How The Handmaid's Tale Warns Us About Exclusionary Feminism

by Brooke Blackman

Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale created a rift in its fanbase. Serena Joy, one of the show’s main characters, undergoes a character development that has inflamed a debate among viewers around whether or not they should feel compassion for her. Her faith in Gilead, the patriarchal, oppressive country she helped create, wavers slowly throughout the beginning of the season and is ultimately destroyed when she must let go of the baby she has always wanted. She slowly realizes how she inhibited herself by conceiving and creating Gilead’s regime. She has essentially built her own cage and stripped herself of any power or autonomy that she might have had. Serena created a society that’s practically unsurvivable for women.

Serena Joy is the mastermind behind Gilead’s oppression of women. She dedicates a large portion of her life advocating for restrictions of women’s rights. She writes a book, A Woman’s Place, promoting an ideology in which women only work as housewives and mothers. She claims that her intentions are to save America from the fertility crisis that takes place in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale. But this is really just a guise—Serena’s sole motivation is power. She knows by suggesting this to her ultra-reactionary husband, who is the leader of a political movement which eventually becomes the government of Gilead, she can appeal to him. She hopes that by advocating for the subjugation of some women, she can come out on top.

Gilead functions through the subjugation of women. They are separated into different classes: wives, Marthas, and Handmaids. Handmaidens are criminals of Gilead, and being a handmaid for six years is part of their punishment. As Gilead is an evangelical society with laws based on the Bible (especially the Old Testament), the so-called crimes of the handmaidens include divorce, lesbianism, abortion, and so on. This is all through Serena’s design.

But Serena’s plan to top the hierarchy of her new social order does not come to fruition. Serena’s plan fails her, resulting in a society in which women in Gilead are inherently ranked below man—because exclusionary feminism divides women where we need to be united.

Feminism does not exist as a universal movement. Within feminism, there are many diverging branches and conflicting ideologies. It is not a monolith—one feminist does not hold the same ideals as every other feminist. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, there are some branches of feminism which are flagrantly exclusionary.

These exclusionary outgrowths are often found in historical movements, but some exist up to the present. In America, the suffragettes are heralded as the first mainstream feminist movement. It’s assumed that they secured women the right to vote, which they did—just not for all women.

The suffragettes consistently excluded women of color from their movement. Many were very segregationist, especially after the 15th Amendment was passed, extending the right to vote to black men. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton, in their paper “An Aristocracy of Sex,” denounced the enfranchisement of black men, as they felt it degrading that black men received voting rights before white women. In 1913, organizers of a suffragette march in Washington demanded that black suffragettes march in an all-black delegation at the back of the parade.

As a result of the movement’s racially exclusionary nature, Native American women couldn’t gain the right to vote until 1924, while Chinese immigrant women couldn’t vote until 1943. Although black women were legally enabled to vote in 1920, they faced the same disenfranchisement that black men faced. They had to deal with the Poll Tax, the grandfather clause, literacy tests, as well as aggression and threats from white supremacists in their area if they attempted to vote. It wasn’t until 1965 that voting rights for black women were truly secured.

The first-wave white feminists of America didn’t prioritize securing the vote for all women. The voices of women who are not white and middle class were blatantly excluded from their movement. Some argue that even today, the mainstream topics of feminism are mostly those that concern heterosexual, middle class, white women. Sometimes, exclusionary feminists are passive about intersectionality. They simply fail to address intersectional subjects at all. In other instances, they are outright hostile towards intersectionality: TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), for example, spread transphobia and refuse to accept trans-women and their struggles into the movement.

The government of Gilead does everything possible to keep women subjugated and separate from each other. Fred Waterford, the leading antagonist, is visibly threatened when he returns home and realizes that his wife and his handmaid have been working together in his absence. He knows that if Serena learns to see June as her equal, she might start to fight against the subjugation of women in Gilead.

In the days of white feminism and the thousands of other exclusionary ideologies that plague our society, it’s crucial that we take this message from The Handmaid’s Tale to heart. We need to reflect on our own personal versions of feminism, asking ourselves how our race, class, and sexuality affect our perspectives. It’s imperative that we discuss our feminism with women who share different views. There’s always something to be learned, from ourselves and from each other. All feminists, no matter their privilege, need to open themselves up as allies to women of every identity.