Have you been watching The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu? I first read the book it’s based on when I was a youngish graduate student. I read Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel because everyone I knew, it seemed, was reading and talking about it. I didn’t want to be out of the loop. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that I didn’t like it very much.
That probably has something to do with the fact that I wasn’t even 25 years old, at the time. My feminism wasn’t very well developed. I was the sort of person who said things like I’m not a feminist, but I believe men and women should be treated as equals. Probably I thought Atwood’s novel was unnecessarily man-hatey. The future she described might have read like an extension of the second-wave feminist anger I had been raised to see as profoundly unattractive.
I don’t know what I was thinking, honestly. All I know is that, this time around, The Handmaid’s Tale is speaking to my soul.
At its core, the story is about motherhood. Not about who’s allowed to give birth to children―to be a biological mother―but about being a mother. Caring for children on a daily basis. Raising them, loving them, enjoying their company. Openly marveling at their infinite perfection, and being prepared to sacrifice yourself for their well-being. Offred, the central character (played by the astounding Elizabeth Moss), holds on to her sanity by refusing to relinquish her identity as a mother. She survives in the hope that she will see her daughter again and reclaim their relationship.
Offred’s feminism is rooted in the fact that she’s a mother. And so is mine.
I don’t remember acknowledging an explicit shift in my thinking, but after my daughter was born, I simply couldn’t understand how any human being would fail to revere this perfect little person. The idea that her gender should have something to do with how much someone respected her, or how many opportunities were afforded to her, just made no sense. She should be able to wear blue overalls without being called him. She should be able to run around outside and play without people cautioning her not to get dirty. She should have all the love, all the respect, all the joy, all the opportunities. Everything.
I felt the same way when my son was born, a few years later. I wanted him to grow up and become his own person, whoever that might be. I never wanted him to think there was only one path for a boy to follow. Whether his passion was art, football, or something else entirely, it mattered to me that he knew I’d be his strongest supporter. But I also knew his struggle would be different. Professional chefs are often male, for instance, in spite of the fact that cooking has generally been viewed as feminine. (Somehow, getting a paycheck blasts the feminine sheen right off that kitchen knife.) For him, the struggle would not be for the right to access opportunities; he would have to carve out a space for himself beyond the narrow bounds of traditional masculinity.
Becoming a mother changed the way I felt about almost everything, but especially about feminism—and being a feminist mom has meant many different things. When my daughter was in elementary school, for instance, it meant telling her that boys are taught to be mean to the girls they like, but she didn’t have to accept that behavior.
“You need to explain to him that you aren’t friends with people who are mean to you,” I said. “If he likes you, then he needs to respect you. That’s how it works.”
When my son was bullied by a classmate, being a feminist mom meant encouraging him to stand up for himself―respectfully―and ask for help if that didn’t work. (And then, of course, I followed up with his teacher, so we were on the same page.) While fewer schools tolerate aggression between students anymore, even at the elementary level, there’s a distressing willingness to fall back on the belief that boys will be boys. That’s particularly true here in Texas, where boys are expected to be tough enough to deal with whatever the world throws at them from the moment they enter it.
Becoming a mother―and then being a mom, every single day, for the past 23 years―has changed me in ways I couldn’t have imagined before I made that transformation. For one thing, much like Offred, I’m braver than I ever imagined I could be (in spite of the fact that I am, by nature, a person who prefers to avoid confrontation.) I have no choice: you mess with my children, I intervene. But I’m more conscious of the choices I make for myself, too, knowing that my children watch how I conduct my life and learn from my example. Often, that has meant making the difficult choice rather than taking the easy way out of a situation. I walk the walk because I’m a mom.
And I’m a better person―a better feminist―for having done that. I’m more focused on equality and respect in my everyday life, not just as ideals but as a lived reality. Those ideals are, contrary to popular opinion, the central concerns of feminism. If the mothers of The Handmaid’s Tale are teaching me one thing this time, it’s how tenuous equality is—how carefully we have to guard each one of our basic human rights―and how very fragile the bonds of respect between us can be.
A slightly different version of this post appears on She Dwells in Possibility.