The Political Sociology of Feminism

A Treatise on the Current Relevance of the Handmaid’s Tale

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As one of the major themes in the Handmaid’s Tale, gender served as the basis for the political hierarchy in the state of Gilead, as it’s evident from the sexual slavery of the handmaids and the social stratification of females.¹ Gender identity and feminist concerns for gender equality, on the other hand, as natural social constructs in typically open and civilized societies, is nearly erased from the Atwoodian dystopia by coercive force, indicated by the absence of gender unity, the popular apathy for the oppressed on the basis of gender, and intense class hostilities within the female population, such as the tensions between the handmaids and the wives of the commanders. Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, responded to Elisabeth Moss, the actress who starred as the protagonist Offred² in the namesake TV series, in a TIME Magazine interview on the undercurrents of gender repression in reality that were developing throughout history, “The control of women and babies has been a part of every repressive regime in history. This has been happening all along… There’s an under­current of this [type of thinking]. And then it rises to the surface sometimes. But The Handmaid’s Tale is always relevant, just in different ways in different political contexts. Not that much has changed” (Dockterman 2017). Supposing her statement to be founded upon experiences in reality, what components and factors specifically is her statement based on? What exactly is the driving force behind gender suppressions that were “happening all along”? If the conclusion proved to be more nuanced or even contradictory to her claim, what are the nuances and/or contradictions? With modern American society as the contextual framework and Feminism as the focus, this paper will be revolving around these questions.

Speaking of realistic relevance, as hinted by Offred’s recollections of the pre-Gileadean society, with the historical reality of the 1970–80s that Ms. Atwood was living in as the prototype, the book expressed strong opposition to fundamentalist politics — the political manipulations of religious fundamentalism as a weapon against the people — as well as critical concerns over which the feminist movement is flawed, resulting in failures in promoting gender equity and countering regressions. Both of which pose the threatening possibility of the acceleration into the formation of a patriarchal theocracy. “If America were going to do a totalitarian govern­ment, what kind of totalitarian government would it be? It wouldn’t be communism. No surprises there. I thought it would have to be some sort of theocracy, like the 17th century in the U.S.” Ms. Atwood explained her reasoning for her concerns on this threat (Dockterman 2017). On Feminism, which has been the main active force in unifying the female gender and advocating for women’s civil liberties and gender equality, the main concerns indicated in the book can be stretched in two directions. On one hand, it’s the popular apathy for participatory actions or the reluctance to question the authority over gender issues, revealed from the lack of public mobilization against the imposition of restrictions based on gender in pre-Gileadean America,³ which could establish the passive basis for a potential patriarchal theocracy in the U.S. On the other hand, the serious flaws in the modern feminist movement, including tactical irrationality, the lack of appeal, and public antipathy, evident from Offred’s relatively negative perceptions of Feminism of her mother and Moira, resulted in the failure to inclusively expand and raise public awareness of gender issues; meanwhile, counter-productively evoking antipathy that developed into reactionary backlashes against the movement, the most prominent being Christian fundamentalism, inspired by the Evangelical movement that developed from the Fourth Great Awakening and made up a considerable part of the Reagan Coalition in the 1980s, which Ms. Atwood satirized as hypocritical in the book.

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Considering Feminism in the current context, the Fourth-wave Feminism has been rapidly developing ever since 2012 with technology as the main medium, stressing intersectionality in activism (Munro), intended for both sexes to overcome the gender norms of society. Meanwhile, the influence of the #MeToo Movement, a movement that gained traction in late 2017 which encourages transparency in sexual misconduct and aims at greater justice for women to be freed from sexual coercion, certainly can’t be neglected in the arena of discussions on this topic. With the election and the inauguration of Donald Trump as the spark, the Women’s March took place in 2017, in response to the new president’s offensively sexist language and potential anti-feminist political agenda (Malone and Gibson). Overall, public attention on Feminism is undoubtedly present and likely has increased over time.

