Monday, April 4, 2016

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This is my selection for Women’s History Month. I finished it just at the end of March, but haven’t had a chance to sit down and write about it until now. Here are the past Women’s History Month selections:

I picked this book because, in the aftermath of several high-profile meltdowns of leaders of the Christian Patriarchy movement, some observers started pointing out just how much the subculture resembled this book. Perhaps most interesting was the suggestion that Doug Phillips’ victim was intended to be his “handmaid.”

Once I got into the book, the parallels were unmistakable, and in that sense, I am wondering if ignorance would have been bliss. Because this book seems all too prescient 30 years later about the trajectory of the Religious Right and shows all too well the real way that totalitarianism could come to the United States. (Hint: it isn’t the Affordable Care Act…)

First, a bit of background. Margaret Atwood is a Canadian author with a fairly wide range of works, from poetry to fiction to essays. She has a connection to the United States, though, that is quite interesting.

Back in 1683, in Puritan Massachusetts, there was an elderly widow named Mary Webster. She was accused of witchcraft, apparently for having “made” a man get sick and die by her spells. She was convicted, and hanged.

Except she didn’t die. The next morning, she was discovered to still be alive. She would go on to live for another 14 years.

The Webster family, however, was, understandably spooked by this whole episode, and high-tailed it to Canada. While not a direct descendant of Mary, Margaret Atwood was a descendant of the Webster tribe.

Appropriately, Atwood would write The Handmaid’s Tale during 1984, the setting of another work of dystopian fiction of that name by George Orwell. The impetus for the book, according to the author, was the claims that she kept hearing from Americans that totalitarianism “could never happen here.” Atwood granted that the United States would not likely end up with a Stalin or a Mao - but she contended that the United States could absolutely become totalitarian. But it would happen differently.

The theory was this - and I think it is a good one: totalitarian regimes do not simply arise de novo, but instead are incremental worsening of existing ideas and institutions. For example, Atwood notes that the KGB was just a meaner, more powerful version of the Tsarist secret police. And the agricultural bureaucracy of Mao just became a more dysfunctional and oppressive version of what already existed before communism. Atwood didn’t mention the Nazis, but I will. Hitler didn’t invent the holocaust. He simply made existing antisemitism and pogroms (dating back a couple thousand years) far worse. And he built on existing undercurrents of nationalism as well. It wasn’t a new idea, just a tapping of the worst instincts of what existed.

[I]f you wanted to seize power in the US, abolish liberal democracy and set up a dictatorship, how would you go about it? What would be your cover story? It would not resemble any form of communism or socialism: those would be too unpopular… Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren't there already. Thus China replaced a state bureaucracy with a similar state bureaucracy under a different name, the USSR replaced the dreaded imperial secret police with an even more dreaded secret police, and so forth. The deep foundation of the US – so went my thinking – was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself. Like any theocracy, this one would select a few passages from the Bible to justify its actions, and it would lean heavily towards the Old Testament, not towards the New.

For Atwood, then, her view was that American totalitarianism wouldn’t be something imposed from outside, like a communist takeover, or a total change in natural character. It would be a combination of a return to the supposedly glorious past, combined with the exploitation of the most pernicious parts of our national character.

I believe Atwood is correct that it is our puritanical history - which continues to influence us today - that would function as the driving force in a revolution. She also notes our continuing problem with racism and white supremacy. These appear in the book, but they are not the main point, as she chooses to focus on the issue of gender and sexuality. Also prescient is her choice to use a faked Islamic attack to trigger the revolution.

In fact, the Islam connection is a double one. We often tend to forget that it was in the 1970s that the rise of radical Islam came to pass. The Iranian Revolution in 1978 started a cascade wherein expressly “Islamic” regimes came into existence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia followed, with Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon a few years later. While the characters of the different governments differed - and have taken different paths - a combination of anti-Western sentiment and suppression of dissent brought an instability to the world that continues today. I’m far too little of a history scholar to trace the effects of repeated foreign intervention in Afghanistan, but I can say that the Taliban - which took over in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union roughly in 1996 - is the closest analogue to Atwood's dystopian vision in The Handmaid’s Tale. In that sense, she was a true prophet. A bit off on time and place, but astonishingly correct nevertheless.

Atwood also draws ideas from other countries, from the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe (for the way that people were bought off for privileges) to the Philippines (for state sanctioned murders of dissidents by the citizens) to Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu (obsession with fertility and outlawing of birth control - leading to the orphanage crises and a generation of psychologically damaged orphans).   
In the book, a faux-Islamic attack succeeds in assassinating the president and blowing up Congress. Martial law is instituted, and the Christian Fundamentalists behind the assassinations takes over before anyone can realize what is happening.

The revolutionaries promise to restore order, and set about consolidating their power. The story is hard to figure out at first, because the narrator tells things in a series of flashbacks. But she is so traumatized by what has happened to her that the past comes in pieces, and out of order. It is not until near the end that one can really figure it all out.

At the risk of spoilers, here is the end result.


Like with the Taliban, the fundamental goal of the fundamentalists (sorry) is to undo all the gains of Feminism and “restore” things to how they were in the glory days of the past. And that past is defined much the same way as the Taliban defines it.

