Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Barren B*tches Book Brigade: "The Handmaid's Tale"

The "Barren B*tches Book Brigade," as sponsored by the Stirrup Queens site, is one of the reasons why I decided to start a blog. I love books -- but I have a hard time finding time to read these days, & figured this would give me an added incentive. Plus, it just seemed like too much fun to pass up! ; )

The way the tour works (as explained by Stirrup Queen Mel):
"This book club is entirely online and open to anyone (male or female) in the infertility/pregnancy loss/assisted conception/adoption/parenting-after-infertility world (as well as any other related category I inadvertently left off the list). It is called a book tour because everyone reads the same book and then poses a question to the group. Participants choose a few questions to answer and then post their response on their blog. Readers can jump from blog to blog, commenting along the way."
This month's selection is "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood. And, at the risk of having my Canadian citizenship revoked, I must confess that it's the first Atwood novel I've ever read -- although I have several of her books on my shelf that I've been meaning to get around to reading... someday. Somehow, I managed to graduate with an honours degree in English from a Canadian university without having to take one Can-Lit course, which would undoubtedly have included an Atwood novel.

There's something about Margaret Atwood that seems kind of highbrow and daunting to the average reader -- although I must admit that, once I got into this book, I could hardly put it down! I can remember someone at university (in the early 1980s) telling me they had read "Surfacing" and that it was "really weird," so perhaps that's where my Atwood ambivalence comes from. I saw her once about 20 years ago, walking through an office tower across the street from the one where I work in downtown Toronto, looking every inch the "artiste" with her untamed, dark curly hair and wearing a dramatic, flowing black cape. The more I read about her & see her interviewed on television, the more I've come to appreciate her intellect -- and very dry sense of humour. You will never be able to think of Margaret Atwood in quite the same way once you've watched her demonstrate her prowess as a hockey goalie in a "Celebrity Tip" segment on the Rick Mercer show (Rick Mercer = Canadian/Newfie Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert)! (Click on the show link, scroll down & find the link to the video clip under "For the week of January 31, 2005.")

Briefly -- The Handmaid's Tale, for those of you who haven't read it, takes place sometime in the future United States, now known as the Republic of Gilead. Radiation and other environmental disasters have rendered much of the population infertile. Those who remain fertile have been commandeered into service as Handmaids, bearing children for the Commanders who rule the Republic and their infertile Wives. We see this society through the eyes of one of the Handmaids, Offred.

On to some of the questions!

What is the role of infertility in creating the world of the Handmaid's Tale? Is the question of infertility or totalitarianism more central to the story, and does Gilead represent the logical outcome of the fate of women in a religiously dominated society affected by mass infertility, or something else entirely?

In the novel, widespread infertility has created a situation where humankind's survival is at stake, so women's fertility is valued. The religious-minded government -- which already sees women's role as primarily that of mother & caregiver -- restructures society in a way to maximize their fertility and the chances for life to continue. The rights of individuals and particularly individual women are sacrificed to this "higher purpose." So in this sense, infertility is central to the story.

Overall, though, when I think of this book, the themes of totalitarianism and the repression of women spring to mind more than infertility. The environmental devastation created the infertility; infertility provided the raison d'etre for structuring the society in a certain way. But the wars that created the environmental devastation, the political murders that created the chaos & provided the excuse for the totalitarian regime's takeover -- those things had nothing to do with infertility. So I'm not sure Gilead is a "logical outcome."

The structure of the civilization in the book seemed really eerie to me (and quite difficult to figure out). Even though the copyright in my book was 1985 and set in the 21st century, it seems to reflect some of the fears we have today. I found myself wondering if our country could really be in for a drastic "take-over" as represented in the book. What are your feelings about the society described in the book and do you think it is possible to have something like that happen in our country?

I'm glad to see some of the participants who posted earlier have addressed this topic in similar questions -- and very eloquently & knowledgeably, too. I live in Canada, and things are slightly (though not entirely) different here than they are in the States.

