The Handmaid’s Tale: the real life events that inspired Margaret Atwood’s dystopian drama

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Kayleigh Dray
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THE HANDMAID'S TALE -- "First Blood" -- Episode 206 -- Offred finds unexpected allies and obstacles in her search for a way to protect Hannah. The Commander prepares for the dedication of a new Red Center. Nick struggles with his new position. Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

Think Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is fictional? Think again.

The Handmaid’s Tale first roared onto UK televisions screens in May 2017 to critical acclaim. As promised, the star-studded dystopian drama has proven to be incredibly vocal about the current political climate and what it means for individuals, especially women. And, while Hulu (like Netflix and other streaming services) doesn’t release specific viewing figures, it was revealed that the show doubled its audience for the season two premiere compared to the first season, following it becoming the first show from a streaming service to win best drama at the Emmys, among other awards (no wonder, then, that a third series of the TV show has been confirmed for spring 2019).

Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, the show (in which Elisabeth Moss plays titular ‘handmaid’, Offred) takes place in Gilead, a near-future version of North America in which the Constitution has been overthrown. As a result of this, women’s rights and identities have been stripped away, with fertile women being rounded up, red tagged, and forced into a life of sexual servitude and surrogacy.

It paints a picture of a dark and thought-provoking dystopia  – made even more so by President Donald Trump’s recent stance on abortion, women’s health, and feminism.

And, yes, it challenges us to take a look at our own society and speak out against lawmakers who seem keen to strip away human rights in order to make the world a ‘better place’, because, as the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) so rightly points out, “better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some”.

Yet, despite all of this, The Handmaid’s Tale is so much more than a fictional drama – because, as Atwood has pointed out time and time again, every aspect of Gilead’s culture has really happened at some point in history, somewhere in the world.

Speaking to The Guardian, the 79-year-old author explained: “When it first came out it was viewed as being far-fetched. However, when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that humans had not already done somewhere at some time.”

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The making of The Handmaid’s Tale

So what are the real life events, laws, and issues that inspired this work of speculative fiction? And how can it be that the events of The Handmaid’s Tale are still holding up a dark mirror to the real world? Here, we examine significant historical moments and legislations from around the globe and find that, as ever, truth is often far stranger – and more horrible – than fiction.

Alexis Bledel as Ofglen in The Handmaid's Tale

Alexis Bledel as Ofglen in The Handmaid's Tale

Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh

Showrunner Bruce Miller has described his vision for the third season with a four-word phrase: “Blessed be the fight.” And executive producer Warren Littlefield echoed that sentiment in a new interview, saying this fight is one that aligns with the modern political moment.

Specifically referencing President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court as an example of the need for resistance, he said: “I think it is about the fight, and I think that [fight] takes many, many forms, as does citizenship and the privilege of citizenship.

“I think we’re thematically very much on track. And I think the journey has been earned, and I think we’re ready to hit the next dimension — and that’s one where I think there’s a sense of June as a warrior and rising.”

Kavanaugh, of course, was named Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 2019, just months after Dr Christine Blasey Ford accused him of sexual assault. The university professor appeared in front of a panel of senators to give her account of the attack, which she says happened when she and Kavanaugh were at high school in the Eighties.

Trump, of course, was elected after more than 15 women accused him of sexual harassment and/or assault, and was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women’s genitals without their consent. 

Abortion laws

The Handmaid’s Tale offers up a bleak world in which women’s ability to control their own reproduction, and particularly to access safe abortion, is non-existent. This idea is introduced gradually over time: in the book, for example, Offred sees the bodies of hanged doctors who have carried out abortions and comments that “in the time before… such things were legal.” She also, in chapter eight, witnesses the funeral procession of a miscarried foetus – and, towards the end of the book, notes that there are no ultrasounds or scans carried out in Gilead.

“What would be the point of knowing, anyway?” she tells us. “You can’t have them taken out; whatever it is must be carried to term.”

