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The Depiction of Equal Rights as Illustrated in Margaret Atwood’s Book, The Handmaid's Tale

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In Margret Atwood’s 1985 book, The Handmaid’s Tale, she uses flashbacks, appeals to pathos, and references to religion to show how important feminism is to America and how we shouldn’t let our future progeny grow complacent and forget the struggles their ancestors went through.

Throughout Atwood’s book, she uses a myriad of flashbacks to show how the world has changed over the last 4-ish years since the Republic of Gilead was founded and how Offred went from being a woman who transferred library books to computer discs, to a glorified womb with legs. Over the course of the book we find out that her mother was a very active feminist throughout her life and went to many rallies in the 70’s, most notably in the book a “Take Back the Night” rally- “I’ve forgotten my mother was once as pretty and as earnest as that…The camera pans up and we see the writing, in paint, on what must have been a bedsheet: TAKE BACK THE NIGHT.” This is particularly notable since one of the main arguments of the movement, besides keeping parks safe for women after dark, was for women to have autonomy over their bodies and to have the freedom to choose whether or not to have children, also seen on page 122 and again referenced by her mother when she talks to Offred as an adolescent saying,” You were a wanted child.”

These flashbacks send a very strong message since Offred only thinks about her mother in reference to her rights as a woman being almost non-existent. In fact, she often laments her past self for being so hard on her mother and wishes she had listened to her more when she was younger and sometimes talks to her mother in her head to show her the irony of some situations. On her way back to the Commander’s house after one of her fellow Handmaid’s Janine gives birth, she talks about how her mother always dreamed of a women’s culture, and now as they all ride in the back of a van lamenting that they haven’t given Gilead a child yet, they do.

Through all of this, Atwood shows that Offred finds powerful women to be awe inspiring now that she is a Handmaid, not in the sense of powerful as in status since we see how little she cares for Serena-Joy, the Commander’s wife, but for women such as Moira and the first Ofglen who are actively trying to leave or destroy Gilead. Both women grow close to her, Moira being her friend from the pre-Gileadean era, and Ofglen being the first member of the Mayday movement; a movement of people trying to overthrow the theocracy that is Gilead. Offred having friends during the novel is one of the few peeks of female solidarity we see other than the Martha’s and the Commander’s wives.

Solidarity is the backbone to any movement, and the Gileadean government created an ingenious way to shut it down before it starts with their secret police: The Eye. The citizens of Gilead are trained to be suspicious of one another, which makes it easy to stop rebellions since they rarely ever start. The fear of torture and death stopped many women in the Gileadean society from creating groups and movements to leave their lives as extreme second-class citizens, which makes her idolization of these women makes a lot of sense. Attwood has many appeals to pathos when showing the solidarity of women helping women and women supporting women.

One of the biggest displays of female solidarity in The Handmaid’s Tale is the friendship between Moira and Offred, during the pre-Gileadean era and during it. When Offred loses her job, and her bank account during the few weeks before Gilead had fully taken over, Moira was her only true friend at that time. Even Offred’s husband Luke didn’t seem as invested in her fears over the loss of her autonomy, so much so that Offred states,” 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.”

This shows how during this time in her life, Offred felt that she couldn’t even trust her husband. A man she married and speaks rather highly of throughout the book, and the only person she feels can understand her at this point is Moira. Her description of not being able to trust her husband is haunting. This appeal to pathos is gut wrenching to the readers and shows us that inequality of the sexes was ingrained into our human society even before the rise of Gilead, and that the subtle cues her husband gives her about not worrying proves to the audience how embedded it is.

Another major appeal to pathos that Margret Attwood gives us regarding the silencing of the female voice, is how the book is paced. We find out in the historical notes section that this book consists of various recordings found after the regime of Gilead falls. Offred’s story was found on “approximately thirty tape cassettes” and the historians had to piece them together into a single narrative. This causes the audience to pause, and suddenly feel a slight sense of outrage that Offred, the woman we’ve grown to care for who’s voice had been buried by a male centered theocracy, was edited and pieced together by a man who even questions the legitimacy of her story and laments that she didn’t talk more about the men in charge. Though we can infer that the scientist meant no harm, it still shows that even after Gilead has fallen, a woman who had risked her life to speak and tell her story isn’t enough of a gift.

Lastly, feminism is shown throughout this book as being oppressed by religion, rather than nurtured by it. One of the beginning quotes in The Handmaid’s Tale is from Genesis 30: 1-3,” And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die…And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” This quote is all we need to know about Gilead in a nutshell. The leaders, finding that their women are becoming infertile, seek a way they can use women who are capable of bearing children to add to the regime, and they looked through the bible and found this golden line of text. Many countries, such as the United States, use religion to further their agenda such as gay people being seen as a sin, or abortion being illegal.

Margret Attwood gives us an astounding telling of the plight of women through a satirical lens that is looking far too legitimate within today’s political climate. Women’s rights have been taking many steps back with Planned Parenthood’s funding being slashed and birth control no longer being automatically covered by your company’s insurance, we’re slowly moving towards a bleak path. However, with the rise in popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale, maybe a few women will take up arms and fight back.

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The Depiction of Equal Rights as Illustrated in Margaret Atwood’s Book, the Handmaid’s Tale. (2019, April 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from
“The Depiction of Equal Rights as Illustrated in Margaret Atwood’s Book, the Handmaid’s Tale.” GradesFixer, 26 Apr. 2019,
The Depiction of Equal Rights as Illustrated in Margaret Atwood’s Book, the Handmaid’s Tale. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 Aug. 2022].
The Depiction of Equal Rights as Illustrated in Margaret Atwood’s Book, the Handmaid’s Tale [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 Apr 26 [cited 2022 Aug 15]. Available from:
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