A Story of Sarahs: Atwood’s Critique of Second-Wave Feminism
Demonstrators walk up the U.S. Supreme Court steps to voice opposition to Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the court on Wednesday, September 30, 2020. Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images
By Mara Willard
The centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States arrives at a moment when many Americans are renewing a civil rights movement to assert that “Black Lives Matter.” Justifiably, the story of women’s liberation is being revisited as more than the unbearable whiteness of the suffragettes and the bra burners. In a country where the killing of Breonna Taylor has yet to receive legal recognition, there is little patience for the victories and complaints of white, often college-educated women. Books such as Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot rightly receive praise for attention overdue to the diversity of women change makers.
Then again, this is a time of grief and rage for many second-wave feminists themselves. Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill have long since left Capitol Hill, but Justice Kavanaugh has mounted the bench and Joe Biden is the nation’s best hope for unseating the pussy-grabber-in-chief. “Warren has a plan for that” T-shirts are at the back of the drawer with yesteryear’s “Stacey Abrams for Governor” and “I’m with Her.” Justice Ginsburg, may your memory be a blessing.
Also on the rise are books that grapple as much with the shortcomings of second-wave feminism as with its accomplishments. As is often the case for women’s writing, reflection and analysis have been worked out in the form of the novel. I’m thinking of the intergenerational wrestling that occurs within Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything, Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, and Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir. Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, is one such retrospective on second-wave feminism.
Readers of the 1985 Handmaid’s Tale will recall the novel as a dystopic experimental mating of two anxious cultural movements of their moment: a white Cambridge-and-Ann-Arbor feminism with an aspirational “family values” Christian right. Atwood shows how these mutually repulsed bedfellows were also oddly synergistic. The Republic of Gilead is the result of opportunists of the new right seizing the opportunity to bring females under the “protection” of an explicitly patriarchal rule. Here, women with reproductive potential become wards of a state-sponsored matriarchy that instructs them in their grim lot of surrogacy. In the novel, our idiosyncratic protagonist, Offred, is reduced to functional anonymity in her long red cloak and white Dutch bonnet. Within, she rages and scrambles in her attempts to grasp breath and the life she had lived “before.”
Offred, the Handmaid, tells her tale as an eyewitness account. The Aunts, primarily Lydia and Elizabeth, oversee the “re-education” of women who have to be taught to forget they ever had a bank card or a family to call their own. These disciplinary Aunts in brown train the Handmaids for a new regime of terror and isolation. They are to keep their distance from the Marthas, the housekeepers and cooks. And the “Econowives”? No one really wants to know. Offred is desperate to feel her way to fellow resistance in the hermetically sealed new world. But the men of Gilead—the Guardians, the Eyes (the secret police)—have every interest in her surveillance. The form this availability takes is not always clean.
As a Handmaid, Offred is also a piece of tail. Her assigned lot in Gilead is to perform as a maternal surrogate for a Commander and his Wife when the latter cannot conceive. It happens that the reproductive site that Offred fulfills is that of Serena Joy, a former televangelist. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale for The New Republic, cultural analyst Sarah Jones draws a direct line between Serena Joy and Paula White. “Her existence is proof of American fundamentalism’s durability, and a reminder that it could not thrive without the enthusiastic backing of women,” writes Jones.1 Offred’s own observations bring to mind Phyllis Schlafly. “[Serena] doesn’t make speeches anymore,” she notes. “She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word” (Handmaid, 56).
Atwood’s skill as a writer is on full display in The Handmaid’s Tale. She defers and frustrates her readers’ drive for best-seller gratification. The novel is nearing its end when Offred discloses a key event: “after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the congress, and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time” (174). Just how the (male) Commanders and Guardians have staged a successful coup against the U.S. republic is not revealed. Nor is how Gilead came to its end—disclosed only is that the regime did end—for us to know.
In The Testaments, Atwood extends the plot of The Handmaid’s Tale both forward and backward in time. She provides the narrative satisfaction of just how Commanders and Guardians staged their successful coup against American liberal democracy, circa 1985.
