Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaids Tale was written in 1986 when the feminist movement was happening, the word feminism is hard to really define into one term but it is usually recognised as meaning equal rights for women. The first wave of feminism happened in the 19th century and this was about sexual division in the workplace then the second wave of feminism started in 1960’s and this was known as the Women’s Liberation Movement this aimed to create a women – centred – world by making their voices heard through the demonstrations such as burning pornography (which Offred’s mother was a part of.)
In this essay I will be concentrating on the women and the issues of feminism in the handmaids tale. In the society of Gilead the women are grouped into categories concerning their age, fertility and their marital status. Although these women do have their own separate roles in the regime they all share the same theme which involves staying within the household.
Such as the Marthas who are responsible for the domestic side who keep the house clean and tend to the cooking where as the handmaids have only one specific role and that is to reproduce they are known as only ‘womb on legs’ to give birth to children for the commander’s wives who are unable to have children and their role is to raise these children after they are born.
We can see that handmaids are like shadows amongst the house quiet and replaceable as Rita claims about the last handmaid “She didn’t work out” showing that they are treated as products that can be easily replaced if they don’t work out for the purchaser the handmaids are just like property and this is shown in their names such as OF-FRED they belong to the commander of the household although their role is one of the most important in this patriarchal system they are however not treated this way, they are treated as one of the lowest class.
Even the roles of the commanders wives have little importance they are given trivial meaningless tasks such as tending to the gardens as this is their ‘domain’ which they can control and care for maybe a replacement for the children, they also knit scarves for the Angels upfront however Offred claims that “Maybe its something to keep the wives busy, to give them a sense of purpose. ” There is also the role of the aunts which could also be seen as very important as well because it is these older women who brainwash these teachings into the handmaids to let them fulfil their duties.
The women’s roles are also represented in the colour of the clothes they wear for the Marthas it is green for the commanders wife it is blue and lastly the handmaids wear a red nun-like uniform where the red represents their function suggesting the blood of the menstrual cycle and giving birth to a child, the colour can also represent their imprisonment in the Gilead society “the colour of blood, which defines us.
” The roles of the women are very dependent on their relationship with the men in the regime and their ability to have children which effectively steals the women’s individual identity being categorised gives the society much more control over them. The colour of their clothing makes the women easy to recognise which group they belong to, dehumanising them completely treating them more like machines than human beings.
It could be seen as some kind of ‘sisterhood’ with the different roles that the women play and how they co-operate with each other because this could be seen as a feminist world with women appreciating their roles and helping the other women however the use of the roles of women just creates more power for the regime as having a hierarchy of women just creates conflict amongst them so they don’t really see the true enemy which are the men.
Women’s status before Gilead was completely different, women were allowed to have education ” Psychology, English, Economics. We studied things like that, then. ” Giving them a chance to have a career of their own, which earn them their own money allowing them to have choice of what they wanted to buy. Women had much more independence allowing them to think for themselves and make the choices they wanted which I will elaborate on later.
There were women who were feminists in the time before, fighting for their rights and having a voice to rebel against the treating of women because in them days they were seen as sex objects but in a different light through pornography magazines or by seeing them in certain outfits which screamed out sexuality, Offred remembers this because when she walks away from the guard at his post she purposely sways her hips knowing that the guards are staring after her in a sexual sense.
However now the status of women in Gilead is defined by their ability to reproduce, they are treated as objects, all their rights have been stripped away from them they are denied an education, not allowed to have a job, they cannot vote and they are banished from writing or reading. “What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. ” They have no family or possessions they don’t even have their own identity as they are mentioned only with their male owner even the wives are only known through their title as the commander’s wife.
Rebellion and independence is not in the question, the women should never undermine the men or act against the system of the society the only thing that a woman is worth is for the use of her reproductive system and their only job they have is the function they must perform. The body that women once used to express their sexuality, the body they used to feel comfortable in which defined who they were as a person has now become the thing they are now afraid and ashamed of “My nakedness is strange to me already. My body seems outdated.
” They are ashamed of their body because it is now what defines them and keeps them trapped in this wretched society. Although it is the Aunts that have achieved high status as it is up to them to show the handmaids their new way of life and the rules they must abide by, it could be seen that these women have some power of the handmaids but they are not permitted guns like the men do which shows that although the Aunts do have a powerful role with authority it is still men that obtain the ultimate power because women cannot be trusted with guns.