Week 3 Day 2 Discussion Question 1

Here is a link to Sherronda Brown’s essay, “White Women in Robes.”

Here are some of my thoughts about the piece:  As a historian, I think it’s important to note that, while Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist as well as a birth control pioneer in the early twentieth century, many advocates for contraception did not share her eugenicist views.  Beneficiaries of access to contraception included immigrant working-class women for whom multiple unwanted pregnancies were often a life-or-death issue, not merely a “choice.”  Conflating the birth control movement with women’s participation in the KKK is also misleading.  Brown critiques The Handmaid’s Tale for focusing only on the plight of white cisgender women in Gilead’s pronatalist regime.  Her point that the novel is preoccupied with white cis women’s experience is well-taken.  In Atwood’s novel, African Americans (referred to as “the Children of Ham”) have been expelled from Gilead.  Gilead is a white supremacist, pronatalist state, but Atwood hardly endorses its racial politics.

It’s true that The Handmaid’s Tale is in dialogue with white feminist politics of the 1970s and 1980s.  Atwood engages the white feminist anti-pornography movement, the embrace of a separate women’s culture by some radical feminists, reproductive politics, and so on.  I think we can acknowledge the novel’s limitations, as Brown prompts us to do, while critically engaging the novel’s formal and political features.  I chose to teach The Handmaid’s Tale because I think it is a valuable literary mediation of important debates in second-wave feminism.  The novel also dramatizes other historical developments, such as the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s and 1980s.  I hope we won’t dismiss Atwood’s narrative for its political shortcomings when we can critically engage the text instead.   Those are some of my thoughts.  I am interested to hear what you think.

One thought on “Week 3 Day 2 Discussion Question 1

  • February 28, 2022 at 7:41 am

    Sherronda Brown’s essay, “White Women in Robes,” certainly achieved its goals of opening my eyes to the supremacist history of the reproductive rights movement and forcing me to question why “The Handmaid’s Tale” hit so hard with many white readers and viewers.  When Brown notes that “The Handmaid’s Tale depicts cis white women stripped of the ability to bear and nurture one’s own children without government interference or barriers created through white supremacy and systemic oppression,” and that “this terrifies them,” it definitely resonated; I am exactly the type of reader that Brown is describing – a woman who would not immediately make the connection between the handmaids’ fictional nightmare and the nightmare actually lived by enslaved black women and women of color who were subjected to forced sterilizations. Brown’s piece therefore made me realize that even though racial dynamics are largely omitted from Atwood’s tale, it is my duty as a reader (and more specifically a white reader) to still consider them.  

    Brown’s essay also inspired me to consider the deeper complexities that come with reproductive justice, including the fact that while white women have been focused on access to birth control and abortion (avoiding childbirth), many women of color have also been concerned about their ability to bring children into the world and parent them autonomously.  And finally — and perhaps most importantly — Brown’s essay prompted me to think deeply about the role that other women (and particularly white women) have played in interfering with reproductive freedom.  Brown points to female eugenecists and Klan members as support for this point, but I think more about how Gilead’s power structure and abuse of the handmaids could not have been perpetuated without the support of the wives who appropriated their babies.  For all of these reasons, even if Brown’s essay was overly facile at times, I greatly enjoyed reading it.

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