Despite these efforts, the effects are rather partially nuanced and partially negative in terms of public perception. According to data surveys on public opinions regarding Feminism that were conducted after 2012, when the Fourth-wave Feminism took off, all but one set of the these data results indicate that the feminist identification among both the general and female population is exceptionally and steadily low, well below the majority line. Regardless of difference in gender identity in the population data, of the total number of respondents in the HuffPost/YouGov poll in 2013, only 20% identified themselves as “a strong feminist” or “a feminist” in the first question; on the fourth question, only 26% thought the word “feminist” to be “completely positive” or “mostly positive”, and the answer “mostly negative” received the highest percentage among all answers, which is 30% (“YouGov Poll” 2013). A Vox survey results in 2015 indicated that most respondents (52%) don’t consider themselves to be “a feminist”, considerably higher than the percentage of those who do (18%), even as the majority of respondents (52%) are female (“Vox Poll Toplines”, 2015). With the consideration of the difference in gender identity in the data, the data journalist from the polling firm YouGov, Jamie Ballard, reported in 2018 from new data set: “Though slightly more women consider themselves feminists now (38%) than they did in 2016 (32%), close to half (48%) of women still say they are not feminists” (Ballard 2018). “Only 29% of the respondents” are feminists while “another 69%” aren’t, with only about 1% refusing to answer, as Catherine Morris, a data journalist from another data analytics firm Ipsos, noted in November 2019 from a National Geographic/Ipsos poll (Morris 2019). One exception to previous results came from a Pew Research Center survey in 2020, in which Amanda Barroso, “a writer/editor focusing on social trends at Pew Research Center” (“Amanda Barroso”), reported that 61% of American women think that the term “feminist” “describes them well”. However, even this statistical outlier can be interpreted as euphemistic and ambiguous, not only since the wording doesn’t directly involves identification or support for the feminist movement, but of the 61% figure, only 19% of them say the term “feminist” describes them “very well” whereas the rest 42% say that it describes them “somewhat well” (Barroso 2020).

There are many potential factors behind the low support for the feminist movement among the general population, and the wording effect can be a remarkable one. All survey results gathered have indicated that a majority of respondents not only agreed with two fundamental components that shaped the core of the feminist ideology, “the advocacy of women’s rights” and “the equality of the sexes” (“Definition of Feminism”), but also think that American society is far from the goal of gender equality. Although 4/5 of the total respondents in the 2013 HuffPost/YouGov poll refuse to identify as “a feminist”, 63% revealed that they aren’t “anti-feminist” as well, in contrast to the 8% figure of those who do (“YouGov Poll” 2013). Morris noted that a considerable amount of women (46%) “believe they have been discriminated against or treated unfairly” “on the basis of their gender”, while 53% of women think that “men have it easier in the United States than women”, which proved that the public perception of gender bias and discrimination among females are alive and problematic, establishing the basis for feminist advocacy and activism (Morris 2019). However, that can also reveal the ineffectiveness of the feminist movement in dealing with these problems and raising public awareness of them. An overwhelming 85% of the Vox survey respondents “believe in equality for women”, and 76% think that “there is still work to be done” for “full equality [of] women in work, life, and politics”, even though only a fringe of them identified as “a feminist” (“Vox Poll Toplines”, 2015). 82% of respondents in the 2013 HuffPost/YouGov survey also agreed with the belief “that men and women should be social, political and economic equals”, regardless of the fact that only a fifth of the total respondents are feminists (“YouGov Poll” 2013). Margaret Atwood responded to the term “Feminism” in the TIME interview, noticing the ambiguity in interpretations of the term among the public, “When we use that word, feminism, I always want to know: What do you mean by it? What are we talking about? If the person can describe what they mean by the word, then we can talk about whether I am one of those or not” (Dockterman). Therefore, it’s plausible to conclude that the mass interpretations of the term “feminist” or “Feminism” have been distorted by outside factors, led to support for its ideals but reluctance in labelling and active support, an interesting sociopolitical phenomenon that can also be applied to other terms such as “welfare” and “Socialism”. That can be proved to be helpful for the feminist movement because the support for ideals and the refusal to support the “anti-feminist” reaction might reveal the great potential for Feminism to be popularized and realized; but that can also be a major realistic obstacle for the movement to grow, sustain, and achieve, because of the weakness in appeals among the populace and remarkable antipathy towards the label and the movement.

