Understanding the Handmaid’s Tale Protests


The latest Handmaid’s Tale protest occurred on October 12 of this year. Women dressed in red robes with crisp white bonnets shading their eyes and cloth masks over their mouths marched on Capitol Hill. Their demonstration was intended to oppose Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court. 

References to The Handmaid’s Tale have become a staple of women’s protests both in the United States and around the world. 


The Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1985 by Margaret Atwood. This dystopian novel was intended to be a political commentary and cautionary tale to the United States. Margaret Atwood is native to Canada and she is able to look at American politics through a wider lens. 

Her second novel in the series The Testaments was published in 2019. Based on the second novel, it would appear that the fictional city of Gilead is in the Northeast bordering Canada. 

Bodily Autonomy and Reproductive Rights: 

In Gilead, women are treated as walking wombs. If they are fertile and sex workers, queer, or cheating on their husbands, then they became Handmaids. If they are infertile, then they can be sorted into five different categories: Wives, Marthas, Aunts, Econowives, and Unwomen. If they are beautiful and live according to Christian Biblical standards, then they become Wives. If they were doctors, lawyers, or some other job with high intelligence required then they may become Aunts. The servants in Gilead are called Marthas and have skills such as baking and cleaning. 

Econowives are lower class wives. There are also lower class Marthas and Aunts. Finally, there are the Unwomen who are banished from Gilead and sent to radioactive wastelands to die. 

Women’s bodily autonomy and reproductive rights are always on the line in America. Especially now since Amy Coney Barrett has taken her seat on the Supreme Court. She filled the fifth Republican chair. She’s the fifth conservative leaning justice to occupy one of the nine seats on the Court,  which means conservatives now have the majority. It’s these judges’ conservatism that lumps them together, not their membership in the Republican Party. Since there is a Title IX case called John Doe v. Purdue University which will be tried by the Supreme Court, Barrett has the opportunity to drastically change Title IX laws. 

In Gilead, women do not have the right to choose what happens to their bodies. They are made into Handmaids if they previously made bodily choices, such as being be a sex worker or having an abortion. They are also made into Handmaids if they have been raped because it is seen by their government as the fault of the victim versus the abuser. They train women to feel this way by having a woman sit within a circle of women while they chant “your fault” over and over again. 


Society in Gilead revolves around men. While women are not allowed to read or continue their education, men are allowed to mostly do as they please. They are allowed libraries and often buy smuggled goods such as cigarettes, board games, and magazines. Commanders impregnate the Handmaids so they can have a child to share with their wife. 

Police Brutality 

The Eyes are the police force of Gilead. They are men who travel in black vans and violently assault, murder, and imprison the people of Gilead without warning or a trial. 

The method of The Eyes can be seen in cultural and political relevance in the United States as police brutality. The Black Lives Matter protests this year had fomented a lot of violence between protesters, counter-protesters, police, and the federal government. 

In a Portland protest, law enforcement picked up protesters off the streets in their unmarked vans. Many of them did not carry a badge and dressed like everyday citizens. 

Peaceful protesters were tear-gassed in Washington D.C. by police officers under the orders of President Trump. He ordered this so he could stand in front of St John’s Church and pose with a Bible in his hand.


Everyone in Gilead must adhere to their religion. They interpret the Bible literally. Refinery 29 says that the justification for Handmaids and Wives is through the “Old Testament story of Rachel and her handmaid, Bilhah.” In Genesis 30:1-3 in the King James Bible, the verses state, “And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” In a weekly ritual, the Handmaid lays on the lap of the Wife who holds hands with her. The Commander inserts himself into the Handmaid. While the Wife may express sexual gratification, the Handmaid must not react in any way. If the Handmaid is unable to bear a child for the family, they are declared Unwomen. 

Conservative politicians often use biblical quotes to justify their stance on different platforms. The US Senator from Florida Marco Rubio’s 2018 response to the Stoneman Douglas High School students was to tweet a biblical quote that attempted to belittle their attempts as activists trying to create change and work on gun reforms. https://publish.twitter.com/?query=https%3A%2F%2Ftwitter.com%2Fmarcorubio%2Fstatus%2F975676803972059136&widget=Tweet


LGBTQ+ Rights 

Atwood wrote a character who was a lesbian best friend to the protagonist in 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale. This representation of a queer woman who speaks her mind, maintains her values, and is fierce in the face of oppression is incredible. Especially for its time. Instead of following along with society, her friend escapes and follows an unconventional path in Gilead. Instead of having to bear children or be a servant, she becomes a sex worker. The men in Gilead go to hotels at night to benefit off of prostitutes. This is reminiscent of speakeasies during The Prohibition. While they are not technically legal, the men still went. 

In the book, her friend is seen at a hotel by the protagonist. Her friend wears an old and battered Playboy Bunny costume. This is a feminist reference to Gloria Steinem when she did an undercover reporting piece on the Playboy Mansion in a piece entitled “ A Bunny’s Tale.” This symbolizes her friend’s continued hope and strength despite her unpleasant circumstances. 

Queer people were seen as gender traitors in Gilead. In America and in many places in the world, queer and gender-nonconforming people are seen as inferior to cis straight people. Queer people’s rights to healthcare, housing, adoption rights, and marriage are seen as inherently political instead of a fundamental right. 


Overall, The Handmaid’s Tale is a piece of literature and pop culture that is an effective symbol of oppression. While many readers focus on the reproductive rights of women in relation to this reference, there are more nuanced and multifaceted layers. When all else fails, nolite te bastardes carborundorum.