Like the Kingdom of God, the Republic of Gilead is both now and not yet. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale conjures a theocratic dystopia—a version of the United States taken over by fundamentalist Christians after a terrorist attack on Washington. Women are now divided into rigid classes determined by an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible. Atwood’s protagonist, Offred, is a Handmaid—a fallen woman who is forced to bear children for righteous couples—and the book follows her sufferings under the Gilead regime. Atwood paints in garish strokes intended to shock: This new society calls homosexuality “gender treachery” and forbids women to read, own property, or choose their own clothing.
Since the novel’s publication three decades ago, Gilead has existed as a paper nightmare that gains or loses dimension based on the state of our national politics. Of course, we don’t divide women into classes of Marthas, Handmaids, Econowives, and Wives; we call them “the help,” “surrogates,” the working class, and the one percent. America has never forced fertile women to bear children for infertile ones, but Trump’s pussy-grabbing presidency has given cover to the sort of blatant misogyny many thought consigned to the past. “In Trump’s America, The Handmaid’s Tale matters more than ever,” The Verge declared the day after Trump’s election. In February, the book overtook George Orwell’s 1984 on the Amazon best-seller list. Texas is Gilead and Indiana is Gilead and now that Mike Pence is our vice president, the entire country will look more like Gilead, too.
Set in the very near future, Hulu’s new adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale subtly updates Atwood’s dystopia. The execution of a gay woman in episode three seems inspired by a real Iranian execution. Played by Elisabeth Moss, Offred is more relatable than she’s ever been, with a motto (“I intend to survive”) destined for a thousand Etsy products. In the show, as in our moment, it is not just men, but crucially some women, too, who fervently wish for a society where women are no longer free or equal. Women known as Aunts initiate the Handmaids into their new roles; Wives terrorize Handmaids with little restraint. These women midwife Gilead into the world, though it’s not clear what they stand to gain from any of it.
Most contradictory and recognizable of all these female collaborators is Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), the wife of Offred’s commander. Before Gilead, she graced American television screens as a preternaturally blond evangelist. (Serena Joy was her stage name, a nom de guerre for the culture wars.) Even though she occupies the highest rank for a woman in this new world, she is now legally inferior to her sad-sack husband and, finding herself childless, has to employ Offred as a surrogate. Rage roils the edges of her ice-princess restraint. “She doesn’t make speeches anymore,” Offred notes in the book. “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.”
America is rich in Serena Joys. One need look no further for her contemporary counterparts than Michelle Duggar and her daughters; or Paula White, the televangelist who allegedly led Donald Trump to Christ; or his aide Kellyanne Conway, who defends him as a “great boss” to women. The character Atwood invented is an amalgam of Phyllis Schlafly and Tammy Faye Bakker with a dash of Aimee Semple McPherson. The spectacle of the female fundamentalist celebrity is not recent, and she is not an anomaly. Her existence is proof of American fundamentalism’s durability, and a reminder that it could not thrive without the enthusiastic backing of women.
When Atwood wrote her novel, Schlafly had already established herself as one of America’s most visible and influential conservative women by leading a successful campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment. A committed Catholic, Schlafly hurled herself against feminism’s second wave with all the conviction of the activists she loathed. “The women’s libbers don’t understand that most women want to be wife, mother, and homemaker—and are happy in that role,” she asserted in 1972.
But like her fictional doppelgänger, Schlafly was no homemaker. She traveled the country; she appeared on television; she influenced policy. The world she wanted to build could not coexist with the world that allowed her career. These contradictions did not, however, trouble Schlafly’s supporters. She defeated the ERA by mobilizing them; her mostly female volunteer brigades harried legislators into rejecting the bill.
Women also propped up the career of a man to Schlafly’s right: the theologian Rousas J. Rushdoony. Whereas Schlafly was content to work within the Republican Party, Rushdoony preferred a purist approach: As historian Michael McVicar has recounted, Rushdoony lost a job at the Center for American Studies after attempting to purge its Catholics. This was further than most in the American right of the 1960s wanted to go, and so he labored in the fringes, formulating his vision of a literal Protestant theocracy. It was conservative women who came to his rescue: In 1965, Women for America granted him a stipend to continue his work—envisioning a society in which women would stay at home with their children, and apostasy and homosexuality would be punishable by death.
