Margaret Atwood’s new Handmaid’s Tale sequel was inspired by modern sexism, according to Variety. The new book, titled The Testaments, picks up 15 years after the original and explores misogyny and theocratic prejudice. The original brilliantly wove themes of feminism and religion.
It’s no coincidence that famed author Margaret Atwood began working on a sequel to her hit novel The Handmaid’s Tale in February of 2017. Variety noted that her work began the month after Donald Trump moved into the White House; and in an interview, she mentioned that many people who claim to espouse personal freedoms don’t seem to believe those freedoms extend to women. The original book, published in 1985, focused on a near-future Puritan fundamentalist society in which, faced with low fertility rates, fertile women become brood mares for the state and property of men. Its social commentary is dynamic and hard-hitting.
The Republic of Gilead
In The Handmaid’s Tale, society largely attributes the infertility problem to God’s judgment on a secular society that engaged in sex for pleasure rather than reproduction.
“To take control of the government, the Puritans assassinated the president and Congress and then blamed Islamic fundamentalists,” said Dr. David Kyle Johnson, Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “This enabled them to suspend the Constitution, establish martial law, and eventually institute a Christian theocratic government known as The Republic of Gilead, in which women are denied the right to own property, have money, maintain a job—even read.”
Furthermore, any woman not married to her first husband is sent to a re-education center to be indoctrinated to the duty of bearing children for the government elite. Dr. Johnson noted that despite being considered a science fiction novel, The Handmaid’s Tale features no science or technology that doesn’t already exist, nor do Gilead’s cruelty and extreme circumstances extend beyond history—some societies have treated women exactly this way.
It’s difficult to know which is more shocking: the cruelty of the society in the novel or that it has such strong parallels in history.
First-Wave Feminism and The Handmaid’s Tale
Historically speaking, feminism in the West has come in three large and distinct movements, also called waves. The Handmaid’s Tale deals primarily with the first wave of feminism.
“First-wave feminism’s breakout moment was the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848,” Dr. Johnson said. “Written primarily by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments argued that women and men were naturally equal, and proposed a political strategy by which women could attain equal access and opportunity in the political system.”
First-wave feminism is mostly known for women’s suffrage, and is generally agreed to have ended when women were granted the right to vote. “But first-wave feminists also founded the temperance movement—trying to protect themselves against domestic abuse at the hands of alcoholic husbands—and fought for the abolition of slavery,” Dr. Johnson said. “After all, both women and slaves were fighting against white male dominance and many first-wave feminists were women of color, like Maria Stewart, Frances Harper, and Sojourner Truth.”
Although The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in an unspecified future, women have been stripped of the rights that first-wave feminism earned, as mentioned above. “The place of the women is once again in the home—only in the home—and reproduction and the care of husbands and children is their only role,” Dr. Johnson said. “Men dominate society and women, like the Puritans did in the 1600s. One moral of the story must be to not take the accomplishments of first-wave feminism for granted.”
The Handmaid’s Tale has been made into a successful television series on Hulu. And according to Variety, MGM and Hulu are developing the new novel, The Testaments, for TV and discussing whether it might be incorporated into the series.
Dr. David Kyle Johnson contributed to this article. Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He earned a master’s degree and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma. At Oklahoma, he won the coveted Kenneth Merrill Graduate Teaching Award.