First George Orwell’s 1984 found its way onto the New York Times best seller (I discuss the reasons here), and now it’s happening with The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). I’ve written posts several times in the past (for instance, here and here) about Margaret Atwood’s account of an environmentally ravaged future society where the few remaining fertile women are enslaved as handmaids.
Back in 2013 I was somewhat complacent about such a thing ever happening. While I wrote that “Proponents of women’s reproductive rights will need to keep speaking out and applying political pressure,” I added, “I think we’re a long way from Gilead at the moment.”
I think we’re still a long way from Gilead, but suddenly you can see if from here. As rightwing fundamentalist Christians salivate over the prospect of overturning Roe v Wade and even banning certain forms of birth control (for some, all birth control), we are waking up to the need to fight to protect freedoms once taken for granted.
An Oklahoma lawman recently revealed what many of these people secretly think:
“I understand that they feel like that is their body,” he said of women. “I feel like it is a separate — what I call them is, is you’re a ‘host.’ And you know when you enter into a relationship you’re going to be that host and so, you know, if you pre-know that then take all precautions and don’t get pregnant,” he explained. “So that’s where I’m at. I’m like, hey, your body is your body and be responsible with it. But after you’re irresponsible then don’t claim, well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you’re the host and you invited that in.”
If seeing women as hosts sounds like an outlier, remember that not long ago many anti-abortion politicians were being defeated in elections if they didn’t make an exception for rape and incest. Now many embrace the extremist position without apparent penalty. In her novel, Atwood describes how extremism can become a new normal.
For instance, here’s Offred, the handmaid of the title, thinking back to her old life. She is incredulous at how much freedom she used to have:
Is that how we lived, then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.
We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.
I wrote the following in a previous post:
It all begins, in The Handmaid’s Tale, with an extreme instance here and an extreme instance there. The following passage reminds me of the murder of George Tiller, the Wichita, Kansas abortion doctor, following inflammatory statements by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly:
There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.
We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.
Will we ever get to the point where abortion doctors are hung and publicly displayed? Probably not. But did you predict that we’d reach a point where women are being prosecuted for performing self abortions? Under the Trump administration we are learning that, if you give certain people power, they will use it in ways that previously seemed inconceivable.
Dystopian novels are thought exercises, and right now Atwood’s novel is helping us imagine what Trump and the GOP are capable of. That’s why people are buying it.
Previous posts on women controlling their own bodies