It is nothing less than a return to the power structures and social hierarchies recreated from the respective holy books. And not just, say, Greco-Roman society, as unpleasant as that may be. Rather, going full Old Testament.

I will also add here that the vision of both radical Islam and fundamentalist Christianity in this book is worse than either’s past. Because you can’t just turn the clock backwards. You have to actively destroy institutions, rights, and a great many people in order to institute the grand vision. (That this sounds like the Communist purges is no accident. See above.) Just one example, throughout most of the ancient world, women may well have been sub-human, but they usually had the ability to have employment and money - at least in some circumstances.

Because toxic waste and diseases have lowered fertility catastrophically, women are suddenly in great demand. At least fertile ones. The others, well, they are expendable for the most part.

In this fictitious “Republic of Gilead,” there is a patriarchal hierarchy. At the top are (of course) the bigwigs. These are the architects of the revolution, and the ones with the real power. Below them are the soldiers (fighting an endless war against, well, it isn’t exactly clear), the police forces (militarized), and the secret police. Those who don’t make the cut are eliminated. And, boy, are there a lot to be eliminated.

First, this is a theocracy, so all non-Christians must go. For the Jews, well, they can convert or be shipped to Israel. (Unfortunately for most of them, the job was contracted out to the Halliburton of this world, who dumped most of them in the ocean to improve profit margins.) Muslims and others are murdered. Oh, and this isn’t a multi-cultural republic either, the “Sons of Ham” - that is, as any student of the history of American Slavery can tell you - African Americans - are cordoned off on reservations.  (It is strongly implied that Hispanics and other minorities are either evicted or murdered. In any event, only whites get to reproduce.)

And then there are others to purge. Only those who have been married only once have “legitimate” marriages. So any remarried persons (like the narrator, who married a divorced man) have their marriages broken up. More on them later. And what about sexual minorities? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? Gay men are easy. They are “traitors to gender” and are either executed, or if they are “lucky,” sent along with the childless or otherwise undesirable women (aka “unwomen”) to collect toxic waste and die an early death.

Lesbians are different, though, because they are potentially fertile. They, like the narrator, have a different destiny.

Women too have a hierarchy. Those married to the head honchos are “wives,” dressed in blue (like the Virgin Mary). They have certain privileges, but are still practically prisoners in their own homes - as are all women. (The parallels to the Taliban regime a decade later are incredible.)

Below the “wives” are the “cheapwives.” These are the lower class, married to a man who can support them, and perhaps children, but nothing further. They wear a multi-colored garment representing the fact that they have to do everything.

Lower still are the “Marthas,” the servant class. These are typically older women who are considered safe, but not sources of children. They fulfil the basic roles that servants of the past have - for the rich households, of course. And, because they have no real choice in employment, they are really slaves. Similar in status are the “aunts,” who train and supervise the “handmaids.”

The lowest legitimate class, before you get to the “unwomen” are the “handmaids.” These are named after the “handmaids” of the Old Testament patriarchal period. Bilhah and Zilbah, who bore Jacob sons, and Hagar, who bore Abraham’s son Ishmael. They are, as the narrator describes it, “two legged wombs,” intended to bear children. These are those of childbearing age who are believed to be fertile, usually because they have already had children. (Those children have been taken from them and adopted out to rich families.) The job of a handmaid is to have sex (in a ritualized manner) with the wealthy man to whom they are given, so that she can have a child for the infertile legitimate wife. If they fail, they are declared unwomen and shipped out to the death camps.

I noted above the way one became a handmaid. One needed to be young and fertile, naturally. But generally, one ended up that way because one had engaged in some perceived sexual transgression. More than one lifetime sexual partner. Lesbian. Married a divorced man. And on and on. According to the epilogue, when “legitimate” fallen women ran short, offenses were created to drag more young women into the ranks of handmaids.

I won’t go further into the plot than that at this time. It is a dark vision, where women have lost nearly all autonomy. They are forbidden to read, kept in their homes, and viewed as being worth only as much as their uterus can create. Sex for pleasure is forbidden (although it occurs, certainly), and any sense of equality between genders is considered the height of evil.

One thing I wanted to specifically note in this review is that Atwood has clearly done her research. She knows the language of fundamentalism.

I have noted often on this blog that my family spent time in a fundamentalist cult when I was in my teens. In fact, my law school education came from the school started by that cultMy wife, likewise, spent time in a similar - and if anything more misogynist - group. Even if we hadn’t, we have spent enough time in Evangelicalism to know the language well ourselves. Part of my journey over the last decade and a half has been to realize just how much American Christianity has been seduced by fundamentalism (in the cultural sense) and how much the language of misogyny has infiltrated the politics of the Religious Right.

The language of the Republic of Gilead could be lifted from today’s Religious Right - and our current Republican Party.

It was just a bit scary. Women belong in the home. Women are raped because of what they were wearing. Women's bodies are dangerous and cause men to sin. Men only want one thing. The greatest calling a woman can have is that of wife and mother. Women need men to protect them from other men. And many more that I didn’t write down as I read it. The whole freaking culture is the same.

Atwood is writing fiction, so she takes things to their logical extreme. That is part of her craft, and it is a useful device in literature. (Orwell was a master of it as well. And Jonathan Swift.) But the uncomfortable part is that she may have thought she was exaggerating, but she was closer than I would have believed, had I read this back in the 1980s. (I mean, assuming I was old enough to understand with me.)

