The Handmaid's Tale is set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, a country formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America. It was founded by a racist, homophobic, male chauvinist, nativist, theocratic-organized military coup as an ideologically driven response to the pervasive ecological, physical and social degradation of the country.
Beginning with a staged terrorist attack (blamed on Islamic extremist terrorists) that kills the President and most of Congress, a movement calling itself the "Sons of Jacob" launch a revolution and suspend the United States Constitution under the pretext of restoring order.
Taking advantage of electronic banking, they were quickly able to freeze the assets of all women and other "undesirables" in the country, stripping them of their rights. The new theocratic military dictatorship, styled "The Republic of Gilead", moved quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical, compulsorily Christian regime of Old Testament-inspired social and religious orthodoxy among its newly created social classes. In this society, almost all women are forbidden to read.
The story is presented from the point of view of a woman called Offred (a patronymic name that means "Of Fred", referring to the man she serves). The character is one of a class of individuals kept as concubines ("handmaids") for reproductive purposes by the ruling class in an era of declining births. The book is told in the first person by Offred, who describes her life during her third assignment as a handmaid, in this case to Fred (referred to as "The Commander"). If Offred fails to become pregnant on this, her third attempt, she will be declared an "unwoman" and discarded.
Interspersed in flashbacks are portions of her life from before and during the beginning of the revolution, when she finds she has lost all autonomy to her husband, through her failed attempt to escape with her husband and daughter to Canada, to her indoctrination into life as a handmaid. Through her eyes, the structure of Gilead's society is described, including the several different categories of women and their circumscribed lives in the new theocracy.
I wonder if, when Canadian author Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid's Tale back in 1985, she knew that fundamentalists would actually try to set up something similar to the theocratic hell that was the Republic of Gilead. Today, her classic dystopian novel is considered an unofficial rough draft of the kind of society today's staunch conservative Republicans would very much like to see.
The Handmaid's Tale paints an ugly picture of a nation in which the anti-abortion and anti-birth control "pro-life" movement comes to an odious, yet logical conclusion. Instead of attempting to explain in my own words the odiousness of a Gileadian existence, here's an excerpt from "Giving Birth to a 'Rapist's Child': A Discussion and Analysis of the Limited Legal Protections Afforded to Women Who Become Mothers Through Rape," written for the Georgetown Law Journal by Shauna R. Prewitt, a lawyer and a survivor of rape who - get this - had to fight off her rapist's legal attempts to obtain custody and visitation rights for the child she bore due to the rape:
Like the stranger-rape prototype, the pregnant-raped-woman prototype may have emerged and continues to persist because it reinforces social hierarchies. For example, by describing the unborn children in terms that suggest the children are exclusively extensions of the rapist fathers, proponents of the pregnant-raped-woman prototype—underpinned by the rape-product justification—reify many sexist and patriarchal ideas. Sandra Mahkorn argues that rhetoric which portrays the unborn child as “being the property of the rapist” derives from a “sexist mentality.” It is the mentality that views a woman as “merchandise to which a man can claim ownership,” such that any offspring of that relationship are viewed as “the property of the owner, the father.” As a result, through use of the pregnant-raped-woman prototype, “chauvinistic predispositions are tolerated and succumbed to.” This “property” view not only allows for the illogic that a child conceived through rape is exclusively a genetic product of the rapist father, but also “de-legitimiz[es] [the] maternal genetic link,” and thereby, “erase[s] all identity characteristics of the mother other than that as a sexual container.” In doing so, it “reifies the patriarchal notion of patrilineal descent,” as well as the sexist ideology that “promote[s] the concept that a woman is a mere receptacle.” Finally, the depiction of an unborn child as being “‘worthless’ or ‘valueless’” derives from the notion that pregnancy from rape is “symbolic of ‘damage’ to male property.”
The world of The Handmaid's Tale effectively reduces female existence to mere property and such property is utilized as tools for sexual gratification or tools for procreation and lineage continuation. To insure both functions are always available, barriers to both are brought down under religious and moral pretexts with assistance from legal and judicial avenues. Therefore, abortion, birth control and the very idea of sovereignty over one's own body are barriers that are to be brought down. Once that happens, society's menfolk, or at least those who wield considerable amounts of power, will have their theoretical pick of the female litter.
Notice how the commanders have their pick of wives, "Marthas," handmaids and of course, "Jezebels" for relief and entertainment. Women who can't serve one or the other purpose are deemed "unwomen" and essentially sent away to die. Meanwhile, the common man only has an "econowife" to look forward to. Gileadian society's "big men" get to benefit from the spoils while the foot soldiers contend with the crumbs, along with proud accolades for their service under said big men and promises of more crumbs being thrown their way in due time.
This world is one men like Rep. Todd Akin and VP candidate Paul Ryan advocate for bringing into fruition, even if they themselves don't quite know it. Many others are unwilling to just come out and admit that the bedroom and kitchen are the only places they believe women should be. Others have religious and moral objections to abortion and birth control; some people are more than willing to hitchhike their way to achieving an abortion/birth control ban, even at the cost of reducing women to living Fleshlights and incubators in the long run. Akin and other politicians are definitely willing to use the conservative pro-life movement as a slingshot to political career advancement, regardless of the consequences.
As for conservatives bent on slighting their liberal counterparts by ushering in odious legislation that further turns women into the aforementioned "handmaids," they're shooting themselves in the foot in the long run, too. And just as pro-lifers seem to cease caring about the new lives they claim to protect once they're out of the womb, the Gileadian society in The Handmaid's Tale is quick to quietly dispose of newborns born with defects and shuffle "undesirables" out of the way. Even the women who've outlived their procreative and sexual usefulness are exiled to the novel's wasteland colonies. I'm sure pro-lifers would say they would never act that way in similar circumstances, but the lack of concern for life outside of the womb tends to make their concern for life within it seem...hollow.
Unlike the novel, there's no natural disaster or crisis needed to start slouching towards Gilead. All it takes is a few people convinced that women would have better lives as property than they would as full-fledged human beings, and scores of people who are just following their moral convictions without knowing exactly who they're following.