One of my most memorable humanities moments came during a period of my life where I was not enrolled in any academic institution, but instead working full-time in a secretarial position in the private sector. It was during this time, shortly after President Donald Trump’s election, that I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Even during my undergraduate education, I had been minimally exposed to feminist critiques and gender studies, despite receiving both an anthropology and a humanities degree. For much of my own life I had done my best to ignore the way in which being a woman affected the way I moved through the world, but as I read through The Handmaid’s Tale I experienced a fundamental shift in how I viewed myself and society within the United States.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the book, The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel that takes place in a United States that has been taken over by a new state called Gilead. In this dystopian world, the birth rate has plummeted and fertility is rare among women globally. Part of Gilead’s intention in taking over the United States was done for the sake of taking control of women’s reproductive capacity in order to maximize the potential of any and all fertile women by making them sex slaves to the most politically powerful men in the country.

Gilead is a strictly hierarchical structure in which men occupy all political positions of power and women serve exclusively in domestic or sexual roles. The only exceptions to these assigned positions are women deemed as “unwomen,” who are sent to work and die in radioactive wastelands. To be deemed an “unwoman,” a woman would first need to be infertile and secondly would have been someone whose identity put them in conflict with Gilead’s ideals, such as an academic in the humanities.

The book’s primary plot follows the life of Offred, who was a “handmaid,” a woman selected as a sex slave because of her ability to bear children. As a read through Offred’s harrowing story I began to feel overwhelmingly vulnerable to social and political changes happening around me in the United States. Suddenly my identity as a woman was something I needed to contend with and think about constantly in my understanding of how I operated within society.

Although I had been reminded repeatedly in college about women’s absence in places of power and in our understanding of history, it was not until reading The Handmaid’s Tale that I learned to appreciate the implications of these absences. Something about the horror and vulnerability I felt from reading the book made issues relating to gender feel far more pressing then they ever had before. Instead of trying to push against gender inequalities and sexism by ignoring it, I began treating gender as an essential part to every story in history and society at large.

– Clara Bergamini (Ph.D. Student)