However, while this may feel incredibly removed from our own lives, it’s worth noting that more than 40% of women around the world aged 15-44 live in a country where abortion is highly restricted, according to research by the Guttmacher Institute. El Savlador, Chile, Nicaragua, Vatican City and Malta do not allow abortion under any circumstances, with doctors who find evidence of abortion forced to report patients to the police, even if the women are in need of medical attention after desperately self-inducing a termination. 

And the issue is much closer to home than you might think. On 14 May 2019, 25 white men – all Republican members of the Alabama senate – voted to criminalise abortion at any stage of pregnancy, even if that pregnancy was the consequence of rape or incest. Under the terms of the bill, which is yet to come into effect, abortion will only be permissible in Alabama if continuing with a pregnancy poses a serious threat to a woman’s health.

The Alabama news comes hot on the heels of several shocking blows to reproductive rights in other US states. This year alone, over a dozen states have attempted to introduce so-called heartbeat bills, which ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy (the point at which a foetus’ heartbeat can often be detected in scans). Four states have succeeded in signing these draconian bills into law, including Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed a “heartbeat bill” into law on 7 May 2019.

“Georgia is a state that values life,” Kemp said before putting his signature to the Life Act. “We stand up for those who are unable to speak for themselves.”

And things are little different in the UK, as women in Northern Ireland are similarly only allowed to have abortions if doctors believe their mental or physical health would be seriously or permanently harmed if they continued with a pregnancy. Shockingly, terminations are generally banned even in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities: in 2016/17, just 13 legal procedures took place across the whole of Northern Ireland. (For context, more than 190,000 abortions were carried out in England and Wales in the same time period.)

You can find out more about the situation here.

Enforced surrogacy and adoption

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred and her fellow handmaids are forced to bear children for the families they are ‘owned’ by. Any healthy babies that are born are then raised by the wives of the men that the handmaids are systematically raped by.

It’s an abhorrent concept – but it’s worth remembering that similar practices occurred in multiple Western nations just a few decades ago, with the effects continuing to the present day.  

In Australia as recently as the Seventies, indigenous children were lawfully stolen from their homes and placed in religious institutions or fostered out to white families. From the end of World War II up until the late seventies, similar programs were carried out in the USA and Canada: this systematic stealing of Native American children is referred to as the Adoption era and residential school system, depending upon which country’s dark past you’re speaking about.

And, of course, let’s not forget the Magdalene laundries in Ireland, which saw young girls punished for their “immorality” by being forced into slave-like conditions. The babies they bore were taken away from them and placed with adoptive families all over the world – with 2,000 alone being shipped across to the USA.

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Margaret Atwood has a new warning about The Handmaid’s Tale

Speaking in a 2017 interview with the La Times, Atwood explained: “Totalitarianism always has views on who shall be allowed to have babies and what shall be done with the babies.”

The author went on to point out that “the generals in Argentina were dumping people out of airplanes. But if it was a pregnant woman, they would wait until she had the baby and then they gave the baby to somebody in their command system. And then they dumped the woman out of the airplane.

“Hitler stole his children, blonde ones, hoping that he could turn them into blonde Germans. It’s been going on for really a long time.”

Madeline Brewer as Ofwarren/Janine in The Handmaid's Tale

Madeline Brewer as Ofwarren/Janine in The Handmaid's Tale

FGM (female genital mutilation)

In The Handmaid’s Tale, we see women punished for their ‘immoral behaviour’ by having their bodies mutilated – and it is hinted, on numerous occasions, that the Aunts will also use FGM as a “corrective” punishment on anyone deemed an “un-woman”.

Tragically, the concept of female genital mutilation is not confined to the pages of Atwood’s book: 140 million women and young girls all over the world are believed to have undergone the procedure, which sees their outer labia, inner labia, and clitoris removed, often without anaesthesia or pain relief.

And it is estimated that some 23,000 girls living in the UK are at risk of FGM, too, despite the fact that the act was criminalised in the UK in 1985.