The lack of outreach and discussions on issues related to gender equity might be another reason. In the Vox survey, though 35% of respondents think that feminist issues were “being talked about” “more often” “in the past couple years”, a higher 43% responded “about the same” as before, and a majority of respondents (51%) isn’t sure whether that in itself is positive or negative; when asked whether the respondents have consciously raised awareness about “women’s equality”, three questions differed in wording but the answers, firm “no[s],” are steadily high above 60% (“Vox Poll Toplines” 2015).

As for other factors behind the feminist movement’s lack of appeal, the perceptive irrelevance and/or optimism on gender issues might offer an explanation. Morris finds that 45% of women think that women’s living quality is “staying about the same” as another 34% have it as “getting better” (Morris 2019). Though close to half of all respondents (48%) think that “women have” “less financial stability than men”, the percentage figure for those who prefer “about the same level of financial stability” or “more financial stability than men,” as the answer is about the same (48%); besides those who refused to answer, 58% of respondents in the Vox poll think that “women’s issues around equality” are not very or extremely relevant in the 2016 elections (“Vox Poll Toplines” 2015). According to Françoise Coste from the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, this status-quo mentality is, in her view, a major factor in limiting the feminist movement. In 2010, she wrote, for “contemporary conservative women…[,] the main goal of feminism — that of gender equality — has actually been achieved”, a “conservative” stance that’s “omnipresent” among “contemporary anti-feminists” (Coste 2010).

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As to Antifeminism, the disbelief in the feminist cause is certainly another aspect of the problem for feminists, though data proved that to be likely a minor one. “One in five (20%) non-feminist women say they ‘do not believe that men and women are equal,’ while 14% of non-feminist men agree with this statement”, as Jamie Ballard reported for YouGov (Ballard 2018). Similarly, five years earlier for the same polling firm, the figure for those who aren’t sure or don’t believe in “social, political and economic” gender equality is 18% (“YouGov Poll” 2013).

One part of the reactionary force against the movement, according to Coste, came from the “contemporary conservative” faction within the movement, which holds “that women and men are now equals”. “‘[T]he new crop of young feminist ideologues coming out of our nation’s colleges are even angrier, more resentful, and more indifferent to the truth than their mentors’”, as well as “‘prissy, victim-mongering, philistine’ and ‘whining’”, as Coste quoted from self-described feminists Christina Hoff Sommers and Camille Paglia’s writings (Coste 2010).

However, this internal opposition may be minor in comparison with the religious fundamentalist currents and their political manipuations, most prominently the Evangelical movement within the conservative coalition, which Ms. Atwood focused much more on in her dystopia, might have considerable reactionary influence on Feminism, which the feminist movement may have counter-productively amplified. As a matter of history, almost at the same time when the Second-wave Feminism originated, the Fourth Great Awakening started in the early 1960s. Like Feminism, the Evangelical movement was expanded into the 70s with an extensive amount of activism. But unlike previous religious revivals, which mostly tolerated women to be empowered in the public realm through either religious or social activism, the new revivalism rose as a reaction to the feminist purpose of breaking the cultural subjugation of women in the workforce and the family structure. Billy Graham, a leading evangelist, rejected the feminist challenges of the roles of women in Christian traditions. In an article for a 1970 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal, he argued that “‘wife, mother, homemaker’” are “‘the appointed destiny of real womanhood… This is the Judeo-Christian ethic… [W]ith all the new freedom that Christ brought women, He did not free them from the Home’”, a statement which immediately drew criticisms (Hunter). He and other religious antifeminist arguments, indeed, have their roots traced back to the Bible, in which St. Paul stated “‘that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God’”, which “in other words, the hierarchical structure of the Church” is naturally “paralleled by the hierarchical structure of the couple, where the husband has authority over his wife” (Coste 2010).

from , President Bill Clinton waving a Bible following a church service in 2000.

