Herizons Commentary

Gilead Revisited  by Linda Silver Dranoff
Gilead Revisited

Viewers shuddered as they watched The Handmaid’s Tale, the 10-part TV series inspired by Margaret’s Atwood’s dystopian horror story. They saw women suddenly deprived of their jobs, their money and their freedom to control their

While everyone in Atwood’s Gilead is subjugated, it is the control of women and their reproductive powers that still resonates 30 years after Atwood’s book was first published in 1985. Gilead may seem unthinkable, but it’s only because the transformation of women into a class of breeding slaves is so sudden and extreme.

Gilead and its über-patriarchy may seem far removed from most women’s lives in North America today. But let’s not forget that, until 50 years ago, Canadian women’s reproductive autonomy was controlled by government. It wasn’t until 1969 that contraception became legal in Canada and abortion became available only if a committee of three doctors determined that a woman’s life or health would be in jeopardy if she carried her pregnancy to term.

It took another full generation of feminist lobbying, and court challenges by Dr. Henry Morgentaler—leading up to the milestone 1988 Supreme Court victory—before abortion became an insured medical service.

In the U.S., the 1973 Roe vs. Wade court ruling protected American women’s reproductive rights on paper, but many states are severely curtailing abortion. And U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew government funding from international organizations that provide or endorse abortion, something that former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper did in 2014.

If you think scenes from Gilead couldn’t happen, think again. Today, reproductive dictatorships are in place in countries such as El Salvador, where abortion is banned even when a pregnant woman’s life is jeopardized and where women who have abortions are imprisoned. And a shocking new Arkansas law would require a rape victim who becomes pregnant as a result of an assault to obtain her assailant’s permission to obtain an abortion.

Historically, women’s lives have been controlled by laws made by men in order to maintain their dominance. It wasn’t that long ago that Canadian men were permitted to “discipline” their wives using methods that would have been considered assault if they had been inflicted on anyone else. Ontario was the first province, in 1975, to abolish the principle that a husband and wife are “one person” in law—a principle that had protected men from being charged for physical or sexual assault of their wives. And it wasn’t until 1983 that Canada’s Criminal Code considered marital rape a crime. However, in India, Singapore, Lebanon and Bahamas, among other places, laws still permit a man to rape his wife.

Women in The Handmaid’s Tale are horrified when they are unable to access their money and keep their jobs—rights that we now take for granted. However, most women were expected to quit their jobs upon marriage well into the 1950s, and it was a given that they would quit if they became pregnant.

Until Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau introduced important divorce reforms
in 1968, getting out of a marriage was very difficult for women. Even then, a mother could not be assured she would receive financial support for the divorcing couple’s children if she was awarded custody. And women were not automatically entitled to a legal share of the family’s home and its assets until 1978.

In Gilead, as in Canada today, misogyny is an everpresent threat. Women who are sexually assaulted routinely have their cases dismissed by police as “unfounded.” And if their case goes to trial, there is a good chance that a woman won’t be believed and the rapist will go free. Feminists in decades past achieved many advances, such as equal sharing of assets after a divorce, equality
protection under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, pay equity laws, decriminalization of abortion and paid maternity leave.

Yet the battles in Canada are not won yet—we still need pay and employment equity, affordable child care, improved representation of women in decision-making positions and much more. Internationally, many women are still fighting for rights we now take for granted. Women in 19 countries are still obliged by law to obey their husbands, while those in 18 countries need their husband’s permission to get a job.

To avoid a Handmaid’s Tale transformation, we need to support organizations that speak out when governments anywhere attempt to enact policies that threaten rights. We need continued collective activism, relentless vigilance
and a powerful sisterhood to fight for social justice and to
speak truth to power.

Linda Silver Dranoff is the author of Fairly Equal: Lawyering the Feminist Revolution, recently published by the Feminist History Society and Second Story Press.