In The Handmaid’s Tale, the state of Gilead is the former United States. We learn that the US became Gilead after an internal political coup by a group calling themselves the Sons of Jacob. This group had the president assassinated and Congress massacred and then blamed these events on Islamic terrorists.
In the aftermath of the murder of the president, the Sons of Jacob suspended the Constitution. This allowed them to make up their own laws and establish a new totalitarian republic. With the overthrow of democracy, women’s rights were erased. Their bank accounts were frozen, and they were forbidden from undertaking paid work, holding property, or even reading. Fertile women like Offred were forced to become “Handmaids,” bearing children for the most powerful men and their Wives. Remaining women were classified into Marthas (household servants), Aunts (the instructors of Handmaids), and Unwomen (the old and those who resist authority).
Although the overthrow of power takes place almost overnight, Atwood makes it clear that it does not occur entirely out of the blue. Leading up to the coup, there were troubling indicators of the direction in which society was headed. A dramatic decline in birth rates had led to right-wing movements urging women to return to their traditional roles. The low birth rate was attributed to women’s increased reliance on birth control and the prioritization of their careers. The future leaders of Gilead exploit this fertility crisis. It presents the perfect opportunity to retract women’s rights and take control of every aspect of their lives.
While there were public protests when the Sons of Jacob first took power, Offred did not take part in them. Readers learn that pre-Gilead, she was also embarrassed by her mother’s feminist activities. Offred’s lack of agency serves as a warning against complacency. If citizens do not heed the warning signs, democracies can soon turn into totalitarian regimes.