What is Margaret Atwood's perspective on feminism?

Canadian author Margaret Atwood

Canadian author Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has all the makings of a patriarchy-smashing book. The novel, recently adapted into a TV series on Hulu, describes a religious autocracy in Massachusetts and Maine. The regime comes to power after its leaders murder the U.S. president, then rapidly strip away citizens’ rights.

In this dystopia called Gilead, women are split into five “castes”: wives, handmaids, marthas, aunts and “unwomen.” The wives are highest in rank, married to “commanders” in the Gileadean government. Handmaids are “walking wombs” who give birth to the commanders’ babies. Marthas are kitchen servants, and aunts are like prison guards: they train handmaids and snap all the women into obedience. The category of “unwomen” consists of deviant females. They’re sent to some unspecified “colonies,” where they clean toxic waste until their skin peels off.

No women are allowed to read. They’re not allowed to work, spend money, or drive. This is patriarchal rule at its most extreme.

Narrated by a miserable 33-year-old handmaid named Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale leads readers to many feminist conclusions. The book has been called a “seminal rite-of-passage novel for many young women,” as well as a “feminist sacred text.” It might surprise you to learn, then, that Margaret Atwood is only lukewarm on calling the novel feminist at all. Right before the Hulu adaptation came out in April, Atwood wrote in The New York Times:

Is The Handmaid’s Tale a “feminist” novel? If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are “feminist.”

Atwood seems to say there are several “feminisms” we can define. One kind of feminism supposedly puts women on a pedestal, ever the model of angelic perfection. Another version claims women “are so victimized they are incapable of moral choice.” And a third, which Atwoods seems most comfortable promoting, is the feminism that states women are full and flawed human beings.

An illustration of the handmaids in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Illustration by the Balbusso Sisters, 2012. Credit: Fine Books Magazine & The Folio Society.

An illustration of the handmaids in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Illustration by the Balbusso Sisters, 2012. Credit: Fine Books Magazine & The Folio Society.

Part of me agrees with Atwood, in the sense that feminism is absolutely about seeing woman as complete and equal humans. But another voice in my head protests against Atwood’s assumption that feminism would ever imply women are angelic or incapable of moral choice. Aren’t those beliefs explicitly anti-feminist? The definition of feminism, after all, has nothing to do with the superiority of women, or their decision-making capabilities. The common definition, straight from Merriam Webster, describes feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.”

What might motivate Atwood’s distinction between women-as-humans and women-as-angels is her strong belief that females are capable of cruelty and can uphold patriarchal norms. She emphasizes:

Yes, women will gang up on other women. Yes, they will accuse others to keep themselves off the hook: We see that very publicly in the age of social media, which enables group swarmings. Yes, they will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power: All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none. (New York Times)

Her observation is astute: the less power women have as a whole, the easier it is to hoard what little power we manage to gain. In The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s wives and aunts who help imprison women of lower social status. Of course, neither the wives nor the aunts have reading or driving or working privileges. What they do have is the opportunity to control other women.

One of the most alarming aspects of Atwood’s dystopia is that the society justifies sexist tyranny through feminist ideals. Gileadeans make all sorts of remarks about how their social structure protects women from rape and encourages respect for motherhood. Apparently, these were major feminist topics in the 1980s, when Atwood published The Handmaid's Tale. According to the writer Kristina Ontrad, "At the time, the Christian evangelical movement was finding common ground in the United States with anti-porn feminists, and the ethics of surrogacy were hotly debated." In her Times article from this past spring, Atwood frames her novel's aunts and wives in a 1980s context:

They are adept at taking some of the stated aims of 1984 feminism — like the anti-porn campaign and greater safety from sexual assault — and turning them to their own advantage. (New York Times)

Atwood warns against the risks of taking feminist causes at face value. Her perspective is that it’s too easy to shout feminism while actively participating in movements that restrict women’s freedom. Just look at Ivanka Trump’s (non)-feminist overtures, like publishing a book about working women while advancing her “grab them by the you-know-where” father’s agenda. Atwood reminds us that a healthy dose of skepticism is always in order.
 

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