The dilemma of Serena Joy feels deceptively easy to resolve. She’s in this for power, and understands that it’s hers if she says the right things to the right audiences. Schlafly achieved international fame, and Conway has the ear of the president. With Gilead, however, Atwood reminds such women that they might not like the results of their labor; that by the time they come to regret it, the culture they helped create will have developed far beyond their control. Serena Joy is a warning, not only to her feminist antagonists, but to conservatives, too.
For nearly 20 years, I believed that real feminists—women who truly cared about other women—hated abortion and careers and dresses that showed too much collarbone. The Christian churches and schools I attended assured me that empowerment awaited at home, in the arms of the husband I would marry young and then provide with endless children.
I commended myself to Gilead, or something like it: I attended a religious university that controlled almost every aspect of my daily life and behavior. Students could not stay out past midnight on weeknights; women could not run for class chaplain or wear tight clothing. Not long after I graduated, the school’s new president gave a sermon promoting the “headship” of men over women—not because he’s a bigot but because, he said, he was only preaching “what the text says.”
My alma mater capitalized on the “pro-woman” claims established by Schlafly and her ilk. Their greatest achievement was to take a language of female empowerment from the women’s movement and turn it to their own purposes. No one has noted this inversion more ruefully than Atwood. Offred’s mother, we are told, was a second-wave feminist. She envisioned a porn-free society that would largely exclude men. “You wanted a women’s culture,” Offred imagines telling her. “Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists.”
In the Tale, this paradox is exemplified not just by Serena Joy but by Aunt Lydia. Cruder and lower-ranked, Aunt Lydia is the hand that wields the cattle prod. She’s charged with the re-education of future Handmaids, and she accomplishes this by emphasizing both the high value of women and the necessity of their oppression. “A thing is valued,” she teaches, “only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to be valued, girls.... Think of yourselves as pearls.” Serena Joy chose her life. Lydia is empowered to attack other women with a cattle prod. Both are proof that women are represented in Gilead’s power structure. If feminism is only about representation, choice, or some vaguely sketched notion of empowerment, it is difficult to say our Serena Joys and our Aunt Lydias are not feminists.
But The Handmaid’s Tale does more than present a possible future: It asks us to consider how we’d end up there. A form of feminism that celebrates power for power’s sake, instead of interrogating how it is concentrated and distributed, will usher us into fascism. Feminism means something. Some choices oppress the women who make them, and some beliefs, if enforced, would oppress everyone else, too. Allow an antichoice woman to call herself a feminist, and you have ceded political territory that you cannot afford to lose. Stripped of political meaning, “feminist” becomes an entirely subjective term that anyone with any agenda can use.
Two events convinced me to leave the church. The first: I read The Handmaid’s Tale. The second: The university’s all-female, pro-abstinence organization held a “modesty panel” for campus women. The speakers were all men—professors, classmates, the campus pastor—who held forth about appropriate swimsuits and wedding dresses and the pernicious specter of girls in pajama pants. Most people listened and thought that was fine: It was pro-woman. After all, women organized it! They just wanted to help us protect our value. This is why women couldn’t preach, or get abortions if they didn’t want to be pregnant, or fall in love with other women.
“This may not seem ordinary to you now,” Aunt Lydia tells the Handmaids, “but after a time it will.” And that is exactly what they want you to believe. Fundamentalism asks you to endure a thousand separate indignities, and tells you this is freedom. They sell it to you by telling you it’s feminism—or “empowerment” or “choice,” if the f-word feels a bit too threatening. They promise you it’ll fix your problems and the world’s, too. Like any authoritarian ideology, it expects you to tire of fighting.
Margaret Atwood makes a perfect cameo in Hulu’s series. She plays an Aunt, and she slaps the side of Offred’s head during her re-education. Pay attention, she seems to say. Wake up.