In many ways, I was reminded of Nazi Germany when I was reading the book. How many people who lived through that era ever thought things would turn out the way did? Even though there were warning signs all along... Somebody, in one of the other, earlier posts, mentioned the "frog in boiling water" analogy. Along the same lines, I was reminded of the old poem:

When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist. When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn't a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.
At any rate -- yes, I was struck by certain parallels to current events in the United States. I believe that when Atwood wrote this in the early/mid-80s, she was thinking about the situation at the time in Iran (the hostage crisis, the rise of the Ayatollah & Islamic fundamentalism) -- not to mention the rise of the religious right (Jerry Falwell & the Moral Majority, etc.) in the U.S. But the parallels to current world events and U.S. politics (including 9-11 & its aftermath, the war in Iraq, the increasing influence of religion in American politics, the centralization of power in the hands of the executive branch of government and the military, and growing concern over the environment) are just too eerie to be ignored.

There is a passage on page 217 of the edition I was reading, in Chapter 28, where Offred says, "It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time." That sentence absolutely gave me the chills.

Then there's the passage on page 387, near the end of the historical notes, where "the Canada of that time did not wish to antagonize its powerful neighbour, and there were roundups and extraditions of such refugees." While Canada provided a safe haven for draft dodgers during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, the current government is much more pro-U.S. in its policies, and American army deserters who seek refuge in Canada must fight for the right to stay here.

I think that all of us who live in supposedly free and democratic societies ignore the lessons in this book at our peril.

Even though the rampant infertility is acknowledged to be largely due to environmental pollution, Gilead refuses to acknowledge the possibility of male infertility; if a Handmaid is unable to conceive with three Commanders, it is assumed that she is at fault and she is reassigned to the Colonies. How did this double standard resonate with you, if at all?

I certainly noticed the double standard, & it raised my feminist hackles. ; ) Throughout history, women have been blamed for failing to provide men with babies (& male babies in particular). Case in point, Britain's King Henry VIII & his six wives, many of whom were divorced, beheaded or died in childbirth, all in their quest to give Henry the male heir he craved. (CBC Television is running the British mini-series "The Tudors" right now, which is why that example sprang into mind!)

Although today, we know about the possibility & frequency of male factor issues (not to mention "unexplained infertility"), in many societies, women are still blamed for fertility problems or for bearing children of the "wrong" (i.e., female) gender. Even in our supposedly more enlightened North American society, the attitude still prevails that infertility is a "women's issue," and many people automatically assume that it's the woman's "fault." I know from my own conversations with infertile women, both personally and online, that many husbands are still extremely reluctant to be tested or to provide the sperm needed for IUI or IVF -- and, worse still, many clinics don't even ask to test the male partner until after the woman has endured umpteen uncomfortable tests.

For all that the Handmaids are supposed to be serving the society's greater good and should be honored for that, they are looked down upon by just about everyone. Wives resent that the Handmaids do what they cannot, Marthas resent the time spent caring for them, Econowives resent them for the ease of existence they feel the Handmaids must enjoy. And the reverse is true as well, Handmaids resent the other women for having little freedoms they do not enjoy, whether it's control over a household, the ability to hold a knife and make radish roses, or to simply not be a possession without a name. Does this mutual resentment exist in the world of infertility? Do "fertiles" resent "infertiles" and vice versa? If so, in what way?

I really can't think of a way in which fertiles might resent infertiles -- unless perhaps they think that we and our problems consume too much time and attention within the family or social group (if we've chosen to talk about it). I'd be interested in hearing others' perspectives on this one!

Within the infertility & loss communities, I sense, if not resentment, envy of each other, at times. My husband sometimes says that he envies couples we meet in our support whose babies lived for a brief time, because they got to experience a living child, if only for a short time. I've met women who had miscarriages who say they envy me because I got to hold my baby & have photos taken. And of course, those who eventually achieve pregnancy (and especially a healthy baby at the end of it) are envied by the rest of us who do not, even though we are really very happy for them.

