by Mary Harrington
Wednesday, 20
October 2021
Reaction
10:24

Welcome to Team TERF, Margaret Atwood

The writer seems to have accepted the implications of her worldview
by Mary Harrington

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.


Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in


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.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
42 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
George Glashan
George Glashan
1 year ago

” 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 p***y’ 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.”

curiously both camps have a blind spot for the Handmaid outfit being blatantly inspired by the hijab. They are so keen to cosplay as oppressed they don’t even see real oppression of women where it actually exists.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
1 year ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Nailed it.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  George Glashan

You are wrong. I proudly accept the label of ‘TERF’ and I have always seen the links between the Handmaid’s Tale and Muslim oppression.
Western feminists are fighting to keep what our foremothers fought for, but we cannot do that with any credibility unless we see the oppression of Muslim women for what it is and support any who want to escape from it.
We also, however, cannot object to Muslim oppression unless we can see the residual remnants of similar religious oppression in our own lives. How many women who object to the hijab were married in church in a veil, and what did they think it symbolised? Just because oppression has gone underground, or now wears a frock and blue hair, doesn’t mean that it has gone away. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

David Morley
David Morley
1 year ago

We also, however, cannot object to Muslim oppression unless we can see the residual remnants of similar religious oppression in our own lives. 

I’m not sure if your comment is satire or not. Clearly (in the U.K. at least) the church wedding is an aspect of visible romantic consumerism which status seeking women enjoy and husbands or fathers pay for.
But the above quote from your comment is a piece of illogic and whataboutery.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
1 year ago

‘Residual’. Exactly. I think you contradicted yourself. A one off occasion using an anachronistic ritual in a ceremony and ‘industry’ that appears almost entirely driven by women (wedding planners etc?) is a category difference to a Theocracy. In the UK where the white population is 90% non religious and non church going, religious ceremonies are weddings and funerals. That’s it.

Kirsten Walstedt
Kirsten Walstedt
1 year ago

As we can see with the Texas “heartbeat” abortion law. If the retrograde societal forces could get us back barefoot and pregnant and not able to have careers, they would.

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
1 year ago

Just a clump of cells, then. Right? Why do women feel so bad afterward if that is so.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
1 year ago

You’re the same kind of feminist as me then. But unfortunately we’re now seen as dinosaurs. I do get the symbolism of the Christian veil and its vestigial message but I disagree we should put it on a par with Islamic oppression in the real world or use that as a reason not to oppose it. The 2 are not comparable.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago

I hardly think western women’s CHOICE, as it is, of dress and venue for their wedding, (have a civil wedding, wear whatever you like…. ), compares in any way with the second class status of women in Islamic societies (not that there is anything much ‘we’ can do about that) or the fictional Gilead. Or finally, the much greater danger here IN the West, of the ‘abolition’ of biological women by the fanatics of the trans activist movement.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Fisher
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Yep. Atwood’s tale is pure liberal cowardly bunkum. The idea of a neo-Christian misogynistic theocracy in America was nonsense, but actual misogynistic theocracies existed and exist elsewhere – except they’re all Muslim. As no doubt a paid-up urban liberal, there’s no way Atwood was ever going to say anything nasty about anyone foreign, because foreign = good whereas American = doubleplusungood. So she came up with the ludicrous and offensive whimsy of an oppressive Christian theocracy, and wagged her finger at us with her terrible warning.
What a load of cretinous woke ba11s.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
1 year ago
Reply to  George Glashan

My thoughts exactly.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

“…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…”

I never read or watched ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (having tried some of Atwood’s stuff before, decided her writing was not my thing), but that synopsis doesn’t sound like a fictional dystopia at all, it sounds like Afghanistan under the taliban to me.

J Hop
J Hop
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I know, I always found it nuts that the p***y hat brigade described current day America as being the Handmaids Tale all the while marching behind an Islamic leader who advocaded for Sharia law. Talk about clueless!!

JP Martin
JP Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

The book was published a few years after the Iranian Revolution

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago
Reply to  JP Martin

Iran is an interesting case. On the surface is still very much in the grip of the mullahs, but looks like a revolution underway under the surface – seemingly driven by a very peculiar, islamic variety of feminism, brought about by high levels of female education. Women and girls are still pretty powerless but are quite loud – and the fact this is tolerated indicates to me huge shifts underway in attitudes and values amongst younger generations, which the theocracy can no longer fully contain. The odd thing is, although younger generations there are moving away from the mullahs, they don’t appear to be buying into the west as much as in the past, and are instead forging something different, potentially not benign for the west.

Steve Walker
Steve Walker
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

The book is very good but the show is painfully slow and dull: one of those where the cast spend most of their time looking meaningfully into the distance, presumably to pad out the running time. I gave up after 5 episodes.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Walker

Elisabeth Moss staring defiantly at the camera every 5 minutes does my head in

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I read the book over ten years ago. It should have had a fundamentalist Islamic setting – it was crying out for it – but Atwood took the easy route of setting up the usual fall-guys: Christians. Apart perhaps – and it’s a big ‘perhaps’ – from one or two miniscule sects in America, no Christian societies now or in the past have been anything like that portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Agreed. It was cowardice closely related to the usual 1980s liberal insistence that the real evil was not Russia’s SS20s but America’s cruise missiles.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jon Redman
Kirsten Walstedt
Kirsten Walstedt
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

She could have made them Fundamentalist Mormons, but people debate whether those count as “Christian”

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
1 year ago

Thanks Mary for the heads up on Attwood. For me your most telling point is: ‘someone who has for some time cheerfully encouraged (or at least failed to think through) this state of affairs’. This is the case of so many supposedly intelligent critical thinkers inside and outside academia who simply haven’t taken the time to think through the implications of this minority opnion which is being forced on to the majority.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
1 year ago

Atwood- the latest intellectual for whom the penny has finally dropped regarding the consequences of this utter madness. Consequences that have been blindingly obvious for years now for humble commoners such as myself
As the article ponders, will she now capitulate like the many other spineless cowards? Or will she stand strong, and show the world she has a big, beautiful set of b*lls (forgive the pun)

Last edited 1 year ago by Hersch Schneider
Dr Stephen Nightingale
Dr Stephen Nightingale
1 year ago

The mystery in Handmaid’s Tale has always been how the infertile older women retained power equal to the men. One would think the (powerful) men would reject them in favour of hooking up with the younger fertile women. As they always have done, in fact.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago

The infertile women didn’t all appear older in the series….