But seriously, the Taliban wasn’t far off. Actually, the evidence is that the Taliban came darn close to re-creating the Republic of Gilead.

And within certain sub-cultures here in the United States, the Republic exists. Just minus the backup of military force. One great example is that of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints. Who apparently have had their own fertility issues due to generations of inbreeding

But also within the Christian Patriarchy movement. I know. I have heard nearly everything in this book from acquaintances, friends. And yes: family too if I am honest.

Let me note just a few:

One of the handmaids-in-training as part of the brainwashing, is forced to confess that she was raped and had an abortion at 14. (Or at least make up a story that she did.)

But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.
Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.
Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, please with us.
She did. She did. She did.
Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?
Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.

Oh wait, that sounds like it came straight out of a Bill Gothard teaching!

Or how about this one, about childbirth?

Once they drugged women, induced labor, cut them open, sewed them up. No more. No anesthetics, even. Aunt Elizabeth said it was better for the baby, but also: I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.

Yep, heard that one as an argument for mandatory home childbirth from fundies. Not that I am opposed to home birth, exactly. I was born at home, and for uncomplicated births, sure, why not? And, bottom line, I’m not a woman. Your body. Your birth choice. But this isn’t about choice. It’s about telling women their pain is a punishment for the evils of Eve and womankind in general.

Oh, and about one I mentioned above.

Men are sex machines, said Aunt Lydia, and not much more. They only want one thing. You must learn how to manipulate them, for your own good. Lead them around by the nose; that is a metaphor. It’s nature’s way. It’s God’s device. It’s the way things are.

Honestly, from Fascinating Womenhood on down, this is THE message of pretty much every “Christian” book on marriage and relationships. Men want sex. Women (who don’t deserve equal power in relationships) have to learn to use sex to manipulate men into getting what they want. That’s really what “Men trade love for sex, women trade sex for love” actually means. It is hard to think of one idea that I had to unlearn about women after my own marriage that is as damaging as this one. And yet it sells. And is presented as a key part of the Gospel itself.

There is another passage that really hit home. The narrator, Offred (meaning “Of Fred,” because her identity is that of the man who has the legal right to rape her to produce offspring) has a complicated relationship with Fred, because he wants to conduct an illegal personal relationship with her behind his wife’s back. And what can she do? Damned if she does and damned if she don’t. He is “mansplaining” to her how much better things are now than they were, when women had to spend vast sums of money and time trying to catch a suitable man, and even if she did, he might leave her, etc. He dismisses the idea that having a job and income was worth it.

Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they’re protected, they can fulfil their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement.

When Offred points out that all this overlooks love and romance, he dismisses that as well.

Oh yes, he said. I’ve read the magazines, that’s what they were pushing, wasn’t it? But look at the stats, my dear. Was it really worth it, falling in love? Arranged marriages have always worked out just as well, if not better.

I. Have. Freaking. Heard. Both. Of. These. From friends. And yes, from family. The points missed, among others, of course, are that the reason that parenting in general is sometimes disrespected is that it is “women’s work,” and that the reason arranged marriages were “more successful” is that women were bought and sold and couldn’t leave even if abused. Yep, definitely better.

And it goes on and on. Women need to dress “modestly,” “shamefacedly.” Women should not teach. (In fact, at the handmaid indoctrination center, scripture is played on an otherwise forbidden phonograph in a man’s voice so that the women do not have to “teach.” Oh, yes, I’ve been part of groups that believed the same thing. And John Piper won’t allow women to read scripture in his church…) Women are more easily deceived. They should remain silent. They are saved through childbearing.

Just one more. The Republic of Gilead presents their vision of female subservience through two perspectives. First is, obviously, the theonomic application of Old Testament texts. Second, though, is an appeal to “nature.” The era of feminism - and the idea that women are fully human and not the property of men - is fairly recent in the history of human civilization. As Fred puts it, talking about Offred’s past:

Those years were just an anomaly, historically speaking, the Commander said. Just a fluke. All we’ve done is return things to Nature’s norm.

Oh yes. Heard this one a lot as well. Gender essentialism and the misogyny of the past dressed up as “the way things are.” Here’s the ever-loathsome Doug Wilson:

When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed.But we cannot make gravity disappear just because we dislike it, and in the same way we find that our banished authority and submission comes back to us in pathological forms. This is what lies behind sexual “bondage and submission games,” along with very common rape fantasies. Men dream of being rapists, and women find themselves wistfully reading novels in which someone ravishes the “soon to be made willing” heroine. Those who deny they have any need for water at all will soon find themselves lusting after polluted water, but water nonetheless.True authority and true submission are therefore an erotic necessity. When authority is honored according to the word of God it serves and protects — and gives enormous pleasure. When it is denied, the result is not “no authority,” but an authority which devours."

See, the way the world is, according to Doug - and according to the Republic of Gilead - is that women MUST be submissive to men. And their bodies are not their own, but belong to men. That’s the whole foundation of the belief. As I pointed out previously, for Doug, orgasms themselves MUST be had only in the context of a man dominating a woman. 

That’s “nature.” (I might say, “that’s Darwinism.” But I’m sure that’s heresy, right?)

I want to touch on just a few more points.

