Gender Equality & “The Handmaid’s Tale” (by Kathleen Schwab)

THE HANDMAID'S TALE -- The drama series, based on the award-winning, best-selling novel by Margaret Atwood, is the story of life in the dystopia of Gilead, a totalitarian society in what was formerly part of the United States. Facing environmental disasters and a plunging birthrate, Gilead is ruled by a fundamentalist regime that treats women as property of the state. As one of the few remaining fertile women, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is a Handmaid in the Commanderís household, one of the caste of women forced into sexual servitude as a last desperate attempt to repopulate a devastated world. In this terrifying society where one wrong word could end her life, Offred navigates between Commanders, their cruel Wives, domestic Marthas, and her fellow Handmaids ñ where anyone could be a spy for Gilead ñ all with one goal: to survive and find the daughter that was taken from her.  Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), shown. (Photo by: Take Five/Hulu)
THE HANDMAID'S TALE -- The drama series, based on the award-winning, best-selling novel by Margaret Atwood, is the story of life in the dystopia of Gilead, a totalitarian society in what was formerly part of the United States. Facing environmental disasters and a plunging birthrate, Gilead is ruled by a fundamentalist regime that treats women as property of the state. As one of the few remaining fertile women, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is a Handmaid in the Commanderís household, one of the caste of women forced into sexual servitude as a last desperate attempt to repopulate a devastated world. In this terrifying society where one wrong word could end her life, Offred navigates between Commanders, their cruel Wives, domestic Marthas, and her fellow Handmaids ñ where anyone could be a spy for Gilead ñ all with one goal: to survive and find the daughter that was taken from her. Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), shown. (Photo by: Take Five/Hulu)

I read The Handmaids Tale in the 80’s when it first came out, and I thought it was an intriguing story, but I didn’t see any parallels to the real world. Experiencing the story again, this time watching it on Hulu, I recognized some of my own history in the church, and I saw a good deal of truth about the way gender equality can impact Christian marriages.

To briefly explain the premise, the show takes place in the not too distant future, in a time when infertility has become a serious problem. A radical theocracy takes over the United States, instituting martial law, and rounding up all the women who may still be fertile. These women are distributed to high ranking married men in the newly formed Republic of Gilead. They are called Handmaids, and their job is to bear children.

The series protagonist is Offred, an independent young woman whose job, child, and freedom are taken away from her by the new government. Of course Offred hates the situation, and the audience is encouraged to identify with her. But the character I found myself identifying with most is Serena Joy, wife of one of the Republic of Gilead’s top leaders.

Serena Joy’s journey is complex; she was part of Gilead’s leadership from the beginning. She was a type A personality who used her ambition and drive to write a book about women’s position in society. She was full of vision, and the desire to make the world a better place.

And then Gilead shut down around her. Once the group she helped found was in power, the men leaders decided that the leadership team should be male only.

Serena Joy helped write the laws for the Republic of Gilead, but then a law is passed that forbids women from reading. She ends up isolated in her house, all copies of her book destroyed, with the husband who had been her partner in leading a revolution gone most of the time.

Serena’s story painfully echoes my own journey in the church.

When I was 14, having recently accepted Christ and on fire to serve Him, I went on a ten-week overseas mission trip. Missions was so amazing that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life, but by the time I was in college I realized that I didn’t feel drawn to the Third World. So I started thinking that the way to fulfill my call to ministry was through a seminary education.

I got nothing but encouragement from every Christian I knew when I wanted to minister overseas, but when I wanted to do the same thing at home, suddenly all my friends were shaking their heads. Women were not supposed to be leaders in the church, they said. The bible said so. I was baffled, given the earlier unconditional support, but the message that I was not welcome was loud and clear.

So I readjusted; I would serve in unofficial capacities. God would show me the way, since after all He was the One who called me. I got a teaching degree to support myself, and looked for ways to be useful in the church.

But I was like Serena Joy in Handmaid’s Tale the day she had to sit out in the hall while the men discussed the important things. Her cheery smile could have been mine. Like me, she was determined to make it work. And like me, the rejection got to her.

Through flashbacks we meet the earlier Serena and Fred in love. They kiss in between quoting scriptures to each other. Their romantic love and their faith are entwined, and I identify with that: I’ve experienced it. And it made the disappearance of that love all the more painful.

If we lose a relationship we grounded in our love for God, doesn’t it seem we have lost something of God too?

When the older Commander Fred says that love doesn’t exist, that it’s just nature urging us to procreate; we see how far he is from that man who kissed Serena Joy, who apologized to her when she couldn’t join in leadership meetings anymore.

Serena Joy’s happiness breaks down under the pressure of gender hierarchy.

When she and Fred are planning Gilead together, they are close. But as Fred adopts the idea that women need to be protected from the stress of leadership, he drifts away from her. Why wouldn’t he? She is excluded from the decisions and issues that are most important to him, so of course his attachment weakens.

My own experience in a 26 year marriage is that some of the worst times were while I worked the hardest to fit the church’s ideal of the happily submissive wife. I was told over and over again, in sermons, books, and conversations, that if I would just trust God and be submissive, my marriage would work.

Submission draws out a man’s love, they assured me. I found the opposite to be true.

My husband told me he wanted a partner. He told me to forget about being a good wife and just be myself. Our life together worked much better when I decided to ignore the church’s teachings on marriage. There is some anger and betrayal in that for me, because people who were adamant they had my best interests at heart worked hard to get me to buy into an empty system.

