The Handmaid’s Tale

by: Margaret Atwood

Feminism in the 1980s

Further study Feminism in the 1980s

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the feminist movement in the Western world was divided by debates over the future of sex and sexuality. Many feminists saw the West’s increasingly liberal attitudes to sex as posing a threat to women’s rights. Feminist thinkers and activists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon wanted pornography to be controlled or abolished. Dworkin went further, arguing that heterosexual sex itself, as it had traditionally been understood and practiced, amounted to a form of violence against women. On the other side of the debate, feminists such as Ellen Willis and Gayle Rubin argued that the women’s movement should embrace sexuality and sexual desire as broadly as possible, in order to resist political efforts to control women’s sex lives. The characters in The Handmaid’s Tale similarly represent conflicting ideas about sex and sexuality. The Republic of Gilead is puritanically opposed to sexual activity of all kinds. Offred’s mother is an anti-porn activist whose work echoes the anti-porn and anti-sex-work demonstrations of the religious movement Sons of Jacob. At the same time, the anti-porn feminism of Offred’s mother and Moira’s radical lesbianism are depicted as brave and prescient.