The first is this. It is easy to forget in our modern times, but Patriarchy was never just about gender. It is about a whole system of hierarchies wherein the superior rule (hopefully benevolently) over the inferior. As Aristotle put it in Politics, the freeman ruled women, children, and slaves. The slavery is every bit as important to the system as the subjugation of women. The defenders of American Slavery understood this point well, and the modern defenders of the “peculiar institution” likewise make no bones about it.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, there is likewise a need for a hierarchical social structure to preserve power and control the masses. Without the hierarchy, the whole system crumbles. As any dictator could tell you, one major threat to any system is young men without a future. Gilead utilizes the same technique to control the young men while preserving power for the privileged old men that Radical Islam uses. First, there is an endless war, which decimates the male population, while giving opportunities for glory and advancement. If the young male just works hard enough, long enough, he might, just might, eventually get to have sex. Thus, sex is used as a motivation so that the young do the bidding of “the tired old [men] that we call kings.” (Thank you, Don Henley.) Speaking of the young soldiers:

They think instead of doing their duty and of promotion to the Angels [full soldiers], and of being allowed possibly to marry, and then, if they are able to gain enough power and live to be old enough, of being allotted a Handmaid of their own.

Offred sways her hips a little, enjoying the only power she has, which is to drive these men mad.

Then I find I’m not ashamed after all. I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there. I hope they get hard at the sight of us and have to rub themselves against the painted barriers, surreptitiously. They will suffer, later, at night, in their regimented beds. They have no outlets now except themselves, and that’s a sacrilege.

And that, I believe, is a distillation of the Religious Right’s message to the young men right now. Never mind that we have made it harder and harder to marry before age thirty. Maybe if you work hard enough you can marry someday. Oh, and don’t masturbate, because that is a sacrilege…

One more that I need to mention. The first step of the “revolution” was to take away the financial independence of women. There were two parts to this. First, because electronic payments had replaced cash, all female accounts were terminated, and the balances transferred to husbands or male next of kin. Second, women were forbidden the right to employment. (Okay, they could still be servants - slaves, really.)

This, as the narrator notes, changed everything. I will also note that it is harsher than it has been in history, but it is also very much the goal of fundamentalist religion. (From the Taliban to Christian Patriarchy.) Once a woman has something of her own (as the saying used to be), she has some degree of power. Here is the scene after Offred loses her job. Luke is her then-husband, before they were separated and their child taken from them.

That night, after I’d lost my job, Luke wanted to make love. Why didn’t I want to? Desperation alone should have driven me. But I still felt numbed. I could hardly even feel his hands on me.
What’s the matter? He said.
I don’t know, I said.
We still have...he said. But he didn’t go on to say what we still had. It occurred to me that he shouldn’t be saying we, since nothing that I knew of had been taken away from him.
We still had each other, I said. It was true. Then why did I sound, even to myself, so indifferent?
He kissed me then, as if now I’d said that, things could get back to normal. But something had shifted. Some balance. I felt so shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.
He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, anymore. Instead, I am his.
Unworthy, unjust, untrue. But that is what happened.

This scene has haunted me.

Just to turn the tables, imagine as a man, losing the ability to make a living. And having to depend on a woman for every dime one has. I’ve seen it happen. And very, very few marriages survive the change in power. Particularly the ones in which the man was the sole provider. His very identity has been stripped away and now he is “unmanned,” so to speak.

My wife has always been employed, and currently contributes roughly half to our family’s finances. And this makes for a particular dynamic. I happen to like it, as I am an egalitarian, and prefer a companionate marriage. But it would be hard on both of us if either were to be out of work. It would shift a dynamic in a way that would be unpleasant for both of us. Either direction.

The reason this is haunting is that the “Christian” ideal within Evangelicalism these days is that the man bring home the bacon. The thrust of the Religious Right has been, since the days of Phyllis Schlafly, to “restore” the world to “nature’s” way, where men are manly, and women are dependent, and so on. I fear that this is the ultimate end game for the Religious Right, both in the church, and in society, and I know in my heart that the loss of this independence and a demotion to a dependent status would be crushing to so many women - and terrible for many of us men as well. Offred knows Luke hurts for her - and his later actions prove it. But still, psychologically, she is correct. He has lost NOTHING. If anything, he has gained power and privilege. While she has lost.

As the Commander puts it eventually, after his attempts to draw Offred into having an opinion fails:

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.
Better? I say in a small voice. How can he think this is better?
Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

Indeed it does. And the heartrending part of this book is that Offred yearns - as we all would - for the days when she could just be. She could be married. She could have a daughter. She could have a job, and money of her own, and go running in normal clothes, and tan by the beach in a bikini, and read, and be. I suspect many in the totalitarian states of today feel the same way. (The Kite Runner is similarly haunting for the destruction of a way of life.) The very point of the fundamentalist desire for a theocracy is that women (and to a lesser degree, men) have no right to just be, to live their lives as they choose. They are to be owned and controlled by men at all times.

My own fundie experience wasn’t this bad, obviously, although my wife’s was worse. But over the last few years, watching friends and acquaintances emerge from the nightmare of Christian Patriarchy. It is very much like waking up from Offred’s nightmare, where their bodies and selves were owned by their fathers, then by their husbands - if they didn’t escape first. It’s all there. The rape culture, the Modesty Culture, the hostility toward education for women. The whole thing.

