It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for participants in Cannon Beach Reads this past month.
For lack of space, the comments justifying use of this famous opening to Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” were cut from last month’s column. So, let’s return to why the Cannon Beach Reads group, led by discussant Wanda Meyer-Price, found reading and discussing “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood’s popular dystopian novel, difficult in the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Some American history helps here.
In 1878, Senator Arlan Sargent first introduced and the U.S. Senate first rejected words that would be ratified 42 years later as the 19th Amendment in 1920, with razor-thin support from Tennessee’s House of Representatives: “The right of citizens to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.”
In 1963, 43 years after women’s suffrage became the law of the land, Betty Friedan addressed “the problem that has no name” or why life as a housewife with children in the suburbs left many women dissatisfied. Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” initiated second-wave feminism.
In 1972, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”). Suffragist Alice Paul and others had lobbied unsuccessfully for this amendment since 1921. In 1972, 22 states ratified the ERA, but ratification ended in 1977 with only 35 states approving, three states short of passage.
Ratification remained at 35 states for another 40 years until Nevada in 2017 and Illinois in 2018 ratified the ERA. So, 98 years after ratification of the 19th Amendment, ERA passage still awaits approval by another state. Treating citizens equally takes time.
That so few states ratified the ERA after 1972, may have influenced Atwood to write “The Handmaid’s Tale” when she did, but she also wrote during a year that George Orwell’s “1984” made significant. Moreover, 1984 brought another reminder of how long some states would take to even accept women’s suffrage.
Mississippi, the last state to ratify the 19th Amendment, did so in 1984, the year Atwood began writing her dystopian novel that—taking a feminist standpoint — echoes themes found in George Orwell’s “1984”: depersonalization, repression, surveillance, inequality and continuous war.
Atwood’s novel focuses on abuse of women as breeders in a polluted and increasingly infertile world. Only the “commanders” have an opportunity to foster children by either fortunate fertile wives or surrogate “handmaids,” who copulate monthly in a perverse ritual.
Always monitored by “aunts” and “guardians,” handmaids in Gilead (the United States of the future) — while considered privileged and protected as essential to Gilead’s continued existence — may not have careers, read, receive professional education, communicate with others or leave commanders’ homes except to shop for groceries and other domestic products. Their every action literally risks a death sentence.
It was the best of times and the worst of times to read “The Handmaid’s Tale” as the nation focused on male senators ignoring and refusing to investigate accusations from women, testimony that a privileged supreme court nominee with a reputation for heavy drinking and aggressive behavior had sexually abused them. What better time to read a dystopian novel centered on systemic, legal sexual abuse and the silencing of women?
But it was the worst of times, as well, to read what initially seems an unrealistic critique of women’s treatment and status. Had Atwood overreacted? Remember, a major concern about the Kavanaugh nomination was belief that he would undo Roe v. Wade, a 1973 decision reached during the rise of second-wave feminism.
Remember that Atwood predicts legal suppression of the rights of women to own property, work, hold assets or control what happens to their own bodies. Remember how many state legislatures have passed laws restricting women’s access to abortion, birth control, clinics and family planning — to limit or repeal Roe v. Wade. Remember how long women have sought equal rights with men, not to mention having their accusations believed or seriously investigated by aging men controlling a Senate hearing room in 2018.
Yes, it is the best of times and worst of times to read and discuss “The Handmaid’s Tale,” now available at the Cannon Beach Library.