The Handmaid’s Tale also “reveals that radical strains of [the feminist] movement could backfire, with disastrous results”, writes Alanna A. Callaway from San Jose State University in her literature thesis (Callaway). Situating her statement in history, although there are significant achievements such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Roe v. Wade Decision, as the Second-wave Feminism faded away in the early 1980s as the result of the outside backfires and internal divisions, other proposals like the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1972 were never able to be legally ratified and implemented, while the evangelical currents became politically popularized and electorally manipulated. To understand this “backfire”, one has to understand a main manipulative tactic politicians used for seeking and preserving power, the culture war. With Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the political manipulation of southern racism that puts almost all Republican presidential candidates onwards at an advantaged electoral position, being the classic precedent of the tactic, other issues like crime and immigration have also been weaponized in this manner, and the Evangelical Revivalism is no exception. “[In] the mid-1970s, Paul Weyrich, one of the Republican strategists, hit on a brilliant idea” — “the Republicans could pick up” the Evangelical and Catholic votes “by pretending to be opposed to abortion”, Noam Chomsky, a linguist and political activist from MIT, responded to journalist Amy Goodman at the Old South Church in Boston 2019. “Notice the word, pretense. It’s crucial. You go back to the 1960s, every leading Republican figure was strongly, what we call now, pro-choice.” he added, stressing the political motivations as “turned almost on a dime” (Chomsky 2019). Indeed, as “Governor of California”, Ronald Reagan, signed abortion legalization into law in 1967, a decision he had to “explain” as “‘inexperience[d]’” later during his presidential campaign in order to appeal to the anti-abortion and religious voting bloc, writes Françoise Coste for another scholarly e-journal Miranda (Coste 2016). Reagan was known for his outspoken opposition to the ERA and his role in undermining efforts of state ratifications during his presidency, which left the amendment aborted as it fell only “three states short of ratification” (United States, Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel). However, Prof. Doreen J. Mattingly from the Department of Women’s Studies in San Diego State University noticed, Governor Reagan was a key supporter of pro-ERA movements like “‘Each One Bring One (Man)’ rally in Los Angeles” during the California state’s process of ratification of the amendment, which was achieved during his governorship, as the pro-ERA stance was widely adopted on a bipartisan basis in Washington D.C. (Mattingly). “It didn’t become a major political phenomenon until Carter. Carter, who I presume was sincere, presented himself as a pious Christian. It was clearly understood, pretty well, that that’s an electoral gambit that we can use…” Chomsky said in an earlier C-SPAN book event in 2004 on religious elements in politics, “Since that time, just about every candidate for president, almost everyone, pretends to be a very religious Christian” (Chomsky 2004). Randall Balmer, a historian from Dartmouth College, wrote for Politico, “it wasn’t until 1979 — a full six years after Roe — that evangelical leaders” mobilized their constituency to activize against the re-election of Jimmy Carter, specifically touching on the subject of abortion, despite that Jimmy Carter’s Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan, never explicitly addressed opinions on such issues on his 1980 campaign trail (Balmer). The clashes between Feminism and Christian Fundamentalism on issues such as abortion might have strong correlational effects on the amplification of the general antipathy towards progress, political polarization, and increasing electoral manipulations. Data suggests, around the same time when Second-wave Feminism was popular, the 1970s saw a rapid increase in Evangelical affiliation, peaked in the 80s and 90s, and remained steady onwards even as religiously unaffiliated numbers rapidly increased ever since the 90s; meanwhile, the political partisanship among Evangelical voters also shifted from “Ind., Near Dem.” in the 1970s to “Lean Republican” in the 90s onwards (Burge).