Offred discovers a pseudo-Latin quote inscribed by her predecessor handmaid, who later hung herself. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

I can say with honesty that this has been the unspoken motto of so many who have escaped this subculture. And it remains a motivating factor for me, in my own battle against the creeping Patriarchy within the American church and politics. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.


Note on past politics:

Atwood patterned a character, the Commander Fred’s wife, “Serena Joy” after two real-life persons. First is Phyllis Schlafly, mentioned above. She was the foremost female face of the dawn of the Religious Right, which coalesced around the cause of opposing desegregation. (See the notes at the bottom of this post.) The secondary cause was to oppose feminism, which, as fellow Religious Right founder and now certified loony Pat Robertson said at the time, “encourage women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” (Wait, I’ve heard that sentiment a thousand times too!) Schlafly would, to paraphrase, encourage women to “return home, to let their husbands provide, and to use their femininity and feminine wiles as the core of their success and fulfilment as women." Serena Joy was also patterned after Tammy (Bakker) Messner, the wife of televangelist Jim Bakker (who later did time for financial crimes.) The composite character used her fame to call for women to stay home, but then found herself miserably unhappy when her only outlets were knitting and gardening, and her only way to get out of her own home was to call on a “sick” neighbor. The hypocrisy, of course, of a Schlafly, who farmed her own child care out to nannies while having her own bank account, is palpable.

Schlafly, of course, appears to have not changed at all, openly endorsing The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named in significant part because of his racist platform.

Messner’s story was both more tragic and yet heartening. After Jim fell from grace, she took the brunt of the blame, despite the fact that he controlled everything. (Good submissive wife, yo.) Because, as in Gilead, in American Christianity, the woman is always to blame. Jim is now selling survivalist gear to people who were probably his audience before. Tammy died a few years back from cancer, after years as a pariah. Ironically, before her death, she was embraced by the very people she castigated during her televangelist years: the LGBT community. She would later say that the love and, yes, grace she received from her LGBT fans exceeded anything she got from the “Christian” community.

Note on current politics:

The Republic of Gilead remains alive and well in the Republican party these days. I’ve already blogged on the re-emergence of racism as a driving force in the success of The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named among Evangelicals. 

Less known is the connection that the second choice candidate has with the Dominionist movement. I won’t get into all of it here, but just note that Ted Cruz has been a featured speaker at a conference led by Kevin Swanson. Right before Cruz spoke, Swanson openly called for the execution of gays and lesbians. That’s not all of his crazy, either. He has claimed that women who take birth control have thousands of dead babies embedded in their uteruses, claimed that Frozen will turn kids to beastiality, claimed that the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks deserved it because the rock concert was “a worship service to Satan,” and so on and on. Google him. Primary sources are easy to find.

Perhaps most telling is his claim that sending girls to college will result in them “having two abortions or becoming lesbian.” And even worse, the idea that a woman might work. 

Basically, plug him into The Handmaid’s Tale as a bigwig in The Republic of Gilead and he would fit right in. And this is someone that that no fewer than three major GOP candidates (also Huckabee and Jindal) would gladly share a stage with without apology. This is not a pleasant thought. And it is one that has gotten too little airplay, probably because the front runner is even worse.  

(In addition to these three, I’ll also note that the “moderate” former candidate, Marco Rubio, has an affiliated PAC headed by none other than Russell Moore, one of the founders of the Counsel for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which calls for women to submit to men in the home, church, and society. I’ve written about them and their failure to condemn domestic violence here.  Also note that Moore has complained that too many marriages are “functionally egalitarian” and called for a return to Patriarchy, complete with hostility to contraception and a belief that all of society needs to reflect “male headship.” This includes the idea that men earn and control money, women stay at home and make babies. Again, he would be perfectly at home in the Republic of Gilead.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your 21st Century GOP: the party of the Republic of Gilead. Things have changed since I was a kid in the Reagan years...


Just a reminder from a wise man:


  1. I love the book and love your well-researched essay here. "A Handmaid's Tale" is one of the most frightening books I've read as an older adult. Had I read it as a younger woman, involved in a legalistic church, I don't think it would have had the profound effect it did. In some ways, it is like the proverbial trainwreck in that as much as I'd like to look away, I can't. I believe the poignant and pertinent messages in Atwood's tale are cause for the disgust I feel watching the current presidential race unfold.

    1. "I believe the poignant and pertinent messages in Atwood's tale are cause for the disgust I feel watching the current presidential race unfold." Isn't that the truth.

      I am becoming more and more convinced that the *real* culture war is one over gender roles and hierarchy - and the American Church is on the wrong side.

    2. What really bothers me is that – in my experience, at least – these attitudes do not well up from the little people down at the grassroots level, but are broadcast by the people at the top and trickle down to the little people as the correct godly attitudes to hold.