Nimco Ali, co-founder of Daughters of Eve, a non-profit organisation that aims to empower and protect people from FGM-affected communities, tells “They say it makes you a woman; it’s a rite of passage. But as you start to grow up and learn about feminism, you start to realise this is about control and fear.

“I look at my three-year-old niece and she’s free and fearless. That is what FGM is there to stop. Break the girl and then mould her into an image of what men want.”

Elisabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid's Tale

Elisabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid's Tale

Attitudes to rape

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred tells us about the deliberate humiliation at the Red Centre of Janine, whose dreadful experience of gang-rape was made to seem her own fault by Aunt Lydia, telling the others that Janine must have “led them on”.

“But whose fault was it?” she asks them.

“Her fault,” they chant in unison, pointing their fingers at the frightened woman.

Such attitudes are not, however, confined to Gilead. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Pakistan operating Sharia Law have often punished rape victims as responsible for their own plight. A survey in London by the Wake Up To Rape group in February 2010 showed that a majority of those questioned felt that there were some situations where women were responsible for a rape attack.

17th century American-Puritan theocracy

In Gilead, the government rules in the name of God (or a god), which is why they continuously reference the fact that they are “under His eye”.

Nowadays, of course, the United States of America is founded on the idea of democracy – with the public electing officials to make laws and government decisions on their behalf, and according to the rules of the Constitution. But this was not always the case.

Atwood explains: “America was not initially founded as an 18th-century enlightenment republic. It was initially a 17th-century theocracy.

“That tendency keeps bubbling up in America from time to time.”

A ceremony in The Handmaid's Tale

A ceremony in The Handmaid's Tale

Phyllis Schlafly

Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) is a major character in The Handmaid’s Tale – and, as those who have read the book will know, she played a major role in the shaping of Gilead’s regime.

That’s right: before the Republic was formed, Serena made headlines with her powerful lectures and essays on the subject of “a women's place”. She repeatedly argued that traditional gender roles should be upheld at all costs, that women should remain in the home, and that ‘wicked’ and ‘immoral’ females be punished for their ‘sins’. And, as we all know, her dreams of a misogynist future have come true – although she, like so many others of her gender, has been forced to pay for it with her freedom.

Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy in The Handmaid's Tale

Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy in The Handmaid's Tale

While Serena is undeniably fictional, it is fair to speculate that she was inspired by the real-life Phyllis Schlafly, who was a similarly paradoxically public advocate for domestic women. She began her political career as an anti-feminist in 1964 when she published her first pro-family book, and led the charge against the Equal Rights Amendment, insisting that women should stop focusing on politics and instead tend to their families and work inside the home.

It wasn’t long, however, before Schlafly’s words came back to bite her in the ass.

In 1967, she ran for president of the National Federation of Republican Women. However, her critics argued that, as a mother of six children, she couldn’t fully devote herself to a political post – and, after an ugly fight, Schlafly lost.

The yellow bands of Nazi Germany

As demonstrated in The Handmaid’s Tale, the women of Gilead are forced to wear outfits which identify their roles and rights (or lack thereof) in society. The Marthas (household domestics) don identical green ensembles, the wives of the Commanders always wear blue. Handmaids, meanwhile, wear heavy red dresses and white wings on the sides of their heads.

It is a staunch reminder of the horrors of Nazi Germany, in which the Jews would have to wear a yellow band around their arm, which sported a star of David. This was used to separate the Jewish from those who were not Jewish. It also served as a reminder to the Jews that they had no rights under German law.


The women of The Handmaid’s Tale are not allowed to own property, run businesses, or hold jobs. It is a law which is implemented without warning: soldiers march into offices all over the country, the women are ordered to leave, and their bank accounts are frozen. It quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t just an act of discrimination: it’s a form of control, and it renders the women vulnerable to the new regime.

Again, this is very similar to how the Jews were treated in Nazi Germany. On the night of 9 November 1938 (Kristalnacht), over 250 synagogues were burned, 7,000 Jewish businesses were trashed and looted, Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes were looted, and dozens of Jewish people were killed – all while police and fire brigades stood by.

