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MAY/JUNE The Handmaid's Tale > Women: The Vehicle of Systematic Women's Oppression

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message 1: by Dena (last edited May 24, 2017 05:36PM) (new)

Dena Gregoire (dysprosium) | 10 comments Curious to know what everyone else thinks.

I have often been struck by how, in societies where women are highly oppressed, it is often other women in society whom are most actively perpetuating the systematic oppression.

Do you think Atwood may have had this in mind when having the Aunts as the main force behind the systematic oppression in the novel?

What about the fact Offred is liberated by a man?


Erin (thatwritergirl) | 37 comments I don't know that Offred is necessarily 'liberated' by a man. At the end of the book she is taken, but she doesn't know where she is going, if it is to the Colonies or being saved. I think Margaret Atwood leaves the ending open on purpose, to make the reader feel the fear and uncertainty that Offred does.

As for the Aunts, I would argue that they did not take pleasure in their role as oppressors. I think this point is debatable, but it always seemed to me that they knew exactly what the women they were training at the Red Center were thinking, and did their best to acknowledge those feelings and tell them that this is the way the world is now, and it is best to know how to survive it. Granted, we don't see much evidence to argue this, especially since Atwood only ever shows the Aunts in the Red Center. But I guess I always assumed that the Aunts were reporting to someone higher up who was in charge. In their own way, they did their best to prepare the women they were training for the harsh realities they were forced to face. Any sympathy or softness would only lead to false hope because there didn't seem to be any way out of the situation.

Feel free to argue this point. Like I said, this is just my interpretation of the story. In my opinion, Margaret Atwood leaves many aspects of her story open to interpretation in order to make the reader think and come up with their own conclusions.


message 3: by Dena (new)

Dena Gregoire (dysprosium) | 10 comments No I think this really is open to interpretation which is why I threw my thoughts out there - to see what other views there might be. Thanks for sharing yours.


message 4: by Winston (new)

Winston | 180 comments Emma wrote: "I'm not really sure if Offred was actually liberated by a man - the ending is pretty open and uncertain, and we never find out what actually happens, and it is uncertain if there are any members of..."

I reasonably sure Aunt Lydia was not a good or even middle ground person. Moira descripted the torture that Lydia put her through after the first escape, and tells Offred in the brothel "She pretended to do all that love-the-sinner, hate-the-sin stuff, but she enjoyed it."

Furthermore, Lydia uses Janine as a spy, asking her to "keep your eyes open." after trusting her as a Handmaiden.

Finally, during the beating of the Guardian for the trumped up crimes, Lydia seems to relish the torture and the Wives and other Aunts are watching "leaning forward in their chairs" and "gazing down with interest" from their high vantage point.

I would argue that Atwood is indeed saying other women as much a part of the oppressive system as anyone else. Maybe not all of them, but definitely some of them.

Whether or not Offred is liberated by a man, we know for a fact there are men in the resistance, as the accused rapists is "one of there's" the old Ofglen tells us. Nick and the Eyes who come to take Offred could be too, but that I think is purposely kept open ended, much like Erin says, to come to our own ends and to feel as uncertain as Offred is.

In general, I don't like arguing text as guesses to the characters intentions, especially if they are described by the narrator or another character. I believe the author writes with purposeful intent showing us in the minor details exactly when she is trying to portray. In the case of Lydia, I don't think Atwood was every trying to justify her position, but showcase how women would equally abuse their power.


message 5: by Pam (last edited May 25, 2017 05:20PM) (new)

Pam | 1080 comments Mod
You make some excellent points Winston. Playing devil's advocate:
- "Moira says that Lyrdia liked it." Is Moria the most reliable of characters? She abandoned Offred and then even in her "free life" in the Brothel didn't seem to be quite the revolutionary leader as Offred made her out to seem. Was she as daring as Offred thought her to be or was just just a rebel without a cause?
- "leaning forward in their chairs" "gazing down with interest" etc. Offred herself also is swept up into a blood-lust herself during the salvaging. It sickens her, but she still is swept away. Even mentioning after how hungry she is. One could also point to Offred having such a strong desire to be held and to be with Nick as a slight on her commitment to Luke.

I personally think Atwood did a fantastic job of giving us these conflicting emotions and actions that disagreed with opinions in all her characters. All of them were complex and not just mustachioed villains tying people to railroad tracks.

It reminds me of the picture of Hitler with the little girl my link text

How could someone so vile... behave and be seen as a normal human? The power of this photo and of Atwood's tale is that all of us have within us the ability to be taken up with blood-lust. To begin to see one group being better than others. We ourselves could cast the first stones.


message 6: by Winston (new)

Winston | 180 comments Hey Pam, thanks!

