Five Signs Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” Dystopia May Be Nigh

Pending dystopia, it appears, is in the eye of the beholder. Here at RD, Diane Winston notes that Vice President Mike Pence makes a chilling stand-in for the “Commander” in Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, a representative of what “quiet, white, Christian male authority looks like in today’s world.”

And, as Winston notes, Pence is part of an evangelical Catholic culture encompassing both fundamentalist-leaning Catholics and evangelicals who have been quietly organizing to retake the culture for decades:

Their efforts have taken many forms: the pro-life, homeschooling, and defense of marriage movements; capturing school boards, gerrymandering of state districts and building organizations ranging from Focus on the Family to the Quiverfull movement and Generation Joshua.

Many of these efforts, of course, focus around women and the control of reproduction: from banning abortion and certain methods of birth control, to encouraging “godly” women to have large families under the Quiverfull doctrine, to homeschooling, which for many is about making sure that young Christian women stay in the fold and remain subservient to their fathers, and eventually their husbands.

It’s not hard to see how, for progressive feminists like Winston and myself, a whiff of the Handmaid’s Tale is always lurking below the surface, even if we don’t expect the literal enslavement of women in a Christofascist regime.

But apparently all our silly feminist worries are completely misplaced, says New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. In fact, claims Douthat, with perhaps a hint of regret, we couldn’t be further from Atwood’s dystopic vision, making it “more outdated than prophetic.”

First, says Douthat, the real oppressor of women in our day and age is a strange mix of feminism and capitalism that has given us a “Gileadan hierarchy of wealthy older women who have younger ‘handmaids’ bearing children for them and domestic ‘Marthas’ working as the help [that] exists in the enlightened precincts of upper-class liberalism.”

While the ethics of surrogacy may be debatable, it’s ridiculous to suggest that it’s a widespread enough practice to amount to wholesale exploitation of lower income women by richer women. Statistics on surrogacy are hard to come by, but according to the Modern Family Surrogacy Center, there were approximately 5,000 children born through surrogacy between 2004 and 2008, and fewer than ten children are born to surrogates in each state annually.

And similarly, while feminists have debated the ethics of hired help, an overabundance of paid household labor is not a problem most American women struggle under. And, speaking as the great-granddaughter of Irish women who worked as domestics, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that working as a paid domestic is not necessarily exploitive, but honorable work for low-skill women who hope to put their family on the road to the middle class.

The second way that Douthat says we are no way, no how in Atwood’s dystopian future is the “fizzling” of the religious right as a political entity and “the defeat of the religious right on practically every issue save abortion and the waning of the religious case for female domesticity.”

Now, Douthat is obviously correct that we are a long way away from the days when Phyllis Schlafly and others could still make a viable political case for policies designed to confine women to the domestic sphere. Even the Republican Party has now embraced working mothers. And, as we have been repeatedly reminded, white Christians can no longer claim or exercise cultural homogeny.

But where Douthat errs is in assuming this means conservative Christians are no longer, or will not be in the future, a significant political and cultural force. It’s exactly when a formerly all-powerful regime is in decline that it can be most dangerous; when it uses the levers of power it does control to supplant the soft restraints of cultural homogeny with barbed edicts designed to provide them with leverage going forward in their diminished state. This basically explains the entire “religious liberty” movement.

For Douthat and others who have a hard time perceiving how the world looks to progressive feminists, here are five signs we may be on the doorstep of a culture that echoes Atwood’s dystopian vision of patriarchal control over female reproduction:

  1. The Supreme Court handed down a decision that gives male employers the right to deny female employees birth control coverage in their health insurance, a right that is not allowed for any other service.
  2. One of the judges who handed down the circuit court decision in favor of Hobby Lobby, which teed up the Supreme Court decision even after other courts found no such right, is now a Supreme Court Justice.
  3. The Senate health care bill currently being devised reportedly contains a provision that, according to the Washington Post, would make the refundable tax credits currently available to some ObamaCare enrollees nonrefundable “in a nod to antiabortion activists who want to stop women from paying for abortions with tax-credit dollars.” In echoes of the move in Gilead to take women’s control of money away from them, this is an effort to stop women from using their own money—which is what tax refunds are—to pay for abortions.
  4. States are in the middle of an effort to find ever new and creative ways to prevent women from getting abortions, even with their own money, or shaming or endangering women for seeking abortion. Ten states now ban all insurance plans, even private plans, from providing abortion and 25 states prevent plans in insurance exchanges from providing abortion, even if a woman is paying some or all of the premium. Texas just passed two bills that would ban the safest, most common second-trimester abortion method and require women who have an abortion to pay for the burial or cremation of aborted fetuses.
  5. Arkansas passed a law that would not only ban the safest second-trimester procedure, but potentially allow husbands or fathers to block a woman’s abortion. According to the Daily Beast:

A clause in the Arkansas law allows a woman’s spouse, parent or guardian, or health care provider to sue an abortion provider for civil damages or injunctive relief that could stop the abortion. And because Act 45 does not provide any exceptions for cases of rape or incest, the clause could allow the fetus’s father to sue an abortion provider even in cases of spousal rape or incest.

While the bill’s author says it would only apply to the banned method of abortion and that fathers wouldn’t be able to win monetary damages in cases of rape or incest, it doesn’t take much imagination to see where this is going. Earlier in the year, an Oklahoma measure passed out of committee that would require women seeking an abortion to provide written consent from the fetus’ father, despite the fact that the Supreme Court has found spousal notification measures unconstitutional.

For some, Gilead may seem a fantasy and the forces of the Christian right in retreat. But for others, Atwood’s dystopia is more a matter of degree and intent; and, as Offred says, an erosion of rights so gradual that many aren’t even aware it is happening.