The Oppression Of Women In The Handmaid’s Tale By Margaret Atwood

Women in history have more often than not been on the short end of the stick. It is amazing to see that women around most parts of the world share equal status with men. However, progress today did not come easy. It came to be with the countless efforts of many throughout the years. From the likes Malala Yousafzai, Rosa Parks, Nellie McClung, and Susan B. Anthony, all these women contributed to the success women have today. What Margaret Atwood wrote was an alternate to this mentality. She created a dystopian society in which the lives of women were oppressed, and power was not only in the hands of men but also with a few women. The Republic of Gilead took advantage of the negative aspects of women’s lives and used it as an excuse for their unjust constitution. Many problems arose from the laws meant to “protect women”, from jealousy and taunting between the handmaids to the inability to think clearly after the brainwashing that has taken place. Margaret Atwood illustrates the theme of oppression against women in The Handmaid's Tale through the consequences of implementing unjust laws to protect women.

One of the key issues that Gilead attempted to solve was the declining birth rate. In the times before Gilead, there were various issues that contributed to the reduction in births. There was the “spread availability of birth control” such as abortion and contraceptives, the “infamous AIDS epidemic” and the “leakages from chemical - and biological - warfare”. These conditions lead to the birth rate to become “a slippery slope, down past the zero lines of replacement, and down and down”. The women before “believed there would be no future, they thought the world would explode … They said there was no sense inbreeding … They were lazy women”. According to Gilead, the women before focused on money and their jobs before their own families and children. Women no longer cared about the world but only cared for their selfish desires. This was unacceptable behaviour for the regime. And so they first removed any money or property that the women-owned and transferred it to their closest male relative. Then, to protect women from living a life of choice, the principle that women should be able to live freely, a women’s purpose was now to repopulate the community.

Gilead only allowed sex to occur between either a man and his wife or a man with his handmaid. No contraceptives were allowed anymore, and those who attempted to have an abortion would be executed. No romance was allowed between the handmaids and commanders during sex. The handmaids became a tool of the government, whose only purpose was to reproduce. These new laws would allow women to “fulfil their biological destinies in peace”. Those who could not conceive a child would be sent to the colonies, Gilead’s labour camps. Aunt Lydia best summed up their fears as she said, “Some of you will fall on dry ground or thorns. Some of you are shallow-rooted. … Think of yourselves as seeds”. This need to become pregnant sparked hatred among the handmaids, as no one wanted to be sent to the colonies. Competition erupted among them to see who was able to have a baby. Janine, known as Ofwarren, was showing off her baby bump to the other handmaids while shopping. The other handmaids considered this a selfish act of attention, to simply display her success and put the others to shame. It is quite a sad spectacle to have women be filled with hatred when seeing one be pregnant. Normally, a person would congratulate a woman for having a baby, but the bitterness and cold feelings towards Janine have been caused by the extreme measure put in placed by the government. The fight for survival has taken out any feelings that a handmaid may feel and forces them to only consider their own needs.

In order for Gilead to survive, the handmaids were indoctrinated into the extreme views of Gilead. The purpose of it was to make the girls forget everything of their past life and protect them from the morbid thoughts and lifestyle that once existed. At the Rachel and Leah Center, the aunts taught the handmaids the way one should think in the eyes of Gilead and to forget their past life. One such ideology was the principle that all acts that harmed women were always the women’s fault. During Testifying, Janine described her morbid accounts of getting “gang-raped at the age of fourteen and had an abortion”. Then, instead of considering which side was to blame, the Aunt Helena instantly says, “But whose fault was it? ...Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison. Who led them on? … She did. She did. She did. Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen? Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson”. This quote shows the brainwashing that is taking place in Gilead. These women are being taught to believe that everything they do is their fault. Their ideology is that men can do no wrong, and women are to blame for all their actions. Even if the reason that a handmaid cannot reproduce is that a man is sterile, there is no such thing. It is her fault for being unable to conceive as Offred says, “There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that's the law”. Gilead is creating this patriarchy in which men are pure and women are not. There have been instances of similar ideologies in the world before, the most predominate example being Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany in 1933 when he started to spread his extreme views. He called the Aryan race the “master race” and that the Jews were to blame for everything. This propaganda spread like wildfire in Germany, and soon enough, the Holocaust took the lives of six million Jews. The effects of the propaganda lead to the German citizens into believing what they did was right. This effect is also seen in The Handmaid’s Tale.

