They are encountered in the workplace, in the home, in every facet of life. Women have made advances toward the equality they seek only to encounter a backlash in the form of religious fundamentalism, claims of reverse discrimination by males, and hostility from a public that thinks the women's movement has won everything it wanted and should thus now be silent. Both the needs of women today and the backlash that has developed derive from the changes in social and sexual roles that have taken place in the period since World War II.
It would be a mistake to see changing gender roles in society as threatening only to the males who dominate that society. Such changes also threaten many women who have accepted a more traditional role and who see any change as a threat. This response is not new. When women first agitated for the vote at the beginning of this century, they were opposed by women's groups who wanted things to remain as they were. Many of these women were ladies of means and social position in society, and they argued that woman's suffrage placed an additional and unbearable burden on women, whose place was in the home. In Gilead, upper class women seem to have taken this idea even further and so have become more docile and subjugated themselves. Atwood is indicating the degree to which women in our society have been complicit in their own subjugation as they have often accepted a secondary role.
The book in particular takes a feminist point-of-view toward reproductive rights, something this future has distorted and taken away. This future claims that it has developed a society with a new way of treating women, but in fact, it is simply a society which has codified an attitude toward women that Atwood finds in the society of our time in a more covert way. This novel suggests that a twisted agreement has been reached between the religious right and the feminist anti-pornography activists of our time. Atwood expresses this in scenes of the indoctrination centers where Handmaids are trained, for there they are treated to lengthy lectures about the horrors of the old days which were supposedly filled with the filth of pornography, rape, and other ills. It is claimed that now everything is so much better because strict rules have been made against those things. What is apparent is that in making this bargain, women have freed themselves from certain fears while losing their freedom to have genuine self-directed lives. They have complained about the objectification of pornography, yet they have now made themselves into objects of a different sort, controlled from outside, with limited choices of their own. This is not a simple feminist tract about how women are abused, however, for Gilead is a society which treats both sexes -- and sex itself -- as an evil to be controlled.
Atwood's narrator, Offred, says of herself and others in her situation, "We yearned for the future" (Atwood 4). Her role is important in this novel because she remembers an earlier time when she had what we would consider a normal life with a husband and children, and now she serves a specific social role as breeder -- society has turned back to a classification of gender roles that is more rigid and divisive than exists today. Atwood warns that while we yearn for the future, we fail to see it could be a repeat of the past if we are not careful. She also notes that her story is happening as she tells it and not in some distant past:
would like to believe this is a story I'm telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance. If it's a story I'm telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off. (Atwood 106)
Clearly, circumstances of family life have changed in the modern era. Industry has been taken out of the home, and large families are no longer economically possible or socially desired (it is significant that in the quotation from Atwood cited above, the house is described as having been "built for a large rich family" [Atwood 11]). From the opening line, Atwood suggests that this story is in the not-too distant future and that the changes from our time are recent in them novel:
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball net were still in place, though the nets were gone. (Atwood 3)
This links the story more closely to our own time, with a story only in not-too-distant future. The women chafe at the restrictions placed upon them even as they seem to acquiesce in their own slavery. Offred calls Scrabble "the game of old men and women" (Atwood 149) but also notes that beause iot is now forbidden, it has become more "desirable" (Atwood 149).
Atwood places concerns about the nature of the family, the danger of pollution, the fear of women that the gains they have made will be taken away, and other concerns in the future she envisions. The time frame of the book is important in this regard, for the people of this novel would remember our own age. For Atwood, it might not take that much of a shift in thinking to tear away much of what we see as social progress and replace it with antiquated concepts still treasured by many. In this novel, a future regime has created its own vision of what was best in the past along with an dose of authoritarianism. Atwood takes an ironic view of much of this -- her fearsome overlords are not always that fearsome, as when one wants nothing more than to play a game of Scrabble -- and inherent in her novel is a satiric look at what the "family values" of conservatives might really mean if imposed on the populace. Women are returned to a state of slavery in this future, and unfortunately this vision is not that different from our present in some respects.
The vision by Bellamy is more hopeful about what the future might bring, while the pessimism of the Atwood novel derives in part from the fact that it is set in the future and so shows a belief that the problems of the present may only get worse.