Teaching Gender Sensitivity at West Point

Richardson in "Handmaid's Tale"

Richardson in “Handmaid’s Tale”

Here’s a story I never thought I would see: The Handmaid’s Tale is required reading for entering West Point cadets.

Salon reported the story of Margaret Atwood’s trip to the military academy to speak about her novel. The cadets were also assigned Ursula Le Guin’s fine short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

I’ve posted on Handmaid’s Tale in the past, usually in the context of conservatives trying to roll back women’s reproduction rights (here and here). Her dystopian future, inspired by 1984, imagines that fundamentalist Christians have taken over America following an environmental catastrophe that has led to significant declines in fertility. To rectify the situation, they decree that young fertile women are to serve as “handmaids” to produce children for patriarchs and their sterile wives. The model is the Abraham-Sarah-Hagar-Ishmael story in the Book of Genesis, a plausible illustration of how zealots pick and choose the passages they want from holy scripture. Women who have abortions and men who aid them are publicly executed.

The Salon article, unfortunately, doesn’t go deeply into the kind of conversations that the orientation leaders hope will emerge from the book. Lt. Col. Naomi Mercer, an Iraqi war veteran and assistant professor, just observes that “[t]he Army has real gender issues, still” and that Handmaid’s Tale “at least creates a vocabulary to talk about those issues. It was very prescient.”

Among those issues, of course, is the large number of sexual assaults in the military. Last year 5,983 assaults were reported, and the number is probably low. In any event, sensitivity needs to be raised, and Atwood’s novel is one way to raise it.

For instance, it articulates how society is crippled by gender power imbalance. West Point cadets surely pick up on the fact that the patriarch described in Handmaid’s Tale is a military general. Though the state sanctions his having sex with Offred, his handmaid, his life is not fulfilling. In fact, we see him starved for intimacy, so much so that he secretly plays scrabble with her at night. If West Point men understand that men as well as women pay a price for patriarchal sexism, then something important will have been achieved. True happiness in a relationship occurs when there is genuine reciprocity, but one needs to think beyond traditional notions of dominance and submission to get there.

There are also important lessons in the book for women who turn their back on feminism, as noted in this interchange between a cadet and Atwood:

But he did have a question. He couldn’t help but notice that some of the worst treatment the novel’s female characters receive comes at the hands of other women.

“That’s true,” Atwood said. “That’s how these things work. All dictatorships try to control women, although sometimes in different ways. And one of the ways they control any group is to create a hierarchy where some members of the group have power over the others. You get those people to control their own group for you.”

The general’s wife Serena Joy, who may be modeled on Phyllis Schafly, is deeply unhappy, even though she lives as the honored wife in the kind of patriarchal marriage that she, like Schlafly, has advocated. To live a pedestal life is not to honor one’s whole being, as West Point female cadets understand well. Like Schlafly, Joy has once been a public figure, but she is now reduced to keeping house and feeling resentful towards the handmaid that she hopes will provide her with a child. Not surprisingly, she turns to alcohol to cope with a discontent she can’t acknowledge.

I like the idea of the male and female cadets discussing the end of the novel, where Offred collaborates with her male guards to get free and fight back against the system. If assigning the book can help influence men and women to work together to break free of traditional ways of thinking, then Lt. Col. Mercer will have accomplished something special.

A note on the other reading assignment, which involves a related imaginative exercise. In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Le Guin asks us to imagine a perfect society that has only one flaw: its existence relies on the imprisonment of a child.

From the perspective of a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis a la Jeremy Bentham, the trade-off seems a good one: although one child is victimized, everyone else is happy. The truly enlightened, however, are those who can empathize with the child and who walk away from Omelas, even at the cost of their comfortable existence.

How wonderful that tomorrow’s military leaders are being challenged to think outside their own perspectives. They will be better leaders if they can see the world through the eyes of the men and women who they command and the men and women they interact with in other cultures. This is literature being called upon to do heavy lifting.


Previous posts on Handmaid’s Tale

Is Atwood’s Dystopia Coming True?

Threatened by Female Empowerment

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