Perhaps the eeriest part of watching The Handmaid’s Tale is how recognizable it feels.
In Atwood’s dystopia, a group of extremist Christians form a militia and overthrow the government, staging a bloody coup under the guise of protecting Americans from Islamic terrorists. During their reign, the U.S. becomes the Republic of Gilead. In a time of climate crisis, with pollution having made most Americans infertile, the new government disposes of women who cannot bear children and requires those who can to become vessels for women of high rank in their new society. (Should they “fail” at this task, they, too, face death.) Handmaids are passed from house to house, treated like animals by the leaders of the Republic, raped by “Commanders” while lying in their wives’ laps, forced to give birth at home with little medical assistance and then separated from the children they bear. Their daily walks, in which their conversations and movements are monitored by endless streams of machine-gun-equipped officers, often take them past “the Wall,” where abortion providers from times past and other “criminals” are hanged and left as part of a gruesome display.
30 years after Atwood’s book was published, we don’t need a coup to set Gilead into motion. Male lawmakers and political candidates have openly defined women as “hosts” for procreation and described children conceived through rape “beautiful” “gifts from God.” Our President once declared that women who have abortions should be “punished.” Anti-abortion extremists harass and threaten abortion providers, clinic staff and patients.
In Gilead, Handmaids—forbidden from gathering, reading and writing—still find a way to fight back. Through a loosely organized and highly secretive operation called “Mayday” and an “Underground Femaleroad,” they use their collective power to find escapes to safety, collect information and resist. Following the release of Hulu’s television adaptation of Atwood’s novel, Handmaids have also begun to appear in the U.S., sounding the alarm with their heads bowed against the threat of legislation that attempts to restrict women’s bodily autonomy and rob them of their constitutional rights.
Last month, a group of women dressed in the garb of Handmaids—a red gown covering the entire body and a white bonnet—appeared at the Texas State Capital to protest a slew of anti-abortion legislation being considered by the legislature. Last week, another group of Handmaids appeared at the Ohio Statehouse while lawmakers debated banning the most common abortion procedure in the country. On Monday, a third group descended on a Town Hall held by Tom McClintock (R) in California in protest of his anti-woman agenda.
“We are here to reach Commander McClintock,” a flier for the California protest read. “Like the leaders from Gilead, Commander McClintock supports a movement that promises to rob us of our freedom and steal our adulthood, citizenship and dignity as women.”
The fight for abortion rights has long been a fight for women’s lives. That notion becomes starker through Atwood’s seminal work, where reproduction serves as the sole basis for controlling every facet of women’s lives. Lawmakers at every level of government—in the White House, in Congress, in state legislatures and assemblies and in Governor’s mansions—are doing their best to rob women of their bodily autonomy. They silence their voices through secret hearings and last-minute special sessions. They do so, often, in the name of religion, weaponizing Christianity in the war on women.
“Now I’m awake to the world,” Offred, the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, explains. “I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then, either. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”
The parallels between Atwood’s dystopia and our own reality have become crystal clear. And women are awake to them—and ready to stop them.
We will not go back. We will not go to Gilead. We will instead heed Atwood’s warning—to speak up before it is too late, and to fight no matter how powerless we are made to feel.