Do infertile women resent fertiles? Absolutely! -- maybe not all infertile women resent all fertile women, but I know I have felt resentment on at least some occasions. It's hard not to resent someone who not only has what you so badly want for yourself, but has (seemingly, at least) achieved it so easily -- and doesn't seem to appreciate that fact, or the great gift that they have been given.

The Handmaid's Tale is set against the backdrop of a dystopian society wherein religion and feminism has combined to lay down a strict set of roles for women. In what ways are your reproductive choices shaped by religion and/or feminism? In what way do you think religion and/or feminism shapes the way society views infertility? Is it plausible to you that religion and feminism could ever produce the type of society described in The Handmaid's Tale? Why/why not?

Unlike some women who have backed away from the term, I've always considered myself a feminist, and been glad to say so. I grew up in the 1970s, at a time when the battle for equality was still heated. While the tactics and language of some of the movement's more radical offshoots can be off-putting, I have never doubted the feminist movement's fundamental, central message: that every woman should have the right to control her own body, her own money, her own destiny. Whenever I hear the stories of female babies being aborted, murdered or abandoned, or girls in third-world countries being denied food and education, married off and bearing children while still children themselves, and killed in the name of "family honour" for not showing sufficient deference to male authority -- all simply because they are girls -- I feel incredibly fortunate and grateful to the Powers That Be that, as a woman, I was born & grew up Canadian in the latter part of the 20th century.

Were my own reproductive choices shaped by feminism? Absolutely. While children were always part of the plan, they were not the whole plan. Feminism gave me a strong sense of my own worth and possibilities as a woman, beyond my ability to have children. I wanted to be a mother -- but it was not the only thing I wanted for myself, or the one thing that my identity and self-worth hinged upon. I strongly believe that I am more than my uterus, more than my ability to reproduce -- and while it hurt like hell not to be able to have the family I wanted -- the family I, like so many women, took for granted would be mine someday -- I think that, whatever success I have had in carving out a childless/free life for myself, post-loss & post-infertility treatment, is because of the sense of other possibilities for my life that feminism gave to me.

Even pre-loss & infertility, it used to bother me when people would bug us about when we were going to have kids -- partly because I'm a private person, & felt that how, when, why and whether dh & I decided to have children was strictly a matter between the two of us -- but also because that's ALL some people ever seemed interested in -- like that was my only value/interest to them & to society. I work, I keep house, I volunteer, I stay in touch with my extended family, I belong to several online communities. I'm a wife, a bereaved mother, a daughter, sister, niece & cousin, friend, facilitator, writer, employee/co-worker... You can talk to me about my job, my volunteer work, the books I've read lately, current events, my hobbies, the latest movies, my last vacation. But at family gatherings & other social events, it seems like all anyone wants to talk about is kids -- and because I have no kids, I am often shut out of the conversation.

There is "feminism" in the book, after a fact -- but the "classic" feminists, such as Offred's mother (whom I imagined marching & waving signs with Gloria Steinem in the 1960s), with their vision of choice and freedom for women -- are too much of a threat to survive in the new regime. They are deported to the colonies, slave labour and certain death. The "feminism" of the Aunts & the Marthas, a hierarchical society of women ruling other women (with men ruling over all of them in the end), is not the feminism I grew up with and still believe in. Its most convenient aspects have been adopted, twisted and perverted to support the ruling regime.

Were my choices shaped by religion? Not in a dogmatic sense, although I did wonder at times, during all the testing when I was pregnant, and making decisions on just how far we wanted to go with our infertility treatment, just how much I really wanted to be messing with Mother Nature, and whether I was being "punished" in some way for some sin or indiscretion in my past. Ultimately, I decided that the God I believed in was a loving God who would not "test" me by making me or my baby suffer. Reading "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" by Harold Kushner after the stillbirth of our daughter was a great comfort to me.

How do religion & feminism shape the way our society views infertility? I know of very few religions that condone ARTs. The prevailing view seems to be that infertility is "God's will," and any attempt to alter that by using ARTs is tampering with God's intentions. At the same time, if someone does get pregnant, then "God answered our prayers." So is it a matter of God's will, or just praying long & hard enough??

