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The Handmaid's Tale was written in the mid-eighties, at a time when right-wing politics had a hold over America and much of the Western world. This came hand in hand with the rise of the religious right in America, which preached stringent anti-abortion messages and criticised women for going out to work and not staying at home, looking after their children as the Bible supposedly suggested they should.
This was partly in response to feminism of the seventies, which asked for equality between the sexes. Many men (and women) found this threatening, and actively sought to misrepresent the aims of feminism as the desire for women to be the superior sex; even now, there are similar attitudes expressed in the press. Look at how successful women are represented and the language used about them.
Atwood is interested in exploring ideas of what it would mean if an extreme right-wing group came to power in America; she creates a near future dystopia, much along the lines of George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World to present many of her concerns through the Science Fiction genre. Sci-fi has always expressed contemporary worries through metaphor or exaggeration; films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers echo the American fear of Communist invasion during the fifties. In fact, even though it is set in the future, many of the attitudes to women expressed by Gileadean men are directly traceable to attitudes of the past. For example, women did not have the right to vote in this country until the beginning of this century: they were allowed no voice to express their concerns or opinions.
However, the novel does not solely concentrate on male attitudes to women, as it also echoes the in fighting that occurred amongst feminists. Pornography split the movement down the middle, as some women argued that it should be banned totally as it was demeaning to women, while others saw the central point of debate to be the issue of freedom of speech. Offred's mother is involved in anti-pornography rallies, but also appears to be pro-abortion: many feminists thought that the two stances were not complimentary. Accordingly, the movement lost some impetus because of this split.
As well as this, many women who had gained by feminism had turned their backs on the ideological pioneers of a few years before, choosing to remain ignorant about the struggles that had been endured for their freedoms (of work, ownership, the right to choose a life other than motherhood and marriage). Offred is one such woman who realises only too late that she took for granted what so many others before her could not.
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