Over the summer, hometown boredom encouraged me to preemptively browse through my fall 2022 courses and their corresponding reading lists. Since I’m an English major, each of my classes offered an abundance of novels to potentially fill my time. However, given the political climate, one title stood out amongst the course descriptions: Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Earlier this summer, on June 24, 2022, The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade with its ruling in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision — established in 1973 — famously granted women the constitutional right to abortion. However, the Dobbs decision reversed the laws created under Roe and returned the power of abortion regulation to each state and its elected representatives, declaring, “The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion.”
I focused my gaze on Atwood’s title. While the popular dystopian narrative turned Hulu adaptation already had reserved a spot on my personal reading list (even before the Dobbs decision), the novel quickly catapulted to my number-one reading slot given all the newfound media buzz it attracted in the latter part of summer 2022.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is set in the dystopian Republic of Gilead — a future regime that has replaced the United States of America. In Gilead, the female body is not an element of individual autonomy but instead a piece of government property. All birth control methods are illegal with the consequence of death should the law be disobeyed. Women of child-bearing capabilities become handmaids, meaning they are stripped of all rights and forced into a life of sexual servitude for high-ranking members of society. The handmaids must become pregnant with a Commander’s child through a monthly ceremony of nonconsensual sex. If impregnated, they are required to carry the fetus to term and give the infant to the Commander’s family immediately after birth.
Due to the novel and the subsequent Hulu show’s popularity, “The Handmaid’s Tale” quickly became a political symbol in the fight for abortion access and bodily autonomy. In response to the Dobbs v. Jackson discord, pro-choice protesters surrounded Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s house while dressed in crimson robes and white bonnets — the standard handmaid’s uniform.
Stephen King, like many other public figures, compared the United States to Gilead in a tweet that read, “Welcome to THE HANDMAID’S TALE.” Even Margaret Atwood released a piece in The Atlantic revealing how her novel is no longer as “far-fetched” as she once believed.
While “The Handmaid’s Tale” certainly offers powerful imagery amid the protests and political movements of the Supreme Court decision, it remains only one narrative amongst a robust field of literature pertaining to the oppression of women’s reproductive rights.
In conversation, Professor Valerie Traub, Adrienne Rich Distinguished Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan, applauded the impact of “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a political statement but also acknowledged the need to center more voices in the movement.
“They (pro-choice protestors dressed in handmaids’ garbs) were taking popular culture, something that is relevant to today’s young women, and translating it into the political arena. Everybody knew who protesters were dressed as without saying anything — a pretty exceptional piece of political theater,” Traub said.
“Does ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ speak about all women? No. Could it use better race analysis? Absolutely,” Traub said. “However, my focus would not be about critiquing ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ or the media for centering it in the discourse, but rather to say that we need to hear these other voices. We need to hear from women of Color.”
In the conversation of failing women of their basic reproductive rights, women of Color carry a particularly devastating history. “Forced sterilization of poor women of color is an American tradition,” writes journalist Natasha Lennard.
From the 1930s through the 1970s, Puerto Rican women were subjected to forced sterilization procedures under the jurisdiction of undisclosed birth control trials. In the Buck v. Bell case of 1927, the Supreme Court allowed the state of Virginia to perform sterilization procedures on women they considered mentally incompetent — disproportionally harming Native American women. Although Virginia removed its sterilization law in 1974, Buck v. Bell continues to stand with the Supreme Court’s original decision in 1927.
And with the theme of discrimination in the 20th century, Lennard writes, “Thirty-two states maintained federally funded eugenics boards, tasked with ordering sterilizations of women — and sometimes men — deemed ‘undesirable,’” a derogatory title typically reserved for women of Color and disabled individuals.
In her essay “Teaching Reproductive Justice in the Premodern Classroom,” Professor Traub highlights the intersectionality of race and reproductive rights.
“Given the way in which racial and class oppression intersect in the contemporary U.S., the risks of enforced pregnancy will fall disproportionately on Black and Brown women,” Traub wrote.
One narrative that Traub mentions in her essay is Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” — a novel that highlights the conditions in which oppressed and marginalized women were historically forced into impossible decisions about motherhood.
“Beloved” is a fictional narrative rooted in the horrific truth of Margaret Garner’s story. Margaret Garner was a Black female slave who escaped a Kentucky plantation in 1856 with her husband and children. Though they fled to Ohio for safety, Garner and her family were eventually caught. Rather than let her child return to a life of slavery, Garner decided to kill her young daughter. In the novel, the protagonist, Sethe, who is modeled after Margaret, spends the rest of her life as a free woman, but riddled with guilt and trauma because of the decisions she made as an enslaved mother.
Although Toni Morrison does not directly reference abortion or birth control, the “Beloved” narrative speaks to how women of color in the United States occupy a disproportionately horrific position throughout history in which decisions of sex, motherhood and child-bearing have been viciously stripped from them by systems of power, be they government control, an economy built around slavery, etc.
Also in her essay, Professor Traub cites the work of Maria Sibylla Merian, a 17th century German-born naturalist, who observed enslaved Black women in Suriname (a small country located on the southeastern coast of South America) using herbal remedies to abort fetuses so that their children would not be subjected to a life of slavery.
In the presence of “Beloved,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Professor Traub’s research, it’s no secret that women’s literature is a tool that cannot be ignored in the conversations about abortion and bodily autonomy.
“Women have been advocating for their own liberty and freedom for a really long time, and that goes back centuries,” Traub said. “Women’s literature is just one way. They write about their experiences, either fictionalized or non-fictionalized, as a way of saying their rights will be respected.”
Elaine Showalter, American literary critic and pioneer of gynocritics (a term used to describe feminist literary criticism), believes that a portion of the female experience and, therefore, women’s literature exists within “the wild zone” — a space where women’s culture fails to intersect with the male experience.
While it is certainly true that men cannot fully understand the depth to which women are affected by abortion regulations, privileged white women also cannot fully comprehend the ways in which the Dobbs decision impacted the lives of marginalized and underserved groups. Therefore, it is essential that we as a society acknowledge and center the voices of all rather than grasp onto a singular narrative. We must go further than “The Handmaid’s Tale” and start conversations about texts written by women of Color and other individuals who are and continue to be harmed by the Dobbs decision.
As the last of Michigan’s voters turn in their ballots on Nov. 8, I hope they contemplate Proposal 3. With the initiative to restore abortion regulations maintained under Roe in Michigan, Proposal 3 urges us to consider the voice of not only Margaret Atwood, but also Toni Morrison and the thousands of women who were forced to make hard decisions before us, and will continue to do so in the future.
Statement Columnist Reese Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.