I have read very little about the feminist view on infertility & reproductive technology, beyond concern for the effect fertility drugs have on women's bodies. This is one area in which I think feminism needs to step up to the plate. Linda L. Layne has written a very interesting (albeit somewhat academic) book, Motherhood Lost, on what happens when feminism meets reproductive loss, which touches on some of these issues. (Future book club selection, perhaps?) She writes:
"By and large, in the realm of feminist scholarship the topic of pregnancy loss remains an orphan... In retaining a studied silence on pregnancy loss, feminists have not only abandoned their sisters in hours of need, they have contributed to the shame and isolation that attends these events, and have, de facto, surrendered the discourse of pregnancy loss to anti-choice activists. Feminists must frankly acknowledge the frequency and import of such events in women's lives and create a woman-centred discourse of pregnancy loss." (p. 239)
Is it possible that religion and/or feminism could produce a society such as Gilead? I think the answer is yes. We already live in a society in which religion has played a role in -- to name a few examples -- outlawing the teaching of evolution (or mandating equal time for teaching creationism), banning certain books from school libraries, and placing restrictions on certain types of reproductive activity (abortions, egg donation & surrogacy) in many jurisdictions. While John F. Kennedy, running for president, spoke out against using a religious test to determine a person's suitability to be President, all of today's U.S. presidential candidates (from both parties) seem to be competing to seem the most sincere in professing their religious beliefs. What a difference!

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at http://stirrup-queens.blogspot.com/. You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Fowler (with author participation!)


  1. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts - I read the Handmaid's Tale many years ago, in grade 13, and still remember parts of it quite well. (BTW you should try Canadian author Margaret Laurence someday ;) - I think my favourite was The Diviners).

    I also read Harold Kushner's book and it was fundamental in helping me define my religious views and thoughts about God.


  2. I've read a number of Atwood's books and really haven't liked them - all except this one, which I love.

    Interesting answer to the second question!

  3. Fantastic post. I've added "Motherhood Lost" to my library account. Thanks for the recommendation; I've been looking for such a book.

  4. This was a really thoughtful post. I think you're right about feminism being uncomfortable with pregnancy loss. I've always chalked that up to the natural tension between acknowledging the (potential, at least) personhood of a miscarried embryo or fetus and a firm belief in the right to choose abortion. I'll admit to being hypocritical on this point -- I always refer to the 6 and 8 week embryos I've lost as "babies," even though in my heart I don't believe that they were yet separate people with separate rights.

    I wonder, too, if the avidity of the anti-choice movement has kept feminism as a movement from acknowledging pregnancy loss in a meaningful way. One gets the impression that the second feminist s refer publicly to an embyo or fetus as a "baby," anti-choicers will seize on it as evidence that abortion is murder. So we're kind of stuck with the hard (and heartless) line.

  5. Hi, Loribeth.

    I especially liked your answers to the 5th question. Very thoughtful and enlightening.

    IF made me think of that old jump rope game in grade school, where you go through the grades 1-2 (in the US). Then you through the 4 years of college. The next jump is marriage and the final jump is babies.

    There is a beaten path. People don't know how to talk with you if you're not on it.

    Hope you are finding many kind travelers on your road.

  6. I thought of that poem too--and the line about Islamic fundamentalists shouldering the blame gave me chills too. It's nice to connect through a book.

  7. Great post. So much rich material here to comment on. First and foremost, thanks for your thoughts on feminism. I often wonder why people (women especially) recoil from the term. The extreme feminists tend to be vilified and scrutinized far more than what's really central to the movement -- ensuring that women are not oppressed. As I wrote on Candy's post, without the feminist movement we wouldn't be as far along in opening up opportunities once denied women. I still marvel to think that my mother (the first woman in her family to go to university) had to quit her job when her first pregnancy become apparent ... I would rather be a woman, fertile or infertile, today than pre-1980.

