“There is more than one kind of freedom. In the days of anarchy, it was ‘freedom to.’ Now, you’re being given ‘freedom from.’ Don’t underrate it.”
—The Handmaid’s Tale
The first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, it was just after it was published in the mid-1980s. Thinking back, I remember the book being a quick read, with an interesting take on a dystopian future scenario which depicted a fundamentalist Christian political resurgence born out of the decadent, free-wheeling sexual and economic liberation of the late 20th century. In the story, women are reduced to chattel and are forced into marriage, servitude or sexual slavery by the Commanders of the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States of America. Education and reading are forbidden, heretics are executed and hung on a wall for all to see, women have no rights and can’t own property and the all-seeing eye of the government is based on fundamentalist, old testament “values” that preserve male superiority and control. I was in my early 20s and proud to have been an active participant in a decade of progress in women’s rights, the firm cementing of women’s choice in health care decisions, growing women’s employment and financial independence (even though it was the middle of the Reagan-era). I thought the allegory made for a good read, but seemed a bit far-fetched.
Hearing recently that two local women got 2000+ people to sign a petition to remove The Handmaid’s Tale (and others) from the suggested (not required) Summer reading list for Senior AP English students at my son’s high school, claiming that it “denigrates Christianity” and contains “pornography,” I was a bit surprised. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “I don’t remember anything about that book being even remotely steamy.” I did remember the repressive, puritanical regime and at the time I first read the book, I thought it pushed the envelope of possibility. Thinking about it again, in light of the most recent attempts at reigniting the so-called “culture wars,” in particular this small skirmish here in my own neighborhood, I wondered how I would feel about it today. So, I did what too often isn’t done in these situations: I downloaded a copy from the library to my Kindle and gave it a re-read.