Study Guide

The Handmaid's Tale Women and Femininity

By Margaret Atwood

Women and Femininity

This is the kind of touch they like: folk art, archaic, made by women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want? (2.2)

The narrator compares herself and the other Handmaids to "folk art, archaic," using the proverb "waste not, want not." These women and art are both decorative and pointless, leftovers that have been used up. Feeling both useless and used up, the narrator plays on the word "want," reminding herself why she isn't the same as a useless art object.

There are other women with baskets, some in red, some in the dull green of the Marthas, some in the striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimp, that mark the women of the poorer men. Econowives, they're called. These women are not divided into functions. They have to do everything; if they can. (5.5)

Here the narrator describes the roles of women in this society. All but the Econowives are "divided into functions," as shown by their dresses. The women are basically color-coded: blue Wives, red Handmaids, green Marthas. Their individuality is completely stripped away.

My nakedness is strange to me already. [...] Did I really wear bathing suits, at the beach? I did, without thought, among men, without caring that my legs, my arms, my thighs and back were on display, could be seen. Shameful, immodest. I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it's shameful or immodest but because I don't want to see it. I don't want to look at something that determines me so completely. (12.4)

Nude, the narrator tries to disassociate herself from her body and what it represents. She "do[es]n't want to look at something that determines [her] so completely." She is more than her body. The narrator passively, silently rejects the determination society has made about her based on her form and fertility.

I want Luke here so badly. I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name, remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. (17.11)

The narrator misses other elements of being a woman and a person. For her, being held, named, and valued in the ways she used to be—as a person, not a uterus—are part of being a woman.

Can I be blamed for wanting a real body, to put my arms around? Without it I too am disembodied. [...] I can stroke myself, under the dry white sheets, in the dark, but I too am dry and white, hard, granular; it's like running my hand over a plateful of dried rice; it's like snow. [...] I am like a room where things once happened and now nothing does, except the pollen of the weeds that grow up outside the window, blowing in as dust across the floor. (18.6)

Here the narrator feels dispassionate and alienated from her body. Even when she tries to touch herself, she doesn't feel anything; she just thinks of herself as an empty room.

Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women's culture. Well, now there is one. It isn't what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies. (21.34)

In an ironic moment of anti-feminism, a "women's culture" does exist, but it isn't one any reasonable feminist (male or female) would have wanted. It's a terrible realization of a different kind of imagined equality.

I said there was more than one way of living with your head in the sand and that if Moira thought she could create Utopia by shutting herself up in a women-only enclave she was sadly mistaken. Men were not just going to go away, I said. You couldn't just ignore them. (28.7)

A "women-only enclave" is not "Utopia" and neither is Gilead. Although women have a different quality of life in Gilead that could be said to include occasional improvements, they are definitely not in Utopia.

"Yes," I say. What I feel is not one simple thing. Certainly I am not dismayed by these women, not shocked by them. I recognize them as truants. The official creed denies them, denies their very existence, yet here they are. That is at least something. (37.10)

Here are women doing something they should not—existing. Are they any more or less womanly or feminine than the Handmaids? It seems they're better off in some ways and worse off in others. They're reduced to their sexuality just as Handmaids are reduced to their fertility.

"So now that we don't have different clothes," I say, "you merely have different women." This is irony, but he doesn't acknowledge it. (37.26)

In brief, Gilead happened, at least indirectly, as a way of controlling women who had too many choices. Men took them all away, but then they got bored because the women didn't seem individually interesting any more. Now they treat women like they're interchangeable. In a weird way, this is representative of the narrator's observation about casual dating, when "men and women tried each other on, casually, like suits, rejecting whatever did not fit" (9.7-8).

Judd [...] was of the opinion from the outset that the best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves. For this there were many historical precedents; in fact, no empire imposed by force or otherwise has ever been without this feature [...]." (Historical Notes.36)

This passage makes Gilead seem even slimier by revealing how some women colluded to make life worse for the rest, while explaining how this process has "historical precedents" and is an established way of controlling an unruly population.