Gilead is a strictly hierarchical society, with a huge difference between the genders. As soon as the Gileadean revolutionaries take over after terrorism destroys the US government, they fire all women from their jobs and drain their bank accounts, leaving Offred desperate and dependent. Luke, however, doesn’t seem so furious at this turn of events, a subtle suggestion that even good men may have embedded misogynistic attitudes, and that Gilead merely takes these common views to the logical extreme. Soon Gileadean women find all liberties taken from them, from the right to choose their clothes to the right to read.
Even women in positions of power, like Aunt Lydia, are only allowed cattle prods, never guns. The Commander’s Wife, once a powerful supporter of far right-wing religious ideas about how women should stay in the home, now finds herself unhappily trapped in the world she advocated for. Gilead also institutionalizes sexual violence toward women. The Ceremony, where the Commander tries to impregnate Offred, is institutionalized adultery and a kind of rape. Jezebel’s, where Moira works, is a whorehouse for the society’s elite.
Though the story critiques the religious right, it also shows that the feminist left, as exemplified by Offred’s mother, is not the solution, as the radical feminists, too, advocate book burnings, censorship, and violence. The book avoids black-and-white divisions, forcing us to take on our own assumptions regarding gender. We may blame Offred for being too passive, without acknowledging that she’s a product of her society. We may fault the Commander’s Wife for not showing solidarity to her gender and rebelling against Gilead, without understanding that this expectation, since it assumes that gender is the most important trait, is just a milder version of the anti-individual tyranny of Gilead. These complicated questions of blame, as well as the brutal depictions of the oppression of women, earn The Handmaid’s Tale its reputation as a great work of feminist literature.