    As for your well-rounded interests that seem to go ignored at social gatherings, I completely hear you. Inevitably the conversations seem to center around kids.

    (And, finally, we won't be telling the Canadian powers that be about your lapse in Canadian readership.)

  8. I agree with you about people's choice of having children being so personal. I've NEVER asked someone when the last time they had sex was. So it's an odd question for someone to ask if/when you are planning on having children. I'm sure in my pre-infertile naive days it was a question I asked, but now I NEVER would. Because my greatest fear is asking someone who is silently dealing with their IF. And, it's really none of my business.

    Great answers.

  9. You have covered a lot of ground here! I think Peggy Orenstein in our earlier book group book, "Waiting for Daisy" talked some about how pregnancy loss just isn't acknowledged in the U.S., perhaps, as Paranoid said, because of the concern that treating it as a loss would be fodder for anti-abortionists. It's a shame. She wrote about how the Japanese had more acceptance and understanding of pregnancy loss with their "water children", in between being and not being. It was an interesting take.

  10. Excellent post. I agree with so much of it, so many thoughts were sparked that I don't know what to say. But your thoughts, and the words of Layne are so poignant. I have felt often that my losses are too wound up in a discourse of pregnancy controlled by anti-choice groups. I am offended that it can hijack the conversation around our pain and our decisions.

    I am absolutely getting Motherhood Lost from the library. I need a "somewhat academic" perspective as a lot of other sources on loss are just not compelling for me.

  11. Thank you so much for such a thoughtful - and thought provoking - post, Loribeth.

    The question as to why there is no real feminist discourse around infertility/pregnancy loss has been rattling around in the back of my mind for quite some time. I am an academic with an extensive grounding in feminist theory, yet one of the reasons why I started blogging was precisely because that theory did not offer me any way of beginning to make sense of my own experiences of infertility & miscarriage. There is an extensive feminist discourse on motherhood, but very little has been written on infertility & pregnancy loss from an explicitly feminist perspective (I will definitely be following up your recommendation of the Linda Layne book).

    I am not sure why feminism has proved to be so reticent on this issue (I have a very long post brewing on why infertility is in fact a vital issue for contemporary feminism). One initial thought does spring to mind, however. IF isn't something that any woman - whether she identifies as a feminist or not - likes to think about until it happens to her. Perhaps the major feminist work on this issue will have to come from someone who has actually been through these experiences themselves, or maybe it is in fact in the process of being done right here & here, in the virtual community.

    Oh, and if you enjoyed 'The Handmaid's Tale,' do try 'The Blind Assassin' - it's one of my favourite books of all time!

  12. I love this bit: "I think that, whatever success I have had in carving out a childless/free life for myself, post-loss & post-infertility treatment, is because of the sense of other possibilities for my life that feminism gave to me."

    Feminism gave me a bright light at the end of a dark tunnel very early on in my life. It helped me gain self-esteem, direction and confidence. It helped me decide to hold off trying for children until I really felt ready. And, it has definitely been a kind hand during these years of infertility.

    I really like your treatment of feminism in this post. So many good points to think about.

  13. You have some great thoughts on feminism and infertility. It's true that the two don't seem to know what to say to each other sometimes, which is strange, because I'm sure most of us Stirrup Queens (or former SQ's) identify with feminist ideals.

    You made several interesting points about what feminism has meant for you and your choices, as well as society at large.


  14. "I'm a wife, a bereaved mother, a daughter, sister, niece & cousin, friend, facilitator, writer, employee/co-worker... You can talk to me about my job, my volunteer work, the books I've read lately, current events, my hobbies, the latest movies, my last vacation. But at family gatherings & other social events, it seems like all anyone wants to talk about is kids -- and because I have no kids, I am often shut out of the conversation." - I completely agree with this. I find it so hard to understand why people only seem to talk about that subject.
    I have gotten to a point in my life, where the possibility of being child-less is becoming more and more reality, that I find I can't participate in a lot of converstaions anymore. I feel much more excluded from groups I once felt closer to.