Margaret Atwood’s most empowering quotes to live by

Posted by
Jessica Rapana
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To celebrate The Handmaid’s Tale author turning 80, we remember her most inspirational moments.

Margaret Atwood put it best when she said: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

Known for her words – and not mincing them – the author has become a cultural icon of our time. Her novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale – and the Emmy-winning television adaptation – and, more recently, its sequel, The Testaments, have become core texts being wielded by a new generation of female activists.

And yet, we came disturbingly close to never knowing the impact of Atwood’s dystopian worlds. Specifically, if she had followed the advice of one particular teacher, who told her to “just forget about the whole writing […] and graduate school thing” and instead “find a good man and get married”. 

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Luckily for us, another tutor believed in her talents, convincing her to go to Harvard, where she began publishing work and collecting acclaim across the board, before transitioning to full-time writing.

Atwood never looked back – and neither have we.

To mark the literary legend’s 80th birthday this week, and eight decades of being spoiled by her words, all of them as insightful as they are emphatic.

Here, we look back at her most inspiring quotes:

On the difference between right and wrong:

“When you are knowingly treating someone in a way that you would not wish to be treated yourself, you are probably doing wrong. Though if that person is a psychopath abut to commit a murder and you can stop it, then not so much.”

On being liked vs being respected:

“Respected. To be liked required dimples. I’ve never had those. If you were a strong woman of my generation you had to go for respected, because like was not on the table.”

On her hardest lesson:

“How to forgive. I’m working on it, but I’m inclined to be vengeful. I try not to act out this feeling, as I disapprove of it.”


On Impostor Syndrome:

“Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.”

On pain:

“But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.”

On the past:

“When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.”

On the future:

“If you knew what was going to happen, if you knew everything that was going to happen next – if you knew in advance the consequences of your own actions – you’d be doomed. You’d be ruined as God. You’d be a stone. You’d never eat or drink or laugh or get out of bed in the morning. You’d never love anyone, ever again. You’d never dare to.”

On reading for pleasure:

“I read for pleasure and that is the moment I learn the most.”

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is the sequel to The Handmaid's Tale.

The Handsmaid’s Tale

On jealousy:

“You can only be jealous of someone who has something you think you ought to have yourself.”

On sexism in leadership:

“We still think of a powerful man as a born leader and a powerful woman as an anomaly.”

On climate change:

“This isn’t climate change – it’s everything change. More extreme weather events such as droughts and floods, rising sea levels that will destroy arable land, and disruption of marine life will all result in less food. Less food will mean that women and children get less, as the remaining food supplies will be unevenly distributed, even more than they are.”

On money:

“Money is a symbol. 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.”

With Margaret Atwood at the show's premiere

On romance:

“Romance takes place in the middle distance. Romance is looking in at yourself through a window clouded with dew. Romance means leaving things out: where life grunts and shuffles, romance only sighs.”

On freedom:

“There is more than one kind of freedom,” said Aunt Lydia. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

On keeping secrets:

“The best way of keeping a secret is to pretend there isn’t one.”

On love:

“Love blurs your vision; but after it recedes, you can see more clearly than ever. It’s like the tide going out, revealing whatever’s been thrown away and sunk: broken bottles, old gloves, rusting pop cans, nibbled fishbodies, bones. This is the kind of thing you see if you sit in the darkness with open eyes, not knowing the future. The ruin you’ve made.”

Images: Getty


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Jessica Rapana

Jessica Rapana is a journalist based in London, and enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content. She is especially fond of news, health, entertainment and travel content, and drinks coffee like a Gilmore Girl.

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