The morning after this ‘Night of Broken Glass’, Jewish people found that they were no longer considered autonomous human beings – let alone citizens of Germany. Curfews were instated, limiting the hours in which they could leave their homes. They were barred from entering public spaces, expelled from schools, and almost entirely segregated from society. And, in less than 24 hours, some 30,000 German Jews had been arrested for the “crime” of being Jewish and sent to the concentration camps, where millions of them perished.

The assassination of Ernst vom Rath

Gilead’s laws are undeniably extreme – so how did they come to pass? Well, there was a terrorist attack, Congress was slaughtered, and in the interest of protecting the people, the Constitution was suspended. As each of these events happened, “we didn’t wake up,” says Offred, and women’s rights were eroded before their very eyes.

Again, it calls to mind the events leading up to the Holocaust: on 7 November 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew living in Paris, shot Ernst vom Rath, a diplomat attached to the German embassy in Paris.

Ignoring the fact that Grynzpan acted out of desperation for his parents (still trapped in the No Man’s Land between Poland and Germany), the Nazis used the shooting to fan anti-semitic fervour. They claimed that Grynszpan did not act alone, but was part of a wider Jewish conspiracy against Germany – and, two days later, they ordered SA officers to attack the Jews.

The Holocaust

There are so many parallels that can be drawn between The Handmaid’s Tale and the Holocaust. Large groups of people are sent to work in concentration camps where they will almost certainly die, for example, and neighbours are encouraged to inform upon their friends. Just as the Jews were reduced to numbers, handmaids lose their names and are known only as the property of their Commanders. Literacy is forbidden, property rights are terminated, and soldiers uphold totalitarian laws. And, of course, the Commanders of the Faithful order the executions of LGBTQ people, intellectuals, and others deemed ‘subversive’.

On a more subtle level, The Handmaid’s Tale also sees women rounded up and subjected to invasive tests and scans to determine whether or not they are fertile – much as the Jews were sorted into two groups: those who could work and those who could not. Those who could were sent to work in the ghettos. Those who could not were sent to their deaths in the concentration camps. And, again, this is similar to the women of Gilead: if they are fertile, then they are given the duty of producing a healthy baby for the state. If they are not, then they are declared an “un-woman” and sent to the colonies, where they, too, will be worked to death.

A Scene from The Handmaid's Tale

A Scene from The Handmaid's Tale

The Salem witch trials

Atwood has made no secret of the fact that the events of The Handmaid’s Tale are, in part, inspired by the 17th century Salem witch trials, in which women were systematically demonised, informed on, and violently punished for being ‘different’ to puritanical norms.

Speaking to Bill Moyers, the author said: “The Salem witchcraft trial is in my opinion one of the foundation events of American history. And it was an event where you can call it a clash between mythology and politics if you like. Because it depended very much on a belief in the invisible world. Cotton Mather, who was a very prominent divine at the time, wrote a book called The Wonders of the Invisible World, which was all about the behaviour of witches. And the devil. And this is what people believed.

“They weren’t being hypocrites when they did these things. They were actually scared of witchcraft and the devil. And they believed that the devil could work his way into their community through witches, so it was serious business. But it was also a hysteria.”

Insisting that Americans under Donald Trump’s rule are behaving in much the same way, Atwood added: “The surprise to me has been all of the stuff I learned long ago. I thought, ‘Nobody’s going to be interested in this again. You know what good is knowing 17th-century theology ever going to be to me? Or anybody else. Surely nobody’s interested.’ And now suddenly it’s all come back. Because things do go around in cycles.”

A still from The Handmaid's Tale

A still from The Handmaid's Tale

The Islamic Republic

The red robes of the handmaids take inspiration from a number of places, including the 17th century garb of puritanical women and the habits of Catholic nuns. They also call to mind the traditional Islamic dress, which may be adopted by women as a matter of choice in some free societies. More pertinent, however, is the fact that this religious clothing can be forced upon women by authorities in other, more conservative, communities.

