The defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment for woman is a significant event of the decade prior to the publication of the novel which may have had a great influence on Atwood and her depiction of the role of women in this novel. Clearly, they are limited and restrained on a legal and governmental level. Ronald Reagan's conservative administration and the rise of Fundamental Christians having political power also shows itself here.
The growing disparity between rich and poor, as the wealthy became superwealthy (e.g. Donald Trump) and more Americans lived in poverty. AIDS was named and openly talked about for the first time, and quite a bit of fear was associated with it, and people were ostracized/misunderstood. There began some discussion about the US population and how long its growth ws sustainable. The Vietnamese "Boat People" arrived in the late 70s/early 80s. We also witnessed rampant materialism and debt in that time frame.
Naturally, the Cold War dominated major social and political issues of the time period. I would also suggest that the rise of women in the workplace proved to be a transformative social reality of the time period. Women were asserting themselves from an economic point of view, an extension from the 1970s, where this assertion was made from a social valence. Along these lines, the emergence of problems in the urban setting became to be a prominent reality. Reagan’s economic policies of deregulation and decreasing the subsidiaries of government helped to enhance the flight to the suburbs and left urban centers in the midst of decay and decline. It is not surprising that the social perception of drugs being an “urban” problem started to emerge during the 1980s. Yet, the reality was that drug usage and consumption became a national problem. The drug culture was predominant all around the nation. Another social issue that emerged in the decade was the growth and fear of AIDS and AIDS related health syndromes. When Randy Shilts writes the book, “And the Band Played On,” it is a great way of summarizing how the nation was in the grips of the AIDS scare and those who contracted it, while pretending that the material excesses of the time period could conceal all.
There was also growing awareness of the inequity in pay and opportunity for women. The idea of the glass ceiling for women was prominent in the 80s as well as the idea that women received much less than what men received for the same job. Women (and men) who had marched and demonstrated in the 70s to pass the Equal Rights Amendment were continuing to fight for equal rights for women in the eighties.
Further, the traditional notions of rape were questioned. A woman who claimed she was raped was literally questioned as if she were the one guilty rather than the man she accused. Somehow, rape must have been her fault--the clothes she was wearing, the signals that she was giving off. This way of thinking was increasingly challenged in the 70s and early 80s. Further, women and men worked to "Take Back the Night" so that women were as free to go about at night as men were.
These were the days of Phyllis Schafly who reached her zenith in the late 70s with her campaign to stop the ERA and argued that women's place was in the home. Most likely Serena Joy's character was based to some extent on Schafly's career.
In the 1980s in the United States, I would say that the main social issues revolved around matters of race and, to some extent, sexual orientation. In addition, the issue of abortion was growing in importance.
In the 1980s, I think that race was more of an issue than it is today. There was a lot of anger among whites about welfare (this was widely seen as a racial "code word"); anger which was used by Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, among others, to get elected. (See Reagan and "welfare queens" and Bush and "Willie Horton.) Crime was also a racially loaded issue (look up Bernhard Goetz.)
The more "moral" social issues were also gaining in importance. AIDS was discovered in the 1980s and that put gay rights more in the spotlight. (Look up a group called ACT UP.) Abortion was perhaps not as big an issue as now, but it was gaining. (Look up Operation Rescue.)
In a lot of ways, then, the issues were similar to the ones we face now, though race was more of an issue and the moral/religious issues were perhaps a bit less important.
Developing countries across the world faced economic and social difficulties as they suffered from multiple debt crises in the 1980s, requiring many of these countries to apply for financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Major civil discontent and violence occurred in the Middle East, including the Iran-Iraq War, the ongoing Soviet-Afghan War, the 1982 Lebanon War, the Bombing of Libya in 1986, and the First Intifada in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
There was also Civil wars and Guerrilla wars EX: (The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 occurred in the People's Republic of China in 1989, in which pro-democracy protestors demanded political reform. The protests were crushed by the People's Liberation Army). There was also Decolonization and Independence EX: (Canada gained official independence from the United Kingdom with a new Constitution on April 17, 1982, authorized by the signature by Queen Elizabeth II. This act severed all political dependencies of the United Kingdom in Canada (although the queen remained the titular head of state).