where the United States is known as the country of “Gilead,” where men are the sole leaders and “commanders” of the household. In this dystopia, women are limited to a handful of subservient roles: being a wife of a commander with little to no rights, a martha who is strictly in charge of cooking and housekeeping, or a handmaid, a fertile woman who is assigned to a commander to provide children for the family.

The oppression of women in society is a prominent feature in the fictional world of Gilead. Stripped of their rights, women are forced to depend on male dictatorship and authority to determine their duties and ways of life. To the average reader, it may look like an extreme version of gender inequality in America today; however, the story strongly represents feminism by showing the reign of men over women, and the rebellion that women form to fight back.

In the series, women serve primarily as slaves to all men, whether this be in the form of  companionship, taking care of the house, or giving birth to their babies. The series highlights a particularly Stepford household but in a negative light. Without the ability to write, read, listen to music, or even work is a result of men taking away all of the choices in women’s lives, the women are expected to submit to their commanders and not question the roles they have been forced to fulfill.

This environment, characterized by imbalance and inequality, can be compared to the circumstances of women’s lives before the women's rights movement, a time when only certain women were able to attend school and receive a formal education. Before the Civil War, women were the sole caretakers of domestic duties. Most did not even know how to read or write, and of course, they did not have the right to vote or have a career. This correlates to the roles of women in Gilead and their inability to access education or influence government.

The Handmaid’s Tale highlights the world from Offred, the protagonist’s, point of view. Offred is a handmaid, navigating two very different identities. She presents herself as obedient and submissive. Yet behind this, Offred internally plans for destruction of the toxic control over women. This strong character has an intense sense of feminism, which many handmaids had developed as they became more oppressed, specifically Moira, her best friend. Throughout the book and television adaptation, she starts to question the rights of women and the authority in Gilead, and she eventually does the unimaginable when she begins to rebel and stand up for her rights. This independence is what leads Offred to fight against the system, organizing an entire network of marthas and handmaids to transport children across the border to Canada. The women broke many laws in Gilead and risked their existence for the possibility of a new generation to live a free life in another country.

Margaret Atwood has openly discussed that The Handmaid’s Tale is based on true events in our history. As Offred starts to gain strength to rebel, she begins to find others willing to fight and stand up. This correlates to the Women’s Rights Movement, when women began advocating for representation in Congress. 

The rules of Gilead strongly despise sexual activity and sexuality, as they are seen only as tools used for conceiving. Heterosexual relationships are the only ones allowed, whereas “Gender Traders,” the term used to describe members of the LGBTQ+ community, are sentenced as Jezebels, the prositutes and lower class. Offred resists these beliefs and explores her sexuality as she engages in an affair with a guardian, a known authority figure in Gilead. Gradually, Offred begins to embrace the power of her body and desire, contrary to the beliefs forced upon her.

Whether you watch the series or read the book, The Handmaid’s Tale is sure to deliver absolute inspiration for female empowerment, as well as reveal the truth of the historical oppression of women. This story pushes boundaries and is a groundbreaking piece that is absolutely empowering for all women.The similarities between the storyline and history are proof that a world devoid of women’s rights is not an impossible concept dreamt up by an imaginative author. These dystopian storylines could very well be a reality if not for the historical movements that have fought to advance equality. This imaginative country of Gilead actively persists on the oppression of women and constant dictations curated by men. These striking similarities imply that these concepts being The Handmaid’s Tale are not so abstract after all.

Written by writer Eres Croker

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