As in The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrative voice is confessional. But like the Christian Bible, and unlike the original novel, this later book is composed of multiple first-person vantage points. New female voices render the narrative of how Gilead was formed, and the causes of its demise.
Aunt Lydia, foundational to the new theo-dispensation, is a key storyteller. Her confession reveals a pragmatist, not a true believer. (Of the four founding Aunts, only Vidala worked with zeal to realize the vision of Gilead.) Lydia had been a judge in Washington, D.C., an advocate for and practitioner of family law, before being swept up in the coup. Her life before Gilead evokes that of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hillary Rodham and other first-generation women who entered and changed the legal profession. The feminism of the 1980s invested in formal and institutional mechanisms of equality to make society and law gender neutral. (Add Rodham: A Novel, by Curtis Sittenfeld, to the list of books in which white women can’t stop looking back.)
Under conditions of gross coercion, Lydia was sufficiently self-disciplined during a time of crisis to bargain for survival by establishing Gilead’s shadow matriarchy. She co-opts power from male privilege under the Christian logic of gender complementarity. In order for the women’s sphere to be truly distinct, she maintains, it must be woman-administered.
Lydia invents “laws, uniforms, slogans, hymns, names” for Gilead and reports her proposals to the Commander. “For those concepts he approved, he took the credit” (177–78). In the separate sphere that she walls off from male surveillance, the Aunts oversee the training in pronatal and subservient female Christian education. As she institutionalizes the logic of biblical womanhood, she and the Commander play one another for dupes. The Aunts enjoy the meager privileges of relative autonomy and tea at the Schlafly Café. Some will recognize the repurposing of buildings at Harvard and Radcliffe. “Veritas” has been painted out in favor of a surveilling eye. Atwood winks. Foucault shrugs. He knows it has always been thus.
The regime in Gilead is a biblical, Pauline Protestantism. Even so, the community, with its libraries, hints at bygone communities of Catholic women religious. This can be an occasion for insider anti-Catholic jokes, as when Aunt Lydia hides her personal papers in her research on the Apologia Pro Vita Sua. (“ ‘Such a notorious heretic,’ ” she is chastised. “ ‘Know your enemy,’ ” Lydia curtly replies .)
Aunt Lydia grows old and increases her substantial power. Her humiliation includes the dismantling of her prior commitments to feminism and political liberalism. In her adult realism, Lydia looks back with shame. “Stupid, stupid, stupid: I’d believed all that claptrap about life, liberty, democracy, and the rights of the individual I’d soaked up at law school. As if they were eternal verities and we would always defend them. I’d depended on that, as if on a magic charm” (116). Atwood leaves it up to the reader to judge whether such survival was shrewd or scheming. “Did I hate the structure we were concocting?” writes Lydia in her testament. “On some level, yes: it was a betrayal of everything we’d been taught in our former lives, and of all that we’d achieved. Was I proud of what we managed to accomplish, despite the limitations? Also, on some level, yes. Things are never simple” (178).
The Aunts’ power depends upon the rule of gendered elite spheres in which privileged young women are socialized through “texts of terror” from the Bible, rendering them fit to serve as Wives of men of the Commander caste. But the machinery of Atwood’s plot (and Lydia’s eventual revenge) depends upon its exception. The founding generation is aging, and for Gilead to survive, some women of the second generation must learn to read and to write. Lydia calls select younger women to the exceptional status of “Aunt,” where they will maintain the hard regime. The novel is spliced with first-hand witnesses of these women, who would facilitate the routinization (or the fall?) of Gilead’s empire.
As the Trump/Pence ticket gained momentum, The Handmaid’s Tale drove to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list, overtaking George Orwell’s 1984. I recall this well because in 2016, in advance of the presidential election, I taught The Handmaid’s Tale at the University of Oklahoma. The class was composed mostly of evangelical Christian young women. They were on their way to degrees, and purity rings were objects of discussion. Would the novel hold up? Would my students relate? Would they rebel? Mostly, they were intrigued by Atwood’s world.
