The Handmaid’s Tale in Context
• Definitions of feminism
• History of feminism
– First wave feminism
– Second wave feminism
• Atwood’s interpretation of feminism
Key Terms
Social organisation wherein power is centred around men,
where there is a social or legal dependence on the father,
and where descent and inheritance are reckoned through
the male line.
The ability to exert influence. For Foucault, power, is not
held, but exists around a person or group who control
knowledge and have the authority to make claims of truth.
A belief system that holds that power is maintained through
strict class structures.
A belief system that holds that power is maintained through
gender based assumptions that privilege men.
What is feminism?
I do not wish them to have power over men, but
over themselves.
- Mary Wollstonecraft
Taught from infancy that beauty is woman's
sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and
roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its
- Mary Wollstonecraft
I myself have never been able to find out precisely
what feminism is: I only know that people call me
a feminist whenever I express sentiments that
differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute.
- Rebecca West, "Mr Chesterton in Hysterics: A
Study in ejudice," The Clarion, 14 Nov 1913
What is feminism?
Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human
being should be warned that the armies of the status
quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That's
their natural and first weapon. She will need her
- Gloria Steinem
This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution. Sex
and race because they are easy and visible differences
have been the primary ways of organizing human
beings into superior and inferior groups and into the
cheap labour in which this system still depends. We
are talking about a society in which there will be no
roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are
really talking about humanism.
- Gloria Steinem
What is feminism?
Men weren't really the enemy - they were
fellow victims suffering from an outmoded
masculine mystique that made them feel
unnecessarily inadequate when there were no
bears to kill.
- Betty Friedan
Women are the only exploited group in history
to have been idealized into powerlessness.
- Erica Jong
What is feminism?
Does feminist mean large unpleasant person who'll
shout at you or someone who believes women are
human beings. To me it's the latter, so I sign up.
- Margaret Atwood
Feminism has led the way in demystifying personal
relations, forcefully insisting they are political to the
-Elizabeth Fox Genovese
Feminism Without Illusions
The Backlash
I listen to feminists and all these radical gals - most
of them are failures. They've blown it. Some of
them have been married, but they married some
Casper Milquetoast who asked permission to go to
the bathroom. These women just need a man in
the house. That's all they need. Most of the
feminists need a man to tell them what time of
day it is and to lead them home. And they blew it
and they're mad at all men. Feminists hate
men. They're sexist. They hate men - that's their
- Jerry Falwell
The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for
women. It is about a socialist, anti-family
political movement that encourages women to
leave their husbands, kill their children, practice
witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become
- Pat Robertson
I know this is painful for the ladies to hear, but if
you get married, you have accepted the
headship of a man, your husband. Christ is the
head of the household and the husband is the
head of the wife, and that’s the way it is, period.
-Pat Robertson
The 700 Club, Jan. 8, 1992
Turning points in the role of
• Mid 1800s to 1920
• Suffragette movement
• Focus on political rights
• 1960s-70s
• Moved beyond political rights to
equality at home, at work and in
• Current time
• Critical of second for its lack of
attention to the differences
among women
Married Love
• Marie Stopes
• Scandalous sex manual
published in 1928
• Stopes pioneered family
• Controversially an
advocate of eugenics
An impersonal and scientific knowledge of the structure of our bodies is
the surest safeguard against prurient curiosity and lascivious gloating.
World War II
• Women required to leave the home and
enter the factories to aid America’s war
• Following WWII women were forced
back into the home as the men returned
from war.
• Despite this, female participation in
work has increased.
The Pill
• Women’s contraception had been a
controversial issue with Margaret
Sanger a vocal advocate.
• The first oral contraceptive became
popular throughout the 60s.
• Reinforced the ability of women to
make choices about their own
• Women could adopt attitudes to sex
not unlike those of men.
Roe vs Wade
• Supreme Court made abortion
legal under the 14th Amendment,
which established a right to
• This case still polarises the left and
right of US politics.
• For good or ill, the case legally
empowered women over their
own bodies.
Sandra Day O’Connor
• First woman on the Supreme
• Appointed by Reagan in 1991
• Retired in 2006

The Handmaid`s Tale in Context – Feminism