For example, Iran’s Islamic Republic, which has been in power since the country’s 1979 revolution, forces women to wear the hijab. According to Amnesty International, this law  of compulsory veiling “empowers police and paramilitary forces to target women for harassment, violence, and imprisonment” – as well as countless other human rights abuses.

Elisabeth Moss as Offred/June in The Handmaid's Tale

Elisabeth Moss as Offred/June in The Handmaid's Tale

The Romanian ban on birth control

In The Handmaid’s Tale, we quickly learn that fertility rates have plummeted – and, in an act of desperation, the government has rendered abortion and birth control illegal. Every fertile woman has a duty to bear children, and those who don’t… well, they’re either sent to work (and die) in the Colonies, or they’re hanged as an example to all other handmaids.

The idea of a birth control ban may be frightening, but it is not a new one: in 1966, President Ceausescu, in a desperate attempt to increase the population of Romania, banned birth control and abortion, and ordered Romanian women of child-bearing age to have five children each.

To enforce Decree 770, secret police were instated at hospitals, women were subjected to monthly tests by gynaecologists, sex education in schools was refocused on the benefits of motherhood, and people were taxed for being childless. Women, of course, found themselves heavily criminalised if they did not comply with Ceausescu’s reproductive policies.

In some ways, the abortion and birth control ban worked: the Romanian population steadily increased, and the glorification of childbirth led to a huge baby boom – but the consequences were tragic and long-reaching. Childbirth mortality rate became the highest of Europe, and more than 9,000 women died as a result of complications arising from illegal terminations. Countless others were left permanently maimed.

Those who did have children found themselves unable to afford their upkeep. As a result, around 100,000 unwanted babies were abandoned to dire conditions in communist orphanages: those who lived until the age of 12 (and not many did) were reclaimed by their parents and put to work.

Decree 770 was reversed in 1990, after the Romanian Revolution, and, since that time, abortion has been legal on request in Romania.

The Women’s March

In the third episode of The Handmaid’s Tale (spoilers), we watch as June (Moss) and Moira (Samira Wiley) grab hold of placards, take to the streets, and march for their rights.

While the original novel was penned as a response to Ronald Reagan, one can’t help but think of the Women’s March in January 2017, millions of women all around the world rose up together to defend women’s rights and the sisterhood.

Armed with signs protesting President Trump, mocking both Trump’s past treatment of women and controversial statements he made on the campaign trail, it was a spectacular show of force on the first full day of his presidency: the Washington rally alone attracted over 500,000 people according to city officials, making it easily one of the biggest demonstrations in the city's history.  

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Thankfully these demonstrations ended very differently to those seen in The Handmaid’s Tale – but the fight remains the same. Because, while the novel is based on past events, life is now mirroring Offred’s tale. From shockingly biased rape trials, to outdated abortion laws, to Trump’s horrifying “grab them by the pussy” comments, it seems as if we truly are on the cusp of a real-life Gilead.

The women's march 2017

Speaking with The Guardian, Atwood explained that, when The Handmaid’s Tale was published, many began to wonder how long they had until the events described by her main character, Offred, would come to pass.

 “Apparently, not as long as I thought,” she said, adding: “The Handmaid’s Tale [is] unfolding in front of your very eyes.

“With any cultural change there is a push and a pushback. Trump has brought out a huge pushback that was originally against immigrants.

“Now it has shifted to being very misogynistic, partly because of Hillary Clinton. You have not seen anything like this since the 17th-century witch hunts, quite frankly.”

In a world with a Trump-led America, the show offers a timely reminder that erosion of a fair society can happen shockingly quickly – and it is definitely worth a watch, for any and all who value their human rights.

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale will be back under your eye – along with all of the original cast members (think Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Samira Wiley, Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd, Madeline Brewer, Amanda Brugel, O. T. Fagbenle, Max Minghella, Joseph Fiennes and more) – via Hulu and Channel 4 later this spring.

This article was originally published in October 2017.

Images: George Kraychyk / Hulu


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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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