The indoctrination of the handmaids takes a toll on the mental state that is clearly seen through Offred. She at first resists believing in the Gilead regime as she says, “The door of the room - not my room, I refuse to say my”. Offred still believed that there was a way out of this and that this community was only temporary. But as time passed, she slowly started to adhere to the laws of Gilead. She starts to accept the Aunts’ teaching as truth. During Janine’s Testimony, Offred “knew what was being done to her” but she still “despised her”. She called her a “crybaby” and “meant it, which is the bad part”. These events suggest that Offred and the other handmaids truly believe in the extreme ideology. They truly believed that women were the cause of all negative actions that happen to them, that they are the sinners in Gilead. Offred even says, “It's strange to remember how we used to think, as if everything were available to us”. The girls have started to forget their normal lives before Gilead and even seem to despise their past way of thinking. It becomes a shock to them that they used to think like that and that the new society’s philosophy is the right way to live, even though it has only been three years. When Ofglen asks Offred to find more information about Gilead through the Commander, she refuses. She has become complicit with her new life that she “even looks forward to it shopping”. She is willing to “do anything” just to “keep on living, in any form”. This just shows how much of a coward she is. Offred is so passive that she just thinks, never taking action. She is anything but a hero. If Moria was able to escape and make a life for herself, Offred could too. Moria exposes the cowardice in Offred and is what could have been for her. The indoctrination process has worked on most of the handmaids but will forever leave a dark mark in their souls.

With freedom comes responsibility. Freedom usually means free will, the ability to make decisions. But in Gilead, “There is more than one kind of freedom, … freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it”. This shows the type of freedom that is given to the people of Gilead. The government has decided that its citizens cannot make choices for themselves, leading them to implement the social hierarchy between men and women. Before, the freedom to choose had consequences that harmed both men and women. There were “ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn't” which lead to “human misery”. Many people were “desperate” and so they “starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery”. The purpose of Gilead was to ensure that “they all get a man, nobody’s left out”. From this point of view, it seems to be that Gilead has done the right job. There is a decrease in crimes as those who commit crimes will be punished as the Eyes are everywhere. No women can say they don’t have a man, as one way or another, there is a man for everyone. Gilead has become a utopia in the sense that people do not have anything to worry about anything as long as they follow the constitution. The restricted laws provide protection for women from any fears that they may face. Many societies around the world have put in effect laws to “protect women” as well, but many do the complete opposite. Various states in the USA including Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana have passed bills banning abortions for women, even punishing health care professionals who try to conduct one. This is a very dangerous path to head towards as it can lead to the death of hundreds of women cause by unsafe procedures out of desperation, as seen through the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. The impact of the ban on contraceptives in Gilead has yet to be mentioned, but assumably history would repeat itself.

However, all the rules in Gilead overlook one thing. Love. The feeling that many die for. Gilead took away any love and instead replaced it with a society of cold-hearted, robot-like people. Men and women often don’t feel anything for each other. As Offred describes it, she feels something more “complicated” for the Commander, but she wouldn’t call it “love”. This very emotion, that is key to living a sane life, is taken away from the people of Gilead. The whole novel could be seen as Offred trying to receive love and affection from a man, just as Luke has done to her. The deprivation of love is so severe that the government has stopped using glass in any objects that the handmaids use, as having glass objects can lead to suicide. Offred even applies “butter” on her skin to “keep it soft” in hopes that one day they “will be toughed again, in love or desire”. When Offred starts to have feelings for Nick, it overpowers any other concern she has and hse becomes solely focused on their relationship. She finally has achieved the love and affection she has so longed for and is scared to lose it. She rather die than have to start over again. The rules of Gilead do protect its women from physical harm, but it leaves them with a mental scar that can never be fulfilled.

The rules of reproduction, methods of indoctrination, and restrictive freedoms have led to a society of oppressed women. Margaret Atwood created a speculative fiction on a path that the world could have taken. Considering all the events that occurred during her lifetime, it is not so far fetched to see why she wrote about such a dystopian future, hoping that these events do not come to play in the real world. Previous actions in history have led to the oppression of women, and The Handmaid’s Tale serves as a cautionary tale of what could be and warns about the dangerous precedents of going down such a dystopic path.

Works Cited

  1. “Abortion laws in the US – 10 things you need to know.” Amnesty International, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL, 11 June 2019, 10:35 UTC,
  2. Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. New York: Anchor Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 1998. Print.
  3. Mackinnon, Amy. “What Actually Happens When a Country Bans Abortion.” Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy, 20 May 2019, 4:38 PM,
  4. “Nazi Party.” History, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009,
09 March 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now