      Item: I attended Wheaton College in the early 70s. Every single school break, Bill Gothard was on campus for a Basic Youth Conflicts seminar. Some say that Wheaton was just renting Edman Chapel to him, but that doesn't fully explain why nearly every student had been to at least one seminar and had a fat red binder standing next to their Bible on their bookshelves. Or why a Wheaton Bible prof was on Gothard's board into the 80s. Or why I don't remember hearing anyone (except Gordon Fee in a private conversation) – not in daily chapel, or in the five required Bible and theology classes, or in required Christ and Culture – criticizing or even questioning Gothard's teaching. According to the present president of Wheaton: "Wheaton is definitional for the evangelical movement. That is, what happens at Wheaton shapes what the evangelical church is like in the United States." Yes! I know of die-hard Gothard followers who went home to their up-scale conservative Presbyterian churches in well-off East Coast cities to put Gothard's teaching into practice and support their fellow congregants in doing so.

      Item: I grew up in a fundamentalist – and some say legalistic – denomination made up of poorly educated (5 years of war and another 5 of refugee camps will do that to people) blue-collar workers, but it was not until I got to Wheaton that I heard that women should be silent in churches. Women in my home church led in out-loud prayer, read Scripture from the pulpit, taught teenaged boys in Sunday School, ran summer camps and old people's homes, and, on one memorable Sunday evening, when a Pentecostal woman preacher showed up unexpectedly, she was invited to preach the sermon. But one morning at Wheaton's College Church – adjacent to the campus and attended at that time by the college president as well as other prominent profs – a visiting missionary was “allowed” to read the Scripture or pray (I forget which) only because she was so special.

      Item: Those were the days when Elisabeth Elliot – an Evangelical aristocrat in every way – wrote a book called Let me be a woman. At an anti-ERA rally featuring Phyllis Schlafly, Elliot said: “Egalitarianism to me is not a goal to be desired. It is a dehumanizing distortion. Let me be a woman.”

      Item: I worked for a denomination that did ordain women, though I think that redefining ministry as “servant leadership” may have had something to do with that. The locus of power had shifted elsewhere. None of the denomination's agencies – not missions, not relief, not publishing, not financial services – were headed by a woman. Within the past 3 years, in the agency for which I worked, only 2 of the top 11 administrators were women. A search committee for a new top administrator consisted of 9 men and 2 women – and one of those was the secretary to the CEO and secretary to the committee. A delegation to a leadership conference proudly listed 7 or 8 men and 1 woman. As I told my boss, I'm all for gender neutrality until it's clear there isn't any.

      At 60+, I have become a “none” as far as any institutional Christianity. What does it offer the beautiful and brilliant girl to whom my son is committed? Or her sisters who are passionate about justice? Or their mother who has already been wounded by another religion's denigration of women? Amanda Marcotte wrote in that the Religious Right was turned away from overt racism to overt sexism as its defining feature. If none of the people at the top challenge gender profiling and discrimination but instead encourage and contribute to it, how can I, in good conscience, put those I love at risk by showing any kind of support?

    3. Wow. That's quite a comment - in a good way.

      "I'm all for gender neutrality until it's clear there isn't any." Great, great line.

      I'm very much with you that there isn't a heck of a lot that institutional Christianity has to offer competent women who do not wish to make motherhood their sole identity. And yes, racism has become mostly implied rather than explicit, but overt sexism is indeed the defining feature.

    4. Also thoroughly agree that gender hierarchy is definitely coming from the top. I suspect if left alone, most ordinary Christians would have embraced egalitarianism. (I personally know enough people who tried to force an egalitarian marriage into a hierarchy because that's what they were taught. Some, fortunately, realized it was damaging the relationship before it was too late.)

    5. Forgot the most important thing: How does anti-equality of any kind lift Jesus up so that He can draw all people to Himself? Saying “we're not all like that” is unconvincing when those who are “definitional” for the Church persist in defining some people as less equal than others.

    6. That's what we egalitarians have been saying for a long time.
      I can say, though, that (among others) Bill Gothard clearly taught that the foundational "reality" of the created world was one of hierarchy. Christ, then the husband/father, then the wife, and on the bottom the children...
      Or, as I have heard it said so many times, "If God comes to your house, he is going to ask to speak to the head of the household." Just like he did with Mary, right? Oops.

  2. I've been meaning to read this for a while, but this review has upped its position on my to-read list!

    I was shocked but excited to see Samantha Bee call out not just the Kevin Swanson story, but "dominionist theology" by name!!

    1. Yes. That was a good one. A few others have picked it up. It might or might not gain traction if Trump is the nominee, but I expect it will blow up if Cruz wins a contested convention.

  3. I cannot count the number of times this book has been recommended on the spiritual abuse / anti-patriarchy / feminist blogosphere. I'd written it down as a recommended book to read at some point, but it just got bumped way, WAY up the list after reading this.

    Just about anything with a connection to the New England Puritans will make me geek out completely. Studying them is pretty much one of my permanent hobbies for a couple reasons. The Scarlet Letter is one (it's one of my favorite books of all time, thus my blog name and the fact that my normal internet handle is Hester). They're also a sizable chunk of my ancestors on the paternal side. I recently finished a short book on a witch trial the same year as Salem but in Stamford, CT so I'll have to look up that Webster case.

    The "men are emotions-free sex machines" thing is so profoundly ingrained in our psyche, that I think it's something we have to actively unlearn even we were raised outside the fundy bubble. (If you were raised in the bubble even more so.) And I know this is a bit of a tangent, but unlearning this stuff has very tangible immediate impacts if you write fiction at all. Because there are loads of stories where the male half of a romance is way underdeveloped because this toxic idea about men infiltrated the character creation process. Men have emotions in romantic relationships just as much as women. And having written fiction as a hobby for years, I can just about watch myself unlearn these ideas I believed while in the bubble when I read my old stuff in chronological order. Big surprise: my older characters, more often than not, sucked. (And not just because I was 15 at the time either.)

