Update- I realized that if you haven't read The Handmaid's Tale you might not understand the title of this post. The handmaid's names are simply "of" plus the first name of their commander, like "Offred" is the handmaid of Fred. So in our not so brave new world I would be Ofsqvirrel since my (to-be) husband's bloggy name is sqvirrel.
It's too late for this week's Literary Luna-day. But given this Washington Post article about being Forever Pregnant, which covers the new federal "guidelines" for the "prepregnant," and all the activity about said topic over at Bitch Ph.D., GrrlScientist, and ScienceWoman, I thought I would talk about how the interpretation of the guidelines can be eerily reminiscent ofThe Handmaid's Tale.* If you haven't read this classic dystopia novel by Margaret Atwood, proceed directly to your neighborhood library, local independent bookstore, or powells.com and get it, do not pass go, do not collect $200.
I read The Haidmaid's Tale just last summer (2005) and I was blown away by how eerily spot-on it was. I was also amused (in a scared way) by the how many of the reviewers on amazon.com disagreed with me, at least those pre-2006. And how a lot people dismiss the story as being "impossible."
Leaving aside the whole idea that Atwood is using a dystopian society to make a point, that by examining an extreme example we can make inferences and conclusions about our own, less extreme, society. I actually didn't think the premise of the story was all that impossible. At one point I even lost my breath (also known as having my breath taken away but thanks, I'll take more responsibility for my breath, including not giving that power even to Atwood) when I found out that the fundamentalist religious group initially took power by claiming that middle eastern terrorists bombed Congress. According to the rulers, there is a constant state of guerilla warfare that threatens the society. No, none of that sounds familiar at all! If it's not al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, brown immigrants, the Earth Liberation Front, it's someone else threatening our national security, our "freedom," from now until whenever in the future the politicians decide the war on terror is done.
And that women (the handmaids) are valued only for their ability to produce babies? That seems to me to me pretty much right in line with the Religious Right's (and allies) wish to restrict our access to birth control and abortion. And the current notion of the primacy of the fetus, even up to and including the health of the woman. The recommendations by the CDC, while perhaps well-meant, can very easily be twisted to further try to control women's bodies. Interpreting all women between puberty and menopause as "prepregnant" presupposes that all these women will get pregnant and that their health care should be targeted toward pregnancy. This is pretty much the same as how the handmaids are treated. Their bodies are cared for only because they will (hopefully) bear children. Any value they have in society is almost entirely as a vessel for having children (or for cleaning, cooking, etc).
The "wives" in The Handmaid's Tale are infertile but allowed to remain in society because they are married to "commanders" – they are portrayed as women who once campaigned against pronography and other evils perpetuated upon women. The irony is palpable. I mean, who ever thought essentially feminist ideas could be co-opted by the partiarchy as a way to control women's bodies more?
One of the reasons the Gilead society founders give for taking power is that the population size was decreasing, due, they said, to women having too many abortions. Currently, population growth rates are decreasing in Europe. This is a concern because it creates economic problems – e.g., how do you pay for health care of the elderly if the workforce is decreasing?
Russia also has low birth rates. A record number of Russians reportedly married last year. But many do not seem ready to have children. Those who do take risks. Research shows that seven out of every ten Russian babies suffer from health disorders. Every twelfth baby is born weighing too little. All of these changes in Russian society are affecting the country’s economy. (Faith Lapidus, http://www.VOAnews.com)
Is it too much to expect that given the power of the religious fundamentalists and corporations (who after all, require a good economy) in this country that if ever the US is in such a place** that actions would be taken to make sure women start having more babies. Call me paranoid, but I don't think so. Granted, according to certain religious organizations and some presidents and their administrations not just anywoman should get pregnant. Not unmarried ones. Or brown or black or other (read: non-white, non-christian) ones either. Not lesbians. Or old(er) women. In The Handmaid's Tale these groups of women are known as unwomen. Do I need to say more?
*I don't have my copy of the book with me. As such, some of my recollections might be skewed. In the interest of timely posting, I ask you to forgive any mistakes. That is, unless you have already hit the comment button. I will fix stuff tonight, even if no one comments! Also, I'm not a literary theorist if that wasn't already obvious. So these are just my thoughts!
**Currently, I believe that the US is unusual among industrialized nations in that our population growth rate is actually increasing.