Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727

Although she resists attempts to fit her into a narrow definition of the term, Atwood is known as a feminist writer. Her formative years in Toronto in the late 1950s and 1960s coincided with the emergence of what is often referred to as the "second wave" of modern feminism. This was marked, among other things, by the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963, a book that Atwood acknowledges had a large influence on her own thinking. During the 1960s, women in North America began to challenge stereotypical definitions of how women should behave, and to question the traditional roles assigned to them. A political movement emerged, spearheaded in the United States by the National Organization of Women (NOW), demanding equal employment opportunities and equal pay for women, as well as an end to sexual harassment and the exploitation of women in pornography.

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In Canada, the Voice of Women was founded in 1960 to lobby the provincial and federal governments concerning women's rights. Many grassroots women's groups sprang up, with the goal of changing women's attitudes about themselves and their relations with men.

A glimpse of the early feminist movement in Toronto can be found in Cat's Eye. In the 1960s, Elaine Risley attends "consciousness raising" meetings of women, in which issues are raised that Risley has never consciously thought about before: "Things are being overthrown. Why, for instance, do we shave our legs? Wear lipstick? Dress up in slinky clothing? Alter our shapes? What is wrong with us the way we are?"

The purpose of the meeting is to empower women, and there is a lot of anger expressed against men. (Risley feels ambivalent about the meeting, however; she is more comfortable with men than with women.) Later, Risley exhibits her work in an all-female group show, at which most of the art has a radical feminist slant more extreme than anything Risley paints.

The Canadian women's movement bore fruit in 1967, when a Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada was created. Its final report, issued in 1970, contained 167 recommendations. This Commission has been described as the single most important event in advancing the status of women in Canada at that time.

Abortion Rights
Another social issue relevant to the novel is abortion rights. Susie, the art student, performs an abortion on herself, botches the job and has to be taken to the hospital. At the time of this incident, in the 1960s, abortion in Canada, as well as the United States, was illegal. Incidents such as that involving Susie were not uncommon. Risley says, "Everyone my age knows about it. Nobody discusses it. Rumors are down there, kitchen tables, money exchanged in secret; evil old women; illegal doctors, disgrace and butchery."

But pressure to legalize abortion was mounting in North America, partly due to activism by women's groups. Canada's abortion laws were first liberalized in 1969. In Canada in 1970, feminist groups from all over the country organized two days of protests. Thirty-five women chained themselves to the parliamentary gallery in the House of Commons, closing Parliament for the first time in Canadian history. The Canadian Alliance to Repeal the Abortion Law formed in 1974. In 1988, the Canadian Supreme Court declared Canada's abortion law unconstitutional. This meant that Canadian women could legally have abortions. Interestingly, when Risley, the emerging feminist painter, unexpectedly becomes pregnant, she refuses to seek an abortion, nor does she wish to become a single mother. She and Jon take the more socially acceptable, as well as traditional, route and marry.

In the 1990s, critics found plenty of themes in the novel to discuss, and its reputation remains high in the canon of Atwood's work. For example, in 1995, Coral Ann Howells, in Margaret Atwood ,...

(The entire section contains 3987 words.)

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