    Another thing I really don't get about it: the same people who spout this stuff about men only wanting sex, will turn around and share news articles about some adorable 96yo couple who still go on dates, died holding hands, etc. Do they really believe that a relationship like that happened because the husband was just about sex that whole time and the wife was just about using sex to manipulate him? Really? This defies all reason, and yet, people just don't seem to notice the problem.

    I've known for years about the Cruz Dominionist connection. You should check out the website Talk2Action if you haven't already. Loads of stuff on his connections to this thing called the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), which is basically Reconstructionism for Pentecostals/charismatics. Cruz is creepy as hell. He only looks "better" by comparison because The Grand Trumpkin is also in the room.

    1. You might find interesting the poem Atwood wrote about Mary Webster.
      "Half Hanged Mary."

      You are right that the Men Only Want One Thing myth is in our culture, not just in Fundamentalism.

      I think I always knew that it was wrong as applied to *me.* My wife and I joke that I am the woman in our marriage. As much as I love sex, I want commitment, snuggles, long talks, and a family. I never understood the womanizing alpha male thing at all. Where the deprogramming was harder was in learning to understand women differently. Because so many "Christian" women have been taught to manipulate rather than negotiate as an equal, it was hard for me to learn to not read more into sex than it needed. It was not a reflection, one way or another, on my success or failure as a husband. (Honestly, more a reflection of the amount of sleep the kids let us have...)

      If my observation of good (and bad) marriages has shown me anything, it is that the long and happy ones always have mutual respect, friendship, love - and mutual sexual chemistry.

      I'll have to check out the Talk2Action link. I agree that the only reason we aren't talking about how absolutely disastrous Cruz is is that The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named is getting all the attention.

    2. Hah! When people jokingly say something about my husband "not letting" me do something, or being angry about something, whatever, I always respond, "I'm a whole lot meaner than he is." And it's true. I am the aggressive one of the pair -- not mean, actually, but forward, outspoken (just won a speech contest, actually). I asked him out, or rather, over to watch a video and, uh, "chill." (I believe that's what the kids are calling it these days.) I was older -- still am! -- more experienced, more confident.

      He's still the gentler soul -- sentimental and sweet, prone to anxiety about living up to his ideals of character -- though I have seen him again and again be scared half-blind yet move ahead and walk through his fear to do what needs to be done, my idea of true and brilliant courage.

      So, yeah, I was an outspoken, independent, sexually and socially aggressive woman who hit on a younger guy not because she wanted something else, but because she liked the way his jeans fit -- and wound up dazzled by the fact that he was the best man she ever met.

      26 years together, 21 years married next month. I'm still crazy about the guy, and he gives every evidence of returning the sentiment. Apparently breaking all the rules has worked for me.

    3. Awww. That's such a sweet story. I identify with your husband. I am not a natural risk taker either, so the fact that I ended up self-employed is surprising. However, I would never have done it if I didn't have my wife's income to back me up.

      I may have asked my wife out, but she proposed first - a mere 4 months into our relationship. She said "I found a ring, when are you going to propose?" She wasn't *entirely* joking. :) I think we both knew a few weeks in that we were getting married. It was just a matter of taking our time so I could finish law school, pass the bar, and get a job. (And let her get a few years of school in. She had one year of nursing school left when we got married.)

      I love strong, outspoken - and yes, aggressive women too. Less game playing ;)

      (BTW, your comment posted twice, so I deleted the duplicate.)

  4. "She could have a job, and money of her own, and go running in normal clothes, and tan by the beach in a bikini, and read, and be."

    Or maybe even tan with her shirt off entirely. See Europe.

  5. Thank you very much! I had contemplated reading the book, but what I had heard about it (and contemporary US politics) made it even more frightening...

  6. Isn't that always the way, punish the women if you can't stamp out human desire. The novel seems like it a counterpoint to the 60s and 70s: sexual freedom vs unliberated sex. I loved this book when I read, and I did read it back in the 80s! I always thought of it as science fiction. The parallels to Christian Patriarchy that you draw gives me much to think about. Honestly, I don't think I ever used the phrase Christian Patriarchy before I started reading your blog.

    As an aside, 1985 was a great year for fiction. Other notable works from that year included White Noise, Blood Meridian and Love In the Time of Cholera.

    1. I might have to check out those other titles.

      "Isn't that always the way, punish the women if you can't stamp out human desire."


      If you have read my wife's story, she was indeed scapegoated as a teen to cover for horny old men. That has always been the way it goes.

  7. Excellent analysis as always, and very timely.

    There is a Robert Heinlein novel called If This Goes On that covers the same ground in a similarly prophetic way. It was first published in 1941--!

    1. My brother has always talked up Heinlein to me. One of these days, I should borrow one from his collection.

      Interesting about the 1941 date. If I were to name a turning point in American feminism, it would be WWII. That was the point of no return for women in the workforce.

