Margaret Atwood recalls being told to pursue “finding a husband” not a career

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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The author reveals how she ignored early doubters and explains why #MeToo is a symptom not a solution.

Margaret Atwood is a cultural icon. And although she was already widely recognised for her incredible output of novels, poetry and non-fiction novels since beginning her career in the early 1960s, public interest in the author has again reached a fever pitch. 

The fourth wave feminism movement has cast the spotlight on the 78-year-old Canadian writer once more, thanks to novels like The Handmaid’s Tale - and its lauded television adaptation - becoming core texts wielded by a new generation of female activists. And Atwood is well aware of her work’s impact. 

“I’m glad people are talking about The Handmaid’s Tale again,” Atwood told Wealthsimple. “Every election, there’s a surge in book sales [Atwood was the bestselling literary fiction author of 2017 in the UK]. But I would like to live in a society where people are not saying, ‘Oh my god, this is where this is going to happen.’ I would prefer this not to be happening. It’s like that sign that someone was holding up during the Women’s March. ‘I can’t believe I’m still holding up this f**king sign.’

Yet the impact of Atwood’s dystopian worlds would never have been felt if she’d listened to the early guidance of her teachers.

“My undergraduate adviser told me I should just forget about the whole writing […] and graduate school thing,” Atwood confesses. “You should find a good man and get married,” he told me.” Thankfully, another tutor believed in her talents. 

“My old professor, Northrop Frye, had better advice,” Atwood recounts. First he counselled me against running off to Paris to starve in a garret while writing […]. But he said ‘I think you might get more writing done at Harvard.’ So I went to Harvard.”

After Harvard, Atwood began steadily publishing work and winning acclaim across the board, becoming a full-time writer in 1972. But she says she has always been conscious of how her income correlates to her celebrity - and she’s not always received the dues that are rightfully hers. 

Money, Atwood says, is the key to female independence, adding that she “never [stops] worrying about money.”

“Money is a symbol,” she states. “It doesn’t have any value in and of itself. You can’t eat it, drink it, or wear it. For me, if you want to sum it up, it means self-reliance. I was never told that I should marry a rich man and lie around in a negligee and eat chocolates. I’ve always been expected to support myself and I always have.”

And as for #MeToo - a subject Atwood has previously come into mild conflict with, after comments made on a mishandled sexual harassment case at the University of British Colombia - the writer believes it’s the product of failed institutional structure.  

“[#MeToo] is a symptom of something bigger. The same way having a temperature when you’re sick is a symptom […]That’s what [#MeToo] is,” Atwood asserts. “It’s a wake-up call, not the solution. Structural support for women was allowed to lapse. We were told all we had to do was wear more Chanel and smile a lot and lean in.” 

Images: Rex Features