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A talk with Margaret Atwood: What is women's status around the world?

'Handmaid's Tale' author speaks at One Book One Northwestern events

Margaret Atwood, author of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” spoke at Northwestern University Oct. 30 to big audiences about the implications her 1985 dystopian novel has on our contemporary world as part of the One Book One Northwestern program.

Atwood has long been a literary titan, but “current events have polished the oracular sheen of her reputation,” says The New Yorker. With the red cloak and white bonnet of the “handmaid” appearing across the country from the halls of Congress to street protest, Atwood has been traveling the world to talk about her cautionary tale, human behavior, politics, religion, fertility, the #MeToo and myriad other issues. At Northwestern, little more than a week before the 2018 midterm elections, she distilled it all down to a simple and timely message:

“You still have a country in which you can vote. Use the power that you still have within this system to try to prevent more of it from getting taken away from you."

Set in a dystopian future in which the U.S. government has been overthrown by a theocratic authoritarian regime that uses fertile women as handmaids to bear children for the all-controlling ruling class, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a modern classic that explores the politics of religion and gender and offers a warning about a future the author hopes will never come to pass. 

The main character and narrator, the handmaid Offred — one of many women forced to reproduce with the regime’s ruling men in the wake of environmental collapse that has led to widespread infertility — is the property of a commander in the Republic of Gilead. 

Offred holds out hope that she will one day be reunited with her husband and daughter while, in defiance of her captors and the law, secretly recording her story.  

At Northwestern, Atwood was joined in conversation on the downtown campus by law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer, who specializes in law and legal theory surrounding sexual assault, and Angela Lawson, associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology and psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine. In Evanston, Atwood was interviewed by English professor and One Book Faculty Chair Helen Thompson. 

"I'm an optimist," Atwood said, offering hope for the future. "It's not religion that is the problem. It is the misuse of religion that is the problem." She compared our current political and social environment to France before the French Revolution, adding that, in both cases, "too much money and power are concentrated at the top."

"The society here has become too top heavy financially," Atwood said.

“‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ offers the Northwestern community an opportunity to engage today’s conversation about women’s status in America and across the globe “Atwood’s vision of a near future, patriarchal dystopia invites us to think hard about what feminism is and how it matters to us in our everyday lives — not just because we are gendered selves, but because we are historical actors, agents of acceptance, change and resistance,” Thompson said.

 “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been translated into more than 40 languages; it has been made in to a film, an opera, a ballet and, of course, is the inspiration for an MGM/Hulu original series that aired in April 2017 to rave reviews — winning Emmys, Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards for its first season. 

Atwood started writing the novel in West Berlin in 1984, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time when the threat of a militaristic authoritarian superpower was all too real during the Cold War. 

At the time, she was unsure if she would be able to persuade American readers that the U.S. had been transformed from a liberal democracy into a theocratic dictatorship. Today, in the wake of the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement, heightened anxieties and the proliferation of extremist views, the patriarchal society Atwood creates in the novel feels, to some, like a warning.  

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is not a prediction, Atwood states in a new introduction to the book.

“Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either,” Atwood writes.

Seeking the next One Book

The One Book One Northwestern selection committee is seeking recommendations for the 2019-2020 academic year. Book suggestions should include: title, author, number of pages, a short summary, and a brief description of why this book would make a good common read.

Submit suggestions here. The deadline for submittals is Friday, Nov. 9. Submit questions to One Book One Northwestern at

Please note, the selected book should be available in paperback and digital formats by May 1, 2019.

Topics: Events, One Book
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