People have long been oppressed for their colour, gender, or religion—three human attributes that have wrongly justified and sadly facilitated oppression. In The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, the oppression of the female gender is ingrained in people’s conversations, lives, and relationships. The main character, a handmaid named Offred, performs monotonous tasks every day and is raped once a month during what is known as the “ceremony.” The reason for Offred’s miserable life is the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic regime formed by a few men who justify oppression to achieve power over the country. By describing the institutionalized subjugation and oppression of women in a male-dominated society, Atwood suggests that men have always sought to oppress women in order to force them into providing free labour, control their reproductive system for the benefit of the government, and manage the wealth and resources of the country.
By justifying and institutionalizing the oppression of the female gender, men can benefit from the free labour provided by women, without facing any consequences. Women in the novel are sorted into groups based on the roles they perform for the government. For example, “Marthas” are women who clean and cook in the households of a “Commander”; “Econowives” are women who are married to lower-class men, to whom they must submit; and “Aunts” discipline the handmaids and play a key role in enforcing the rules of the government. However, regardless of their roles, all women are granted limited freedom and are never compensated for their services. In order to avoid compensating women, the government uses Aunts to move the handmaids into a state of complacency. One such Aunt named Aunt Lydia tells the handmaids that “[Their situation] may not seem ordinary to [them] now, but after a time it will” (Atwood 43). By forcing women to constantly do chores, men establish their dominance and force women deeper into oppression. Specifically, many of the tasks performed by women, such as going to the market to gather food, can easily be performed by men themselves; however, men know that they have complete control over women and so abuse this control as much as possible. By vigorously oppressing women in every area of their lives, men gain the power to effortlessly demand and receive free labour from women.
Another reason men seek to oppress women is to control and use their reproductive system. This is especially true of The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women are read an excerpt from the Bible that is meant to convince them that reproduction should be their sole mission. Women listen to the “usual stories [such as] God to Adam, God to Noah,” and lines such as “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Atwood 110). Because of the decrease in population and fertility in the country, the government wants to boost birth rates. To accomplish this, the government has subjected every fertile woman in the country to institutionalized rape on a regular basis. It is clear that the government cares a lot for their—as Offred would put it—“two-legged wombs,” because the handmaids attend a mandatory doctor’s appointment each month, where a doctor examines their breasts and genitalia (Atwood 171). If a handmaid successfully conceives and gives birth to a child, the child is eventually given to the Commander and his wife, never to be seen again by its mother. This is another advantage of controlling women’s reproductive systems as the government is in charge of the baby’s upbringing from birth. By controlling women’s reproductive systems, the government can solidify its firm grip of power over its people.
By oppressing women over a long period of time, men can seize control of the wealth and resources of the country. Because men are the ones in power, they can decide what the country’s economy is used for and who owns the country’s assets. The republic of Gilead has oppressed women to the point that they own nothing but a set of clothes, which essentially doubles the amount of wealth that men can possess. It is evident that women own next to nothing. For example, “whenever there is butter” at dinner, Offred saves some “in [her] shoe” to use as “face cream” because the handmaids are never given any sort of lotion to use (Atwood 119). When conversing with the Commander’s Wife, Offred is given a match to light a cigarette – a luxury that handmaids are not permitted to experience. Instead of smoking, Offred considers saving the match by making “a small hole, in [her] mattress,” somewhere it “would never be noticed” (Atwood 261). The way Offred treasures such trivial objects demonstrates that men have stripped women of all their right to possess. In fact, women themselves have become possessions. A naming system created by the government assigns names to handmaids based on their Commander. Offred knows that she has “another name,” but tells herself that “it doesn’t matter,” that names are “like telephone number[s], useful only to others” (Atwood 104). Offred’s thoughts illustrate the intended effects of this naming system. Oppressing the female gender allows males to be the sole owners of everything valuable in the country, including women themselves.
Atwood’s novel displays the many heinous reasons why men have been eager to oppress women. By subjugating women, men receive free labour, control the production of children, and remain the sole owners of wealth. Although Handmaid’s Tale may sound like a dystopian world, in fact, it is a true account of female oppression throughout history. Women have been denied the right to vote and to own. Women have provided free labour in the house for millennia. In many countries, women are still raped in their own households and made to bear children against their will. Although Atwood’s characters may come across as fictional, the truth is that her characters, in fact, fail to capture and depict the true misery and suffering that women endure in society as well as their own household.