  8. Excellent review. This book has been recommended to me by friends as a "must read" for years. I should probably take up that offer sometime soon

  9. Looked this up finally. Quick clarification on the Webster case history. From the sources available, it appears the court in Boston actually found Webster innocent of witchcraft, but her neighbors blamed her for causing a man's illness a few years later, which was when the hanging occurred (due to a belief that "disturbing" the witch, i.e., beating her or something similar, would help relieve her victim's suffering).

    This is actually fairly common from what I've studied - the court had far higher standards for proving witchcraft, which usually didn't go over well with the woman's neighbors, who were already convinced the devil was involved. Thus, vigilante "justice" was sometimes enacted once the woman got home.

  10. This doesn't look like a book that I would read, but I found what your wrote fascinating in a horrible sort of way. It sounds frighteningly accurate in too many ways! My dad has been saying for years that we have more to fear from an extreme religious right government than from a liberal one. So much of what you told here hangs together with things I've heard, read or seen too. It just gives me the creeps.

    If you dealt with all the "bad" groups the author mentioned, then I would suggest there is one that she missed - that would be the Christians who actively denounce and teach against the "good, godly leaders." In other words, the counterparts of the Anabaptists, Mennonites and others non-conformist type Christian groups from history. These groups were also considered enemies of the approved religious state and were executed - when they could find them. (Hence Felix Mans being drowned by Ulrich Zwingli and Servatus (sp?) being burned at the stake by John Calvin.) My youngest brother used to have rousing debates with Calvinist types back in the day of IRC and AOL chat rooms. One preterist told him that the Anabaptists deserved to die. (She knew he was of that persuasion.)

    Oh, and that reminds me - a lot of this is reminiscent of the extreme governments that various Reformers presided over. In fact, I think it was Calvin who had a secret police in Geneva(?) when he was ruling it and he encouraged people to rat on their neighbors for not complying with the state approved religion.

    You mention that Atwood takes things to their logical conclusion. I think this is an important thing that *needs* to be done sometimes so that people can see where their beliefs are leading them. Adolf Hitler took Martin Luther's antisemitism to its logical conclusion. There are forms of mental illness that are being normalized today that make me really fear for the future because of where the logical conclusion leads. What will declared as "personal rights" 10-20 years from now? I cringe to think of what it will lead to, and yet should the Christian Patriarchy and Fundamentalist types come to power, it would potentially be worse! As this book obviously showed.

    I had a former friend once inform me that she would not have a C-section even if she knew she would die because it "wasn't God's way for babies to be born." :-(

    Thanks for taking a jab at "Fascinating Womanhood", by the way. I despise that book. Did you know the author and her husband (who wrote "Man of Velvet, Man of Steel") were devout Mormons? And so many "good, godly Fundamentalists" who denounce Mormonism recommended and used it!

    I had no idea my dad would have been considered a "feminist sympathizer" or some such thing for letting women read scripture, lead in prayer and give testimonies in church services. Who knew? He did have limits, but apparently they weren't good enough for John Piper! My dad loved to have my Gramma Hoover in church when he was preaching too because she was a walking concordance. If he could give her a few words of a verse she knew where it was or could find it. She was amazing.

    "the ever-loathsome Doug Wilson" I hope you won't mind if I borrow that epithet. It is so appropriate!

    1. I guess I just forgot to mention it. Atwood does indeed note that the Quakers and other groups were systematically hunted as well. (And, as in the Underground Railroad, it was the Quakers who helped women escape from Gilead.)

      Borrow the Doug Wilson like all you want.

    2. Oh, that's interesting. Good for her for getting the whole picture in there!

  11. In a curious sort of way, I think that we got into trouble with some Fundamentalists that we know for the very issue that you mention - my husband doesn't make any effort to own me. Although I am a stay-at-home wife, he made sure I have my own private money, he lets me "gallivant" without getting his permission or approval, and other things. I never really thought about it particularly, and being a natural born homebody I guess those folks didn't realize it at first, but I'm pretty well convinced that they decided at some point that we were "bad people" because I have too much independence - especially the personal money part. Huh. The couple in question were pretty much what you mean by the extreme types. The husband rules his family absolutely and his wife and kids are not allowed to socialize with anyone without his express permission (seldom given) or his personal presence. The wife is not allowed to go anywhere without him (except for maybe with his mom). It's horrifying really.

    As per Pat Robertson's quote, it always aggravates me so when people say things that are totally contrary to history. I don't like it when I do it myself. I don't know about all the points - but infanticide has been a common practice in many cultures where women had no rights. So has witchcraft! I dare say that examples could be found to disprove some of the other points as well.

    I wonder if Schlafly ever thought about the logical conclusion of teaching women "to use their femininity and feminine wiles as the core of their success and fulfillment as women." This I say because I saw a TEDx talk by a woman who was in the sex industry (in some form) telling women to use their sexuality to get power over men and get what they want. Ya think?

    Kevin Swanson is a freak. Have you seen video of him preaching? It's enough to cause nightmares.

    Speaking of politics, despite my issues with them in some areas, I sure miss the Reagans!

    1. Yep, the good old days when GOP candidates were actually decent, compassionate people like Reagan and GHW Bush...

  12. Hey Tim, in today's NY Times Book Review there is an essay by Margaret Atwood about her book. I thought you might be interested. Interesting that she was in West Berlin when she began writing it.