The Handmaid’s Tale: Real World Inspirations

We look at the events, laws, and real world issues that inspired the dystopian reality of The Handmaid's Tale.

Margaret Atwood has always been adamant that her acclaimed book The Handmaid’s Tale is speculative fiction, not sci-fi. Her reasoning is that every aspect of Gilead’s culture really happened at some point in history, somewhere in the world. So what are the real world events, laws, and issues that made it into Hulu’s adaptation?

Puritans and the Witch Trials

In her twenties, Margaret Atwood learned she was (maybe) related to Mary Webster, who was (unsuccessfully) hanged for witchcraft. While Salem is famously associated with the trials, their reach extended throughout the towns of Massachusetts. The clothing of Gilead calls the Puritans to mind, and the frenetic scramble of the group execution is reminiscent of the fits and hysteria that started with a group of young girls and lead to so much death. It’s no coincidence that The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts. Atwood attended grad school at Radcliffe, which is now part of Harvard. Harvard even started as a divinity school which still exists, so the swirl of misogyny, religion, and execution were baked into the setting from the very beginning. 

The Cold War

Atwood started writing the book from West Berlin, while the infamous wall still stood. While there have been many dictatorships throughout history, it’s hard not to think Atwood was inspired by the Cold War and a divided Germany when it comes to the checkpoints, military structure of the ruling class of Commanders, and the secret police known as the Eyes, that maintain Gilead as a police state. 

Decree 770 in Romania

While there have been many limitations on reproductive rights throughout history, press clippings about Romania’s ban on abortion and contraception made it into Atwood’s archives, housed at the University of Toronto. This level of control over fertility, the criminalization of those who did not comply, and the glorification of childbirth is similar to the highly regulated nature of life as a Handmaid, as well as the extreme centering of fertility in all of Gilead’s functions. 

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The Stolen Generations

In Australia as recently as the 1970s, indigenous children were lawfully and systemically stolen from their homes and placed in religious institutions or fostered out to white families. The effect disrupted both familial ties and ties to indigenous culture, and similar programs were carried out in the US and Canada, where they are referred to as the Adoption era and residential school system, respectively. Taking the Handmaids’ children so they can be raised by those deemed more worthy seems extreme, but a similar practice occurred in multiple Western nations just a few decades ago with the effects continuing to the present day.  

FGM (female genital mutilation)

This is sometimes referred to as female circumcision or the more neutral term female genital cutting, FGM is the practice of removing external female genitalia. FGM is for the purpose of controlling women’s bodies, whether by “preserving” virginity, conforming to desired visual standards, preventing pleasure, enhancing a man’s pleasure, or restricting the woman’s ability to have intercourse with someone other than her husband. FGM is typically carried out and enforced by the women within a given community, which parallels how women like Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy enforce Gilead’s patriarchal structures. Aunt Lydia uses FGM as a “corrective” punishment to curb the traitorous behavior of an un-woman, similar to the abhorrent practice of corrective rape, which is meant to “turn” LGBTQ women straight. 

Phyllis Schlafly

Serena Joy is certainly fiction, but clear inspiration is drawn from televangelist Tammy Faye Baker and conservative Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly spent her life advocating that women should tend to their families and work inside the home, leading the charge against the Equal Rights Amendment. Much like Serena Joy, Schlafly was sidelined by the very movement she supported. It’s commonly believed that she was snubbed by Ronald Reagan for a position in his administration, likely due to her gender, a phenomenon she built a career claiming did not exist.

The Holocaust

The terrors of the Holocaust are so vast and varied that many dystopian fictions could claim a link, but here there are several specific ones. First and most obvious, the Commanders of the Faithful are in the process of actively carrying out multiple genocides, ridding themselves of a startlingly similar list of groups: LGBTQ people, Jews, intellectuals, and others deemed subversive. The Handmaids themselves lost their names in favor of numbers, and large groups of people are sent off to work camps where they will most certainly die. Some of the most intense parallels occur during the flashbacks, when we watch an updated version of the events leading up to the Holocaust take place: property rights are terminated, jobs suddenly disappear, and literacy is forbidden. Offred, Moira, Janine, and so many others have the choice to accept the role given to them by the regime and what little protection it offers, or defy the system and face the consequences. 

The question with dystopian fiction always seems to be, “could it happen here.” No one needs to be told that when it comes to The Handmaid’s Tale, we should be contemplating “when” rather than “if.” It behooves us to remember that this has all happened before, and if we’re not careful, it will all happen again.