Interestingly enough, the political problem in the Handmaid’s Tale is not only associated with religious fundamentalism, but a part of feminism as well. The Atwoodian model, Callaway argued, is not based on “men’s hatred of women” but the political manipulations of both the evangelical and the radical branch of the feminist movement, evident from the illustration of a combination of the radical feminist “gynocentric misogyny” and the conservative “‘traditional’ misogyny” into “one militaristic socio-religious order”. In other words, it is a patriarchy based on a matriarchy that’s “responsible for regulating women”, in which the matriarchal ideological basis can be traced back to radical feminism (Callaway). This political manipulation of extremisms regardless of real ideological or religious commitments, along with other political indications, such as the aunts’ doublespeak on morality that’s mocked by Moira as hypocritical, showed that the main political issue Ms. Atwood was concerned about goes beyond merely Feminism or Religious Fundamentalism, but the vulnerability of being politically manipulated in radical movements.

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Speaking of accusations of radicalism or extremism, data reveals that to be a prevalent cause behind the refusal in supporting Feminism. For non-feminist women in the 2018 YouGov survey, almost half (48%) of them think that “feminists are too extreme”, and “47% agree with the statement ‘the current wave of feminism does not represent true feminism’” (Ballard 2018). Catherine Morris believed that the perceptive notion of Feminism as “privileging women over men” partly accounts for its lack of appeal, a conclusion she drew from another Ipsos poll in which it showed 61% feminist identification among “American women” when the question specifically defined “feminist” as “‘someone who advocates and supports equal opportunities for women’” (Morris 2019).

The impression of feminist extremism might traces its roots to the irrationality in tactics, which Margaret Atwood was indirectly pointing towards in the book. Meanwhile, the lack of solidarity or disunity in the movement has been the leading factor behind the inability to confront the reactions. Callaway’s paper examined Atwood’s skepticism of the Second-wave Feminism in the book, in which Callaway suggested that none of the ideological branches of the Second-wave Feminism appealed to her. Atwood rejected the “‘gynocentric culture’” of Cultural Feminism by showing “a woman’s culture maintained through women’s cruelty towards one another”; the female-only exclusive nature of Separatism by showing the separation of commanders and wives, and the intolerance and disdain from Moira and Offred’s mother towards the romantic love towards male; the anti-capitalist elements of Materialist Feminism by revealing the intentional exploitation of the Marxist doctrine of planned economy; as well as the elimination of sexual roles of the Radical Feminism by revealing the feminist intolerance towards pornography (Callaway). Ms. Atwood isn’t hesitant to be critical of the recent developments of Feminism as well. Reported by an article from the Guardian, Ms. Atwood faced criticisms from the supporters of the #MeToo Movement over her skepticism in the tactics being used in the movement (Kassam). The tactics that Ms. Atwood was concerned about, as it’s expressed in her article for the Globe and Mail which the controversy was originated, is the cancel culture in the #MeToo Movement, which she categorized as “Salem witchcraft trials”, reflecting the intolerant irrationality of the handmaids in physically punishing the alleged sexually-abusive criminal under the aunt’s command in the book. Ms. Atwood contends that the linguistic violence involved as well as the irrationality of allegations without evidence, in which “the available mode of justice is thrown out the window”, might reinforce the “very old narrative that holds women to be incapable of fairness or of considered judgment” (which Atwood herself rejected) by “giving the opponents of women yet another reason to deny them positions of decision-making in the world”. Acknowledging the failures of the legal and corporate structure in providing the option for addressing and solving the injustice of sexism and sexual abuse, Ms. Atwood believed the internet, which the complainants have been forced to for emotion-focused coping, to be effective as “a massive wake-up call” for these issues. “But what next?” she asked. By forming a contrast between the centrism of “bad feminists” like herself and the dogmatic intolerance of “good feminists”, a divisive tendency she had observed from the past waves of Feminism that’s indirectly mirrored in the book through the hostility between females, Atwood warned against the disunity within the movement and advocated for utilizing this “very important moment” to reform the legal system in solidarity rather than “unproductive squabbling” (Atwood). Nevermind Ms. Atwood’s credit to the internet, many on social media immediately attacked her as “‘declaring war against younger, less powerful women’” and “‘uphold[ing] the power of her powerful male friend’”, which led her to reference the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to defend her right of “endorsing basic human rights for everyone” as “not equivalent to warring against women” (Kassam).

