Female rights has been a much criticised and debated social topic in recent history, so much so that many women have been forced to take a stand, to protect their identities and restore equality between the genders. The Handmaids Tale, written by Margaret Atwood, tackles the topic head on, using the character Offred as a martyr to further the cause for women’s individuality. The Handmaids Tale presents the nation of Gilead, a futuristic version of the United States that is ruled by a totalitarian theocracy. Gilead’s formation was due to a dramatically low birth rate, of which led to the formation of a theocratic government whose sole purpose was to control reproduction and ensure the survival of the people. This led to the state assuming control over women through political subjugation. Women are reduced to their fertility, being nothing more than a set of ovaries and a uterus. Gilead seeks to deprive women of their identity to mould them into passive producers of the next generation.
Atwood uses language as a tool of power, shown through the titles of the men and women amongst the society. Where men are known by their military ranking, a woman is simply known by their household position, a martha, wife, or handmaid. To have control over names is to have control over identity, and by having control of names, the state ensures that women remain deprived of individuality. Feminists are marked as ‘unwomen’ making them seem unappealing and, therefore undesirable.
Furthermore men’s titles are descended from god. Soldiers are known as Angels, the police called Guardians of the Faith, and Commanders labelled Commanders of the Faithful. Men are given religious titles to present them as being chosen by god. This illusion is what maintains women’s position in society through faith, or fear, of religion.
In a totalitarian state, Atwood suggests, people will endure oppression willingly so long as they receive some amount of power or freedom. Offred remembers her mother saying that it is “truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.” Offred’s complacency after she begins her relationship with Nick shows the truth of this insight. Her situation restricts her horribly compared to the freedom of her former life; however her relationship with Nick allows her to reclaim a small fragment of her past life. The physical affection and companionship becomes compensation for the strict regime and laws, making them seem more tolerable.
Women in general support Gilead’s existence by willingly participating in it, serving as agents of the totalitarian state. While a woman like Serena Joy has no power in the world of men, she exercises authority within her own household and delights in her tyranny over Offred. She jealously defends what little power she has and wields it fervently. In a similar way, the women known as Aunts, act as willing