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  • ‘Just a Backlash’:Margaret Atwood, Feminism, and The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Shirley Neuman

Margaret Atwood conceived the Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale as one logical outcome of what she termed the 'strict theocracy' of the 'fundamentalist government' of the United States' Puritan founding fathers.1 Her Gileadean government maintains its power by means of surveillance, suppression of information, 're-education' centres, and totalitarian violence. Its major national issue, sterility consequent on nuclear and chemical pollution, it addresses through sexual surrogacy, turning its few fertile women into 'Handmaids' to its highest-level Commanders and their wives, using as justification the biblical story in which the barren Rachel directs her husband Jacob to 'go in unto' her servant Billah: 'and she shall bear upon my knees, that I also may have children by her' (epigraph).

We learn about Gilead through one of its (self-described) 'two-legged wombs' or 'ambulatory chalices' (128), the Handmaid Offred, who records her story after she has escaped the regime. Caught up in a dystopian state that the novel hypothesizes as the logical extension not only of Puritan government but also of the agenda articulated during the 1980s by America's fundamentalist Christian Right, what Offred knows is that power pervades every aspect of Gileadean life. Power: 'who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death,' 'who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it' (126–27). What Offred also knows is that the temptations of power offer a feminine inflection: 'if you happen to be a man,' she addresses her future reader, 'and you've made it this far, please remember: you will never be subjected to the temptation of feeling you must forgive, a man, as a woman' (126). The novel's outwardly conformist and once independent Offred has seen her social value reduced to reproduction, and her personal freedom completely curtailed. But the retrospective monologue in which she tells her story reveals her as observant of the [End Page 857] gendered configurations of power in both the personal and the political realms, in both 'the time before' and the present of the novel. It also shows her as analytic and ironic about those relations and as capable of using them to her own advantage. Offred, in short, is a fictional product of 1970s feminism, and she finds herself in a situation that is a fictional realization of the backlash against women's rights that gathered force during the early 1980s.

Between 1965, when Atwood wrote her first published novel, The Edible Woman, and 1985 when she published The Handmaid's Tale, women – especially middle-class women like Atwood's heroines – had seen major improvements in their access to higher education and the professions, in employment equity, in access to legal abortion, and in divorce law. Atwood herself had been embraced as a feminist novelist by a panoply of writers and critics representing a wide variety of feminist positions.2 She had responded initially by resisting the label feminist (a label that she noted was sometimes used by reviewers to dismiss her early work), then by carefully defining the kind of feminist she was. By 1976, she described herself as 'probably ... a feminist, in the broad sense of the term' (Sandler, 56), but in a 1979 interview she also found the term insufficiently 'inclusive' of her interests (Gerald and Crabbe, 139). When The Handmaid's Tale was about to appear, Atwood gave an interview to feminist theorist Elizabeth Meese, in which she iterated her definition of feminism as a 'belief in the rights of women ... [as] equal human beings' but in which she also firmly distanced herself from feminist or doctrinaire separatism: she would have no truck with attempts – feminist or otherwise – to control what people write or say, and 'if practical, hardline, anti-male feminists took over and became the government, I would resist them' (Meese, 183). She had put the matter more positively two years earlier, just before she turned to the writing of The Handmaid's Tale: 'Am I a propagandist? No! Am I an observer of society? Yes! And no one who observes society can fail to make observations...