Schlafly, Model for Atwood’s Serena Joy

Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy in "Handmaid's Tale"

Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy in “Handmaid’s Tale”


Phyllis Schlafly, the individual most responsible for preventing the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, died Monday at 92. I disagreed with Schlafly in almost every respect but I will laud her for one thing: she served as the model for Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale.

Serena Joy is the woman who helps establish a repressive society in which women are treated as chattel. The contradiction, of course, is that, in her activist efforts to keep women from gaining power, Serena Joy gains power. The same was true of Schlafly, as Amanda Marcotte of Salon reports:

As Susan Faludi chronicled in her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, “The woman who opposed the ERA because it ‘would take away the marvelous legal rights of a woman to be a full-time wife and mother in the house supported by her husband’ was a Harvard-educated lawyer, author of nine books, and a two-time congressional candidate.”

Speaking to Newsweek in 1977, Schlafly said, “Women find their greatest fulfillment at home with the family.”

When reporters Susan Fraker and Elaine Sciolino pointed out that Schlafly “has a maid to do the cleaning” and “a secretary to handle her correspondence” — and has a career as a politician and a professional speaker, Schlafly denied the contradiction.

“I certainly do support some type of other interest,” she retorted. “But family demands and concerns have priority. I have canceled speeches whenever my husband thought that I had been away from home too much.”

I should note that Serena Joy is not only based on Schlafly but also on Tammy Faye Baker, a rightwing televangelist. Offred, the protagonist who now works for the family as a “handmaid,” remembers reading a profile about Joy:

She wasn’t singing anymore by then, she was making speeches. She was good at it. Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.

I should add that Serena Joy is not pure Schlafly but also has an element of the rightwing televangelist Tammy Faye Baker.

Michelle Goldberg of Slate points out another irony with Schlafly that Atwood also notes with her character. If Schlafly had not been a woman, she probably would have found her way into Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. As it was, she was shut out.

Something comparable happens to Serena Joy, who marries a prestigious military commander and then finds herself relegated to permanent housewife status:

She doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be now that she’s been taken at her word.

Fortunately for Schlafly, she wasn’t able to turn back the clock entirely and return to a 19th century patriarchal society. As a result, she was able to remain an influential figure almost to the end. Her last book, just out, supports Donald Trump as a reincarnation of Barry Goldwater, whom she helped elevate decades ago with her book A Choice, Not an Echo.

Atwood lets us know what might have happened had Schlafly gotten the society that she said she wanted. Here’s Offred again:

Her profile is towards me. I can see that in the quick sideways look I take at her as I go past. It wouldn’t do to stare. It’s no longer a flawless cut-paper profile, her face is sinking in upon itself, and I think of those towns built on underground rivers, where houses and whole streets disappear overnight, into sudden quagmires, or coal towns collapsing into the mines beneath them. Something like this must have happened to her, once she saw the true shape of things to come.

By the end of the novel, Serena Joy is drowning her dissatisfaction in alcohol, and her husband is turning to other women for sexual satisfaction. I don’t know enough about Schlafly to know if anything similar happened with her—perhaps not entirely as she, unlike Serena Joy, had “unfeminine” outlets—but I can’t imagine that those driven by resentment and paranoia ever find true inner peace.

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