Beyond Norman, Oklahoma, the relationship between conservative Christianity and the American polity had been dormant since the 1990s. But with the Trump/Pence victory, The Handmaid’s Tale was renewed as a site for cultural debates. Some found clear connections. “Our President is a Playboy-brash predator; his Vice-President is pure Gilead,” Emily Nussbaum wrote in The New Yorker.2 Jia Tolentino also found unmistakable parallels. “The current President has bragged about grabbing women ‘by the pussy,’ ” she wrote, “and the Vice-President is a man who, as governor of Indiana, signed a law that required fetal remains of miscarriages and abortions, at any stage of pregnancy, to be cremated or buried.”3 Others, such as Ross Douthat, refused the comparison. He dismissed The Handmaid’s Tale as a “feminist fever dream of how the religious right might rule,” and also declared its return impossibly time-bound. The world of Offred, wrote Douthat, required imagining a time “when a backlash against women in the workforce was a meaningful part of social-conservative politics.”4 Just imagine.
A television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale raised the visibility of Offred’s red cloak. The show, produced by MGM and Hulu, was announced in April 2016 with a Super Bowl ad. It premiered a year later as an immensely successful multiseason series. (Atwood gave approval and aid.) The space of play that Atwood had created in 1985 claimed its power in the public square more than 30 years later. The red, hooded cloak appeared at the Kavanaugh hearings and has since been worn at protests around the globe. The persona of the handmaid provided a signifier of state-sanctioned misogyny and control of female reproductive freedom. Elisabeth Moss, the actor who portrayed Offred on TV, compared The Handmaid’s Tale to Trump’s administration.5 Nussbuam commented on its “grotesque timeliness.” Especially in its opening, “the Trumpian parallels are hard to miss. It’s a story about a government that exploits fear of Islamic terrorists to crush dissent, then blots out women’s reproductive rights. It’s about fake news, political trauma, the abnormal normalized,” she wrote. “There’s a scene that so directly evoked the Women’s March that I had to hit Pause to collect myself.”6 The present collapsed into Atwood’s past projection of the future.
Atwood has been reasonably transparent in acknowledging that, with The Testaments, she is feeding grist to the television drama. Critics have also been quick to grasp how imminently the sequel feeds production of The Handmaid’s Tale series. Tolentino’s comment is particularly poignant. She marks the shift in consumption of the story, “from a niche world that commanded mainstream interest into a mainstream phenomenon that seems to target a shrinking niche.”7
Religious apologetics in The Testaments are slight, but they are present. Although Atwood is not kind to hypocrites, this novel teaches a pathos that brings back to me those dear, talented students of 2016. “God isn’t what they say,” one young protagonist tells her female friend. “[Becka] said you could believe in Gilead or you could believe in God, but you could not believe in both” (304). When a smart young person begins to reckon with the duplicity that inhabits her culture, whether conservative or liberal, she is bound to struggle with loneliness. As one protagonist describes her crisis of faith, a tenderness worthy of George Eliot breaks through: “If you’ve never had a faith, you will not understand what that means,” she confesses. “You feel as if your best friend is dying; that everything that defined you is being burned away; that you’ll be left all alone. You feel exiled, as if you are lost in a dark wood” (303).
Many find Atwood’s continued conversation with politics of gender and power to be more salutary than the novel is, unto itself. A sort of under-edited, lumbering quality to The Testaments also fits with the energy of dread that saturates life under COVID-19 in the late Trump administration. Still, The Testaments was joint winner of the 2019 Man Booker Prize, an honor that it shared with Bernardine Evaristo’s novel Girl, Woman, Other. It was also voted Best Fiction in the Goodreads Choice Awards 2019 and shortlisted for the 2020 Fiction Book of the Year in the British Book Awards.
But it is the original novel that will be handed down, hidden in closets with the inter-generational shibboleth, “Illegitimi non car-borundum.” Joyce Carol Oates captures its power, writing that “we don’t remember The Handmaid’s Tale because it was palatable. We remember it because it told us something uncomfortable about ourselves and the tragedies contained in our futures.”8 Atwood has not abandoned this insight. In The Testaments, Aunt Lydia reflects on moral luck: “How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? you will ask. You yourself would never have done such things! But you yourself will never have had to” (303).