I would say Moira is, at the time, explaining things outside this world Offred and the readers have been trapped in. She talks about the escapes. What the women who get captured go through. What the brothel really is. And how female homosexuality is viewed/dealed with. It makes me think she is supposed to be taken pretty truthfully.
I definitely see that point. They do all get caught up in it. I would still think perhaps my point is more likely? but it is definitely something to consider!

I finished the book and reread the conference scene again and I have some conclusions I want to poise for consideration?

They seem to be discussing the story we just read as a historical manuscript in a reasonable far time in the future of this Gilead society. The story is found in a locker, in cassette tapes, something Offred wouldn't have had access too before escaping! So do we have to include that Offred was saved?


message 7: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth | 82 comments I think for certain older women they would be a lot of volunteers for the Aunt job. People like to keep living very much. With a decreasing birth rate there will be fewer younger workers to care for the aging population, and under Gilead the solution is to get rid of the old women, in a society where fertility is valued foremost they have outlived their purpose or failed to achieve it. Whether or not they are true believers who think they're doing what's best for the future and for the handmaids, there will be people getting theirs by cozying up with the oppressor. You get a leadership position, you get to live instead of die slowly in the colonies, and it's the only female role allowed to read which shocked me, I hadn't noticed that the first time I read the novel. I don't know how they train the future Aunts when the first gen Aunts die out, if they choose certain girls to teach to read, or if the plan is that this is a temporary situation and eventually there will be no need for Aunts.
There is some more information about the Aunts in the expanded new Audible version of the epilogue, but I do not have that one. I think that they have been sold a bill of goods by the higher ups, allowed to believe that things will be difficult at first for the handmaids but eventually all the wives of different economic backgrounds will be afforded the same luxuries, "there will be no need for econowives"( wives that have to do all the fuctions of wives, marthas, and handmaids) and the handmaids will get along with the wives and everyone will kind of live communally and be allowed to visit their biological children, and everyone will be accostomed and content with their roles. They're working towards this Christian "separate spheres" sacred feminine sort of girl power but the people up top know this can never actually be allowed to happen, they just let the Aunts think it.


message 8: by Jackie (new)

Jackie McGinnis (jackie_mcg) | 29 comments I read the historical notes too and have to agree that she escaped, simply because she would not have had access to tapes to record while she was a handmaid.

Another thing -- I don't think we can say she was liberated by a man. Yes, he is the vehicle we saw in the book. But he's merely a spy, not the one in charge of the Underground or anything. Certainly Nick was part of her escape, but I imagine it like he passes information on to the women leading the rebellion (how else does Ofglen know information?) and they organize the escape. And I think it's part of the story that there are a few men involved in the underground. It's not like we want to rule over men and make this society the same but in favor of women... we want equality. Without men fighting with us (but letting us lead), we don't have that.

As for women being some of the worst offender's of systematic oppression... yes. Yes it happens, even now. Has anyone read Sallie Krawcheck's book "Own It: The Power of Women at Work"? There's a chapter where she observes that there's only ever one women in power in large corporations... because there seems to be a feeling of "I worked hard for this and I deserve the recognition but you aren't here yet". Of course, if she did it first, you'll never catch up to her amount of experience. It's like there's only so much power to go around, so when women get in power, they forget how to mentor and aren't willing for another woman to come up and stand alongside them for fear of being replaced in the one spot a woman is allowed. I've been on the losing side of this myself. And it made the Aunt's role totally believable.


message 9: by Diana (new)

Diana (diana_elizabeth) | 1 comments I think there's an interesting duality present in the concept of women as perpetuating systematic oppression. On the one hand we have the Aunts and yet if not for the relationships forged between and among women--even through whispers--would the perceived notion of liberation welling up in our main character even exist? A takeaway for me was that even in the darkest of circumstances and despite the larger (unwanted) shifts of society, we can always find allies among ourselves as women because we are women; for every one woman that is there to drive you down, there are many more who would lift you up (and sacrifice a lot, even their own lives, to do so).


message 10: by Winston (new)

Winston | 180 comments Jackie wrote: "Another thing -- I don't think we can say she was liberated by a man. Yes, he is the vehicle we saw in the book. But he's merely a spy, not the one in charge of the Underground or anything. Certainly Nick was part of her escape, but I imagine it like he passes information on to the women leading the rebellion (how else does Ofglen know information?) and they organize the escape. And I think it's part of the story that there are a few men involved in the underground. It's not like we want to rule over men and make this society the same but in favor of women... we want equality. Without men fighting with us (but letting us lead), we don't have that."

