Three years ago, I replaced George Orwell’s 1984 with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in my Future Fiction course; three years later, and the novel carries more cultural currency today than its 1985 print. Atwood’s narrator Offred is captured by Gilead, a Puritan totalitarian territory situated in what was once Harvard University. As Offred learns to navigate her new surroundings, the reader must confront the awful truth: every woman in Gilead is property- they are forbidden to read, to have income, to work outside the home- and the toxic aftermath of war has left many women infertile (because in Gilead, men are never presumed infertile). Because her ovaries are healthy, Offred is forced to become a handmaid and assigned to a couple; Offred is meant to serve Commander much like Sara’s handmaids in the Bible. Offred will bear child for another woman; her uterus is an offering, if you will.
When I introduce Offred to Madeira students, many of them see the novel as a cautionary tale, an imagining of what could happen. This year, the sexual allegations against Kavanaugh were made public midway through the novel and class that day felt more like a realistic view of status quo. As a teacher, the Kavanaugh confirmation is exactly that- a realization that so much more still needs to be done. It isn’t about politics and it isn’t about a president. It’s recognizing that in many ways, society is still trying to protect women by disarming them. On one hand, our society has recognized that gender constructivism in children’s toys constricts their expression of identity and yet on the other, we have a political system that turned what should have been a informed, patient investigation into affirmation that calendars are enough to make liars of women. Calendars.
So much of teaching The Handmaid’s Tale has become an acknowledgement of male privilege and the realization that more still needs to be done. Regardless of political party affiliation, many women today feel similar tensions articulated in the feminists movements of the 1980s; many young women feel the tightening grip of a still male-dominated world. It was in this vein that I accepted an invitation from the Gonzaga School to host a symposium of female readers from Madeira in dialogue with the male readers of Gonzaga. Our discussions were lively, our students were impressive, and I felt progress not so far away as I meandered around the room: “The problem isn’t that Offred is female; the problem is how society codes femininity” explains a Madeira student, “to be feminine is to be weak, to need protection. Any other behavior is met with double standards and negativity.” I see the Gonzaga students nod in agreement, “We [men] need to say this too. We need to say these things because we are the ones who can.”
These young men are right; for now. I leave knowing at least there is a younger generation of men willing to call themselves feminists. And for now, that’s a step in the right direction. After all, as Atwood reminds us, “Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.”