Offred and Lydia did ugly things to survive. In The Testaments, Atwood has also opened windows to indirect implications. The Wives in the sequel are rendered less pathetic than Serena Joy. They are nihilists, yes, and lonely, but they also live well in their own luxe way. Many critics find that Atwood is holding up a mirror that captures not only a “them,” a self-interested, false-consciousness of projected Stepford Wife life, but also reflects back an “us,” an elite composed disproportionately of white women of economic and status security. The “us” with time to read novels, peruse New Yorker reviews, and, with a bit of self-congratulation, don a red cloak for a protest march. Atwood’s fictional world is rightly challenged for its race blindness, which is to say its presumed whiteness. But, read as critique, the implied racialization of the Gilead hierarchy is no error. The Wives eat cakes baked by someone off stage, dress daughters born by surrogates, and don’t wonder about the housing of the women that clean their houses. In the new novel, Atwood is raising questions of female complicity with patriarchal power more pointedly. The ways in which some women secure and advance themselves through alliance with male privilege collide in an interesting manner with the ways that women profit from class privilege. Conservative analysts have raised related interpretations about the costs of women’s lib. Charlotte Allen, in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, charges “secular liberal elites” with creating the conditions suffered by the handmaidens of today: “Today’s overclass Wives typically hold Ivy League degrees, ‘lean in’ to high-status careers, and stand with Planned Parenthood.”9
So read, Atwood’s sequel is a story of not only Marys and Marthas, but also of Sarahs—the matriarch who both conscripts Hagar and casts her out. By 2020, these questions about second-wave feminism’s intersection with class and race, under conditions of late neoliberalism, are the ones that need asking.
As an imagined world, the Gilead of The Testaments opens fifteen years after the story has closed on Offred. Atwood’s return to the republic is particularly powerful because both author and reader share access to life that has occurred in the historical world. She, and we, have lived through news of Bill Clinton, Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein, and Jeffrey Epstein. There are other stories that Atwood could readily spin into tragedies: the families separated by U.S. border agents and Black lives that aren’t treated as if they matter. The Pulse Nightclub, Sandy Hook Elementary, and a Charleston prayer circle have been shot up. The planet is on fire. But for this novel, at least, Atwood’s thought-line still leaves plenty to discuss.
In Hindsight, religion is the coercive, patriarchal “them” from which second-wave feminism sought liberation. Few remember the 1980s as a time when women successfully asserted authority within religious institutions. Yet these were years when women succeeded in claiming leadership roles in many mainline Christian communities. The publication of The Handmaid’s Tale coincided with groundbreaking feminist scholarship in biblical interpretation. Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza introduced her feminist Catholic hermeneutical project In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins in 1983. In Texts of Terror: Literary-feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (1984), Protestant biblical scholar Phyllis Trible demonstrated that practicing feminist hermeneutics did not require relinquishing biblical faith. Catholics for a Free Choice purchased and ran the infamous New York Times advertisement that same year. Roman Catholic theologians, priests, and lay thought leaders signed the “Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion,” offering implicit cover for Geraldine Ferraro’s pro-choice commitments.
