October 20, 2021 - 10:24am

The Canadian writer Margaret Atwood triggered a round of Discourse yesterday, when she shared a Toronto Star article which asked: “Why can’t we say ‘woman’ any more?”.

Atwood is the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, a fictional dystopia where religious fundamentalists have enslaved the few remaining fertile women as mute, compliant ‘Handmaids’, stripped of personhood and reduced to a subaltern role as breeders. The HBO adaptation is now into its fourth season, and the iconic ‘Handmaid’ red-and-white costume has become a popular visual shorthand for two antagonistic feminist camps.

For some women, Gilead epitomised the ascendance of Donald ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ Trump, and Handmaid costumes were popular at Women’s March events, at least initially. For others, Gilead serves as metaphor for the sense many women have of being reduced to our reproductive functions.

Atwood’s literary legacy, then, has found itself fought over by two opposing camps in a profound struggle among women over what precisely it means to be a woman. What Atwood herself thinks is thus politically significant.

To date, Atwood has (to the confusion and chagrin of gender-critical feminists) appeared to side with the ‘inclusive’ camp. For example a year ago she co-signed “a message of love and solidarity to the trans and non-binary community” that was read (accurately) at the time as a criticism of JK Rowling’s highly publicised interventions in the transgender debate. She further signalled her support for the trans cause in a November 2020 Times interview. Now, Atwood seems belatedly to have woken up to the implications of radically unmooring ‘gender’ from physiology.

It’s amusing to watch someone who has for some time cheerfully encouraged (or at least failed to think through) this state of affairs wake up to the consequences of her own position. It’s a little like watching boomers who’ve spent their whole life celebrating no-holds-barred individualism wring their hands mournfully about social atomisation. The question, though, will be whether Atwood will take the coward’s path, like Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, who is now walking back his defence of Dave Chappelle. Or whether, as an iconic creator with a huge social media platform and $20m in the bank, she’ll embrace a Rowlingesque immunity from cancellation and take the logical next step.

She’s not there yet: she defended sharing the piece in a subsequent tweet, where she declared that the author was ‘not a Terf’. But perhaps, given enough time, she’ll follow up her belated discovery of the implications of her own worldview with the realisation that most of the people called ‘Terf’ are not, in fact, ‘terfs’ either. At least, not in the common online sense of ‘witch who should be burned at the stake or otherwise horribly punished’.

Rather, ‘terfs’ are simply women who have been paying closer attention than the author of The Handmaid’s Tale to the implications of an ideology that redefines female humans as ‘birthing people’, ‘chestfeeders’, ‘non-prostate owners’, ‘individuals with a cervix’bodies with vaginas’ or even simply ‘non-men’. In other words, an ideology that reduces female humans to a cluster of biological traits, in the name of ‘inclusion’.

Better late than never, I suppose. Come on in, Margaret, the water’s lovely.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.