Opinion: what were the worldwide events involving women and the environment which influenced Margaret Atwood when she wrote her masterpiece?

By Asmae OurkiyaMary Immaculate College

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale uses a futuristic, critical and yet apocalyptic lens to look at the subordination of women’s bodies and the degradation of the environment. Initially published in Canada in 1985 and in the United States in 1986, the book received a lot of criticism since it was perceived as age-inappropriate as well as full of profanity and lurid passages.

It is important to keep in mind that Atwood was highly influenced by the Iranian Revolution in 1979 as well as environmental incidents such as the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, which was considered as the worst nuclear accident in US history. In addition to this, she was worried about the counter-attack against the second wave of feminism.

These concerns are projected in Atwood's masterpiece. The story is set in a dystopian version of the US (now known as the Republic of Gilead) taken over by Christians who chose to impose an oppressive system on the country based on an idiosyncratic version of the Old Testament. Women are assigned different roles based on their abilities. Some are forced to work in areas destroyed by nuclear attacks (the colonies), some forced to be servants (the marthas) and others, the Handmaids, forced to bear children for "righteous" couples who were incapable of having children.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Sorcha Kenny previews Season 3 of The Handmaid's Tale

In the novel, Atwood writes that the sudden decrease in birth rates was caused by different chemicals and nuclear bombs. "Stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic  deformities were widespread and on the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various  nuclear-plant  accidents,  shutdowns,  and  incidents  of sabotage  that  characterized  the  period,  as  well  as  to  leakages  from chemical- and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic-waste disposal sites". 

The author paid special attention to the degradation of the environment in her description of Gilead. The world she created is a radiation-soaked one with chemicals that ruined the lands. She provides explicit descriptions of how landscapes changed and how America as we know it today became a hopeless place due to the aftermath of wars. "The other Colonies are worse, though, the toxic dumps and the radiation spills. They figure you've got three years maximum, at those, before your nose falls off and your skin pulls away like rubber gloves. They don't  bother  to  feed  you  much,  or  give  you  protective  clothing  or anything, it's cheaper not to." 

This degradation was caused by the use of nuclear weapons, pollution, and other irresponsible actions against nature. The land itself is highly damaged and so are humans. People are no longer able to conceive children because of the chemicals and radiations they were exposed to, which was the reason behind the genesis of a regime that uses fertile women's wombs for reproduction. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy Show, an interview with novelist, poet, critic and environmental activist Margaret Atwood about discuss dystopian fiction and what the future might hold for humanity

The connection between the subordination of nature and the domination of women in the novel can be seen in the way women became a scarce commodity once the country’s environment degraded and there was a need for reproduction. Atwood was aware of the atrocities happening around the world which impacted women and their decisions concerning their bodies and she was strongly influenced by Romania’s suppression of abortion rights.

Communist president Nicolae Ceausescu issued Decree 770 in 1966 banning women from contraception as well as abortion. His aim was to increase the country's population in order to break free from the Soviet Union’s hegemony. This decree caused the death of thousands of women who opted for illegal abortions and at-home miscarriages. Atwood believes that anti-abortion laws are a "form of slavery", and that such laws result in dead women and orphans:

"For those who don't remember it, (Ceausescu) mandated four children per woman and you had to have a pregnancy test every month. And if you did not get pregnant you had to state why — you know, why you had not gotten pregnant. It was nuts. And it did result in a number of suicides and the number of kids being put into orphanages with no proper care at all. I mean, it was just horrible." 

From RTÉ News, a 2014 report on the 25th anniversary of the death of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu

In the novel, women were reduced to their fertility status. The woman’s womb was treated as a scarce commodity and women who were "fruitful" were exploited to the fullest. The mate => reproduce => nurture => repeat cycle became their only way of survival to avoid being sent to the colonies.

Because reproduction requires intercourse between a male and a female, homosexuality, or what Atwood called "gender treachery", became punishable by death. Men and women who were sexually attracted to the same gender were sentenced to death. Having access to the bodies of women regardless of their sexuality for the sake of fulfilling reproduction goals is a commodification of the capacities of what a healthy womb can provide. Is Atwood’s novel purely fiction? Or are we all part of a soon-to-be Gilead?

Asmae Ourkiya is a PhD student in Ecofeminism at Mary Immaculate College


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