Of course, the tide turned, and new popular media are beginning to historicize second-wave feminism, and its backlash. Gloria Steinem is the subject of an HBO documentary and an award-winning play. The hit television series Mrs. America, also produced by Hulu, is another return to 1980s politics of gender and sexuality. Based loosely on conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly’s counter-movement against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, the show taught a new generation the importance of conservative women in turning the tide against the feminist movement. This is a conversation that Jones wants to bring further into the light. Writing for The New Republic, she used the Hulu series to address the phenomenon of conservative Christian women who took the Trump/Pence ticket to the White House.10
In Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976–1980 (Simon & Schuster 2020), Rick Perlstein details the contingency of the successful coalition of the “New Right” and the narrow margin of the president’s election. Jimmy Carter was the original born-again president and “was a very big supporter of the ERA and, actually, lobbied very strongly for it.” According to Perlstein’s research, the New Right advanced once its tacticians grasped this as a liability and that, accordingly, Carter could “be yoked to people who thought that gays should not be discriminated against on the job.”11
Scholars of religion and culture are having their research confirmed. Janet Jakobsen identified the success of the Christian New Right with its own naturalization. “The antipathy between nonreproductive sex and Christian conservatism has achieved the ultimate ideological goal,” she wrote at the turn of the millennium: “that of appearing so self-evident as to pass unexamined.”12 From another quarter of academe, W. Bradford Wilcox looks back to observe that “Although pronatalism and rigid sexual mores have long been a conservative touchstone, the Right’s newly obsessive focus on reproduction first took shape in the early 1970s.” This brings us to the cultural obsessions that underwrite Gilead: “the pair of sexual issues that insulated straight men themselves from criticism: abortion and homosexuality—crimes against reproduction—eclipsed much more broad-based sexual issues like rising divorce rates and heterosexual infidelity.”13
Bethany Moreton is among those who explore the necessary and not contingent relationship among feminism, neoliberalism, and conservative Christianity. Analyzing “the positive content of sexual conservatism itself,” she considers “the overlap between domestic economy and political economy.” She allows us to read The Handmaid’s Tale differently, perceiving now how “the content of American religious conservatism owes a great deal to the shape of international economic realignment, and vice versa.”14
“I picture you as a young woman, bright, ambitious,” Aunt Lydia confesses in some of the final lines of The Testaments. The reluctant founding matriarch imagines herself standing over the shoulder of a young graduate student, who is in turn reading Lydia’s testament. “You’ll be looking to make a niche for yourself in whatever dim, echoing caverns of academia may still exist by your time.” Atwood’s description may be piercing, yet her message is not mocking. In this imagined tableau, Lydia figures herself behind her protégée as “your muse, your unseen inspiration, urging you on” (403). Aunts grow old, and generations turn. Whether our arrival is, in the words of Lydia, “in suits and nice haircuts,” or we look back and have “done it with scholarships and working nights at crappy jobs,” we too will behave badly, cruelly, stupidly (116). We will betray former aspirations to purity. Atwood indicts women but reminds us that generations stand behind us, both berating and encouraging us on.
- Sarah Jones, “The Handmaid’s Tale Is a Warning to Conservative Women: Hulu’s Adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Novel Lays Bare the Horrors of Collusion with the Patriarchy,” The New Republic, April 20, 2017.
- Emily Nussbaum, “A Cunning Adaptation of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ ” The New Yorker, May 15, 2017.
- Jia Tolentino, “Margaret Atwood Expands the World of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ ” The New Yorker, September 16, 2019.
- Ross Douthat, “The Handmaid’s Tale, and Ours,” The New York Times, May 24, 2017.
- Jessica Chasmar, “Elisabeth Moss Compares ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ to Trump’s America: ‘We’re Losing’ Our Country,” The Washington Times, April 8, 2019.
- Nussbaum, “A Cunning Adaptation.”
- Jia Tolentino, “Margaret Atwood Expands the World” The New Yorker, September 16, 2019.
- Joyce Carol Oates, “Margaret Atwood’s Tale,” The New York Review of Books, November 2, 2006.
- Charlotte Allen, “Living ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’—Courtesy of the Secular Liberal Elites of L.A.,” Los Angeles Times, May 2, 2017.
- Jones, “The Handmaid’s Tale Is a Warning.”
- “ ‘Reaganland’ Author Revisits the Roots of American Conservatism,” an interview with Rick Perlstein, by Dave Davies, Fresh Air, August 28, 2020.
- Janet R. Jakobsen, “Can Homosexuals End Western Civilization as We Know It? Family Values in a Global Economy,” in Queer Globalizations: Citizenship and the Afterlife of Colonialism, ed. Arnaldo Cruz-Malave and Martin F. Manalansan IV (NYU Press, 2002), 49–50. See also Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance (NYU Press, 2003).
- W. Bradford Wilcox, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (Chicago University Press, 2004), 46.
- Bethany Moreton, “Why Is There So Much Sex in Christian Conservatism and Why Do So Few Historians Care Anything about It?” The Journal of Southern History 75, no. 3 (August 2009): 717–38; Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Harvard University Press, 2009).
Mara Willard, MDiv ’04, PhD ’11, teaches at Boston College and researches at the intersection of religion, ethics, and politics in the twentieth century.