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Like most other dystopian novels, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has provided the theoretical possibility of a futuristic scenario, in which the structure and elements of the imaginary society was based on a mixture of sociopolitical concerns that can be traced from reality, from an individual perspective. Despite how fictional or fantastic it may be, with the focus on Feminism, Ms. Atwood’s work has largely aligned itself with conclusions drawn from recent data analyses and literature reviews. On a macro level, cited information offered many explanations for the lack of appeal of Feminism among the general population, including the popular apathy and conservative optimism on gender issues, the movement’s ideological and tactical irrationality and intolerance, and the proneness of political manipulation and polarization, many of which validated Ms. Atwood’s concerns for the movement shown in the book. Nuances about the question whether her concerns around this issue are relevant start to appear after adjusting the lens to a micro level. With the absence of military involvement in countering feminist progressions being the only obvious nuance or contradiction to her claim, other nuances need more in-depth qualifications. It’s also true that there’s no simple way of scientifically measuring the likelihood of such authoritarian dangers and predicting public reactions to them, therefore this conclusion can’t be deterministic or monolithic.

Concerning the dangers of rapid regressions, the religious revivalist reactions and their conservative political manipulations are a considerable part of the obstacles for the movement to be popularized. The religious fundamentalist movement’s vulnerability of being manipulated politically, which undermines the cause of the feminist movement, as history have shown in the 1970–80s with the conservative and religious currents as the regressive backfires, was evaluated importantly by Ms. Atwood. Evidence indicated that the political polarization drove both sides, particularly the religious fundamentalists but also potentially the feminists, to be exploited by power politics, in which the electoral manipulations strictly limited and might shake the foundations for the already-limited democratic structure of the United States. There’s no scientific experimental evidence that can be used to prove that the feminist movement directly contributed to the rapid growth of the Evangelical movement, but correlational charts were applied in the paper to suggest such conclusion, which is that the popular antipathy and the perception of extremism towards the feminist movement might be a potential factor behind the political radicalization of religious fundamentalists. On the other hand, the disunity within the feminist movement might arguably be much more serious. The feminist movement may have positive effects in unifying gender identity for the purpose of empowering females in their political life based mainly on shared victim status, but nevertheless, some tactics and principles applied might turn out to be counter-productive. In the meantime, the movement’s serious flaws, or any other outside factors like religious belief, don’t seem to have a swaying negative influence on the public opinion regarding gender equity and women’s rights. Data reveals that the popular apathy, optimism, and/or the lack of discussions on gender issues might provide the case for mirroring pre-Gileadean society in comparison with the current reality, the public awareness of these issues in reality seems not to be that low to a point when the society can placidly allow rapid authoritarian regressions like it’s in the book.

Besides the dangers, however, what’s more concerning for Ms. Atwood might be the preconditions for such dangers, rather than the dangers in themselves, which serves as more of an alarm that can raise the readers’ awareness of the problems. Ms. Atwood was also worried about the principles and tactics of the feminist movement. A crucial part of the consequence of the tactics she discussed publicly, including cancel culture, is the alienation and marginalization of the movement in the public, which restrains the great potential of Feminism from being realized, given that an overwhelming portion of the population reveals support for the core of the feminist ideals. Survey data gathered indicated prevalent reluctance and even antipathy towards the label “feminist”, validating such concerns as relevant and important. Another part of the consequence has to do with the unity of the movement. Having experienced deep divisions within the feminist sex wars in the 80s, she stressed the dangerous effects of this disunity in her book and recent articles, which may have significantly negative influence on the public perception of Feminism.

[1]: While one could argue that the same stratification and slavery were being applied to male gender as well, the gender suppression of females is way harsher and more explicit, and more central to the themes and concerns of the book. The absence of sexual slavery and class hostility in the male population, for example.

[2]: Or June Osborne.

[3]: Though that might not be the case in visual adaptations (film, TV, etc), but it’s clear in the book that the society was filled with fear, suspicions, and obedience after new rules were imposed.

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