Atwood doesn't tell us who is or isn't in charge of the Underground. But I don't think if it were a man it would somehow make it less impactful, if that's what you're insinuating


message 11: by Jackie (new)

Jackie McGinnis (jackie_mcg) | 29 comments Winston -- I agree. I was responding to previous comments on that. :)


message 12: by Ross (new)

Ross | 1444 comments This appears to be an example of collaboration, all oppressive regime's relies to a degree on the turncoat for local knowledge. Such people can always be found gender is not really a factor; personality, circumstances are.

The aunts were women because the regime here was gender segregated and sexist.

A real life comparison is the situation covered in Emma's movie the Colony showing how in real life evil men could build and run such as set up. A real world handmaid tail search history if Chile circa 1975.


message 13: by Alana (new)

Alana (alanasbooks) | 66 comments It reminded me a great deal of the true life stories in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and other books about female oppression around the world. One of the keys over and over again, especially in forced prostitution, was "mothers" or other figures to fiercely rule over the young women and intimidate them until they're almost as afraid of these "den mothers" as they are of their pimps, etc. It's certainly not a new phenomenon, yet it's amazing to see it still continue. I guess it's the same concept as when some abused children grow up to be abusers themselves, it's like they have to take out their anger and frustration for all that THEY experience, but only end up perpetuating the cycle.


message 14: by Mellissa (new)

Mellissa Teston | 2 comments I just finished the book today. I also read Emma's interview with Margaret as well as the epilogue of the book. A compelling point for me was to realize that the oppression by women is historical across societies. These events have taken place in our past and the future potential is probable. Societies that truly oppressed women often have a subculture run by women to enforce that system. The names chosen for the Aunts also has great cultural significance in domestic icons. Genius. Scary. Compelling. Provocative. Love reading your discussions. Sharing the book with my 22 year old daughter. I look forward to her reactions.


message 15: by Ross (new)

Ross | 1444 comments Societies that oppress often use collaborators their gender is not actually that significant. Collaborators can be co-hearsed or see their actions as a means of survival or just be criminals

To me, the Aunts are just collaborators. The fact men help some women in Gilhead is because they are the only ones that can as no women have any real power, even at the lower levels women in Gilhead are not permitted to carry guns for example.


message 16: by Winston (new)

Winston | 180 comments Ross wrote: "Societies that oppress often use collaborators their gender is not actually that significant. Collaborators can be co-hearsed or see their actions as a means of survival or just be criminals

To me..."


Idk Ross I think that directly goes against what Atwood writes and says about the book itself. I also think that makes some assumptions that women aren't perpetuators of cycles of oppression, just the same as men. The epilogue/historical notes has the professor talk about the Aunts being part of the system in Gilead. I think that's supposed to be take as "historical fact", commenting how they got there and how the system existed.


message 17: by Mellissa (new)

Mellissa Teston | 2 comments I think the Aunts are more than collaborators. They are seeking self preservation even at the cost of fellow women. The alternative would be to work in the colonies or even death. By providing some power, the Aunts assisted greatly in the oppression of women. The discipline of the Handmaid's was at the discretion of women.

When I think of other novels I have read (A Thousand Splendid Suns, Reading Lolita in Tehran,etc) which deal with this issue, I find it intriguing how women turn against each other. Of course, there are many examples of men turning against men .... but since this a feminist book club, I welcome the discussion.


message 18: by Ross (new)

Ross | 1444 comments Mellissa wrote: "I think the Aunts are more than collaborators. They are seeking self preservation even at the cost of fellow women. The alternative would be to work in the colonies or even death. By providing some..."

I see the Aunts as collaborators because the position in a religious society like this one even more focused on sex than normal because of infertility means only women could do that job. So Aunts are female because that is the role not because they needed a place to put women like Aunts if that makes sense.

Women turning on women is an interesting point however you should consider raising it as a Thread Mellissa. Are women nearly as bad as men when it comes to sexist behavior?


message 19: by MeerderWörter (new)

MeerderWörter | 2388 comments Alana wrote: "It reminded me a great deal of the true life stories in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and other books about female oppression around the world..."

Didn't Gloria Steinem talk about that in My Life on the Road? That we perpetuate what we learn in childhood? It's definitely a very scary thought, but I guess it makes sense. We live what we are taught, mostly, and it's hard to break out of it. Oh, as a student studying sociology, I think that is so interesting.

As for the question of the topic:
I'd say women are a part of the oppression, I mean, they are somewhat teachers in Gilead, if they believe in the dogma or not is another question.
And as Keith has provided (and I have learned yet another thing), women were totally complicit in the Nazi terror, and they knew what was happening and did act on their own. In my opinion, this also applies to Gilead, the women (tho not all, as some aunts I assume, were really not into the dogma, but complied, because the other options were a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea), were complicit and knew what they did. I mean, they could have started a revolution, all revolutions start small, think of the solidarnosc in poland for example.

Humans are power-hungry, and they are so power-hungry that they even go to lengths that harm other women hugely.


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