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Handmaids Tale
July 11, 2017 : Faculty Expert Series: Viewing the battle for women’s reproductive rights through ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’


Faculty Expert Series: Viewing the battle for women’s reproductive rights through ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’


Preface-This new faculty expert series highlights popular issues, themes or ideas being expressed in the world today with a deeper analysis through the help of faculty from Ohio University Chillicothe.


The resurgence in popularity of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” through a television series on Hulu has brought about a renewed focus on the battle for women’s reproductive rights. Is it possible that the path our country is on could lead to a dystopian future as depicted in the 1985 speculative fiction novel by Margaret Atwood?  Debra Nickles, Ohio University Chillicothe Assistant Professor of English, discussed the parallels between the novel’s central dystopian themes and the climate surrounding women’s reproductive rights today.


While this television series has gained traction recently in popular culture, Nickles explained that this work has never been out of print or even the limelight, for that matter. Even though Atwood is a Canadian author, her work has been widely successful and adapted into different American interpretations such as television series, plays, films and even an opera, she explained.


"We're seeing this text re-emerge in the United States as part of a response to current social changes. In fact, Atwood wrote the chilling novel during a similar period in history as society responded with backlash to the 60s and 70s women's movement—particularly Roe v. Wade—with the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the rhetoric of people like Pat Robertson and Phyllis Schlafly," Nickles noted.


What she meant is that a pendulum swing, in terms of social change, tends to take place after large scale political or social movements such as years of conservative or liberal policies under different administrations. Today, the legalization of gay marriage, the racial tensions behind a first-time elected black president, and the continued controversies pivoting on women's reproductive health care have tipped the pendulum. Nickels said, “’The Handmaid’s Tale’ has a tradition of being read as a cautionary tale about what might happen in the United States if fundamental radicalism were allowed to flourish.”




As a reaction to today’s conservative political climate, the imagery of the handmaids, dressed in long and flowing red robes with white head coverings that shroud the face, has been utilized as a sign of resistance to proposed healthcare changes impacting women throughout the U.S. Nickles, who teaches an activism class in her Women’s and Gender Studies program, explained that, “some of the most successful protests go beyond marches to find ways to stand out and speak to the cultural imagination. The robes, with unseen faces, are haunting spectacles, which in the book and TV series were given as markers of fertile female bodies so the women could be watched and monitored. In a twist at the legislative protests, the image of the Handmaid serves as a powerful, visual symbol that women themselves are the watchers, protesting and refusing to allow the speculative fiction of Atwood to become a reality."

While the discussion of women’s reproductive rights is debated at the national level, Nickles finds it especially important to teach the work of Atwood in her classes and to develop critical thought for both women and men as they study this text.


“Part of what the book and television series is pushing is that we, and especially women, have to understand the complex relationship between culture and the ever-changing laws.” She pointed out that what people in the US are seeing today is that access to all types of reproductive healthcare is being chipped away for many people. “We need to be aware that we can have a response to those things and that we don’t just have to sit back and let the laws come down upon us. We can actually become a change in the culture ourselves.”


She highlights this imperative to be civically active with a particular episode in the Hulu series called “Law of the Land” where the women realize that it’s too late to engage in their civic duties because many of their rights have already been taken away. Encouraging students to understand the laws before they actually “need it themselves,” is of utmost importance, she underscored. “College students today need to understand the processes of cultural change, including how legislation impacts daily life, and what roles are open for them to become agents of positive change.”


Central to the current debate is the role that men play and how to broaden the understanding at all levels for them to be sympathetic to and supportive of, or advocates for, women’s reproductive rights.


Nickles pondered how to illicit more response in this realm, sharing that in previous classes most male students readily admitted to limited knowledge and understanding of women’s reproductive issues. Through dialogue, writing and conversation, her classes allow students to openly explore topics such as this, but the large-scale response to the national discourse can be still somewhat lost. 


“Of course, we always go back to the argument that men have mothers, and wives and sisters, and they have relationships with women in the culture and they should seem to want to have those equal relationships,” she said. “But that’s a moral appeal that doesn’t always seem to work with everyone, especially those already in power.”


More important than developing a cultural awakening for men on the women’s reproductive rights in class is introducing the concept to students about their role in protecting these rights.


By quoting a caustic passage from the book, “the best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves,” Nickles expressed that college women today must be savvy about solidarity and developing their own political views about their own bodies. Telling one’s story is a powerful protest to the system.


“The book and current TV series nods at the way constructing your own tale and how you see the world adds to a way of shaping what can be possible,” she said. “Alternative ways of living together in society. I would say to students, ‘tell your story! Don’t be a handmaid of the system.’”  


The many equivalences drawn between this iconic work and that of what is happening today contributes to robust conversation for students at OUC in Nickles’ class. The opportunities to delve deep into topics such as women’s reproductive rights through the lens of a current, popular TV series helps to break down barriers for discussion and facilitate an open learning process.


Nickles hopes to discuss more in-depth themes through “The Handmaid’s Tale” in her Women’s Literature course next spring, including women’s aspirations of solidarity, forms of control/rebellion, and madness as a type of sanity outside of dangerous systems.