Just how much trouble does hierarchical marriage cause?

In his book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman, who spent over two decades studying what makes marriages succeed or fail, says,

“Even in the first few months of marriage, men who allowed their wives to influence them had happier relationships and were less likely to eventually divorce than men who resisted their wives’ influence. Statistically speaking, when a man is not willing to share power with his partner there is an 81 percent chance that his marriage will self-destruct.”

Jesus upended the status-focused culture of the first century by emphasizing the equality of believers. “You are not to be called Rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.” (Matt. 23:8 NIV)

Why was equality important enough to Him that he rebuked the disciples for arguing about who was greatest among them, and defended Mary of Bethany’s place at His feet, rather than in the kitchen?

Jesus wanted His followers to practice radical equality because He wanted them to love one another, and human beings are best at loving equals. Would the early Christian communities have been known for love of the brethren if they continued arguing about who was most important? What is true for the church at large is true between married couples: we love each other best in equality.

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Kathleen Schwab is a lifelong lover of God, a literature teacher, a wife and mother. She is a co-author (along with Therese Kay) of “Messages from God: An Illuminated Devotional,” which is a five week devotional inspired by the synergy of words and art in medieval illuminated manuscripts. Find this Devotional on Amazon HERE.

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10 Comments

  • Complementarianism does exist in New Zealand but it is hard to when we have a female Prime Minister, Chief Justice and Governor-General (the 3 top NZ positions). Mostly we are egalitarian.

  • I think that complementarianism or egalitarianism depends on the society that we live in. NZ has a female Prime Minister, Governor-General and Chief Justice. In this climate it is hard for complementarianism to take root.

  • To say that you have a female prime minister is a red herring. Having a female prime minister is not forbidden in the bible. Having a female leader in business is not forbidden in the bible. The context of what paul said is the church and it does not say that women cannot be influencial or have nothing to say. It says that they should not have authority over men in the church and the key things are POWER AND CHURCH. Any other context is not applicable. He also explained why and it was not local problem as he tells them that is starts with Adam and Eve. Eve was decieved by the devil, Adam was not. He knew what he was doing. Paul speaking under the authority of God for it is Gods word was pointing out the differences between men and women. I also have to say that a man who does not allow himself to be influences by his wife is not very smart. However a wise man once told me that when a couple cannot agree, the man has the casting vote, which he may use to say, OK we will do it YOUR WAY.

  • George-
    I’m going to try posting in short chunks, and see how that works.
    The translation of the passage you are talking about is a bit trickier than the church has acknowledged. The word translated as “woman’ also has the meaning “wife” and the word translated “man” also has the meaning “husband.” When these words appear together, they are always translated husband and wife, rather than man and women – well, everywhere but in this text. The traditional translation enforces a patriarchial structure that is not in the original text, which says something closer to “A wife should not correct her husband, or boss him around, in a church meeting.”

  • Continued from above-
    Have you ever been in a bible study where a husband and wife have an argument about doctrine? I have, and it’s uncomfortable. In a first century setting, where the husband is expected to be the ruler of the household, the potential for him to lose face, and lose status in the community, is serious.

    Husbands and wives discussing spiritual matter was something completely new for this society, and I think it was very touchy. Think about pagan religion: men worship mostly male gods, and men can also visit temple prostitutes as part of religion. Respectable women worshiped goddesses of the domestic arts. Husbands and wives lived in different worlds spiritually, not to mention the fact that pagan religion served to drive a wedge between men and wives with its double standard over sex.

    Jewish families worshiped together, and husbands were expected to be faithful, but in worship services the men could discuss and the women had to keep quiet. No one in the society had a precedent for what Christianity did.

  • This is how Paul said Christian services should work: “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” 1 Corinth 14:26 Why would the passage begin ‘brothers and sisters’ if women were singled out to not be allowed to bring instruction to the group? We know they did the other things – spoke in tongues, sang, prophesied. One thing in the list can’t be gender specific.

    I think the issue was the explosiveness of this new practice of husbands and wives talking about spiritual issues in the same group, and the potential for wives, who have been expected to be silent and subordinate to men all their lives, suddenly spewing some anger. It what happens to silenced people when they first begin to be allowed a voice. And it isn’t the point of the worship service, which needs to focus on Jesus. So Paul makes this correction.

  • (Last bit – )

    The revolution that began in those equalitarian worship services, organized around the idea that Jesus saw everyone as having equal value, changed the world, and paved the way for the modern democracies that we have today, and also for the concept of gender equality.

    I find it ironic that the church is often the last place in our society to acknowledge women’s equality, when Christianity laid the foundation for it in Western society.

    • I thoroughly love your explanation of this text, and it makes a lot of sense as well, give what I know of the historical power structures of that era. Using a single line of text to keep women from speaking, when so much more of the Bible and Jesus’ sayings were egalitarian and embraced equality between men and women, has always been a problem for me. Seems to be just another way for men to boost their egos by keeping women subordinate for no reason other than their fragility.
      Thank you for a well thought out and articulated response. I tend to respond poorly to males saying that women and girls are inherently”less than” because of the biblical story of Eden, as it is a ridiculous argument that flies in the face of Jesus’ teachings. Its an example of how broken many people are, that they accept this stepping-on of half of all humanity as something that Jesus would approve of. I pray they grow to understand the law of His Love. Praying for our human brokenness be overcome, for all of us. Thank you again for your wonderful explanation!

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