Sheryl Rhodes
Sheryl Rhodes
1 year ago

In the book, the religious-based power structure is able to steal all power away from women, overnight, by shutting down women’s access to all financial vehicles including their own bank accounts.
I always remembered that and so I find it extremely troubling that we now see banks and credit cards denying service to individuals based on their politics or on their (legal) disfavored businesses. Sure, you’re “allowed” to sell firearms but if Visa and Mastercard refuse to give you access to their payment systems then your business will probably die.

James Joyce
James Joyce
1 year ago
Reply to  Sheryl Rhodes

This wokeness in all aspects of everyday life (at least in the USA) is extremely troubling, and you select an excellent example. Another might be the refusal of banks to do business with the cannabis industry, which is legal in many American states. Banking is indeed a troubling issue, with the IRS (tax people in USA) seeking to look at EVERY transaction over $600 in the US. EVERY transaction. The burdensomeness of this power grab is almost beyond words. This is one reason why Americans abroad, including me, have so much trouble getting bank accounts: the US government requires reams and reams of paperwork if a European bank has American clients. A real problem.
The bottom line is that this is ALL due to the mendacity of the federal government, with a nod to the only slightly less evil state and local governments in the USA. On reflection, perhaps equally evil.
Are we far from a time when one must take a loyalty oath–affirming trans rights for example, to simply shop @ Apple? To enter a mall? It seems crazy now, but so much wokeness seemed crazy and beyond the pale only a few years ago. Catch-22 has an excellent take on this, where the airmen had to repeatedly say the Pledge of Allegiance in order to get their meals, parachutes, etc…. So clever, and so applicable to today.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  James Joyce

It’s happening at American colleges with Diversity Statements being the new oaths of fealty.

Julia H
Julia H
1 year ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Airbnb made all users sign an agreement to the company’s diversity values as a condition of using the platform. This is a massive intrusion into the sphere of personal conscience.

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
1 year ago
Reply to  Sheryl Rhodes

Thanks for raising this. More attention needs to be given to this issue.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago

Identities that promote confusion and sexual arrested development are being elevated, while those that are rooted in personal responsibility and independence of thought are being demonized.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
1 year ago

Tolerance works both ways. Minorities and outliers should be treated with politeness- as long as they tolerate society’s and biology’s obvious norms. It’s blindingly obvious that one’s private life is just that. Given obvious rules like consent, most of us just don’t give a damn about someone else’s sexuality. What is clear I think is this strident need to proclaim and advertise. That seems to me to be a psychological problem for activists who want to share every private issue with the media aggressively.

David Morley
David Morley
1 year ago

Once upon a time, we had a perfectly reasonable outlet for all this stuff. It was called “the fancy dress party”.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

Oops a wee mistake by Atwood? Or has she woken up from wokeness?
Probably the former – feminists only seem to become aware of woke authoritarianism when it hurts them personally.
We’ll see if the woke mob makes her realise the error of her ways and then she’ll apologise and explain she needs further education.
Someone should send her the link to Stephen Nolan’s Stonewall podcast. And the Unherd article about the FiLiA conference in Portsmouth last weekend. (I don’t do Twitter so I can’t.)

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Stewart
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Not true… plenty of feminists (and gays) have been anti woke for a long time

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago

Does sharing an article amount to conversion?

Karl Francis
Karl Francis
1 year ago

Ah, ‘Anti-Matter Theory’, leading to a new ‘Anti-Matter Universe’.
Where I will be ‘re-identified’ as a ‘Carbon Based Tiddler Unit’ no doubt?

Last edited 1 year ago by Karl Francis
James Joyce
James Joyce
1 year ago

Margaret Atwood is not for me, but clearly she has touched a nerve among feminists. Is it because of her hatred of men? Hey, Rachel Parris includes that as a fundamental tenet of feminism–not even radical feminism, and it’s massively funny!
Same with JK Rowlings. Maybe both are TBTC–Too Big To Cancel–but who cares? Let’s enjoy the show and watch the lunatic left devour the only slightly less lunatic left. It is important to remember that these are not good people. In a rational world, is there anyone who will defend Kathleen Stock as the voice of moderation and wisdom? As I suggested in other posts, this is a bit like watching the French Resistance work with the communists to defeat the Nazis, and someone helpfully added the Chinese Communists working with the KMT (I think) to stop the Japanese. Like the Iran-Iraq war, it’s a shame they both can’t lose!
But lose they must. I’m on side with Bari Weiss even though she is extremely self-righteous, extremely annoying, but only until the woke mob is defeated, crushed, destroyed….
Finally, a tip of the hat to the author for this sentence: “Now, Atwood seems to have belatedly woken up to the implications of radically unmooring ‘gender’ from physiology.”
But I’m confused: does this mean that MA is woke or asleep? Did she go back to sleep, or did she wake up? Someone help me here, a bit hard to follow.
Finally, a trans woman is a regular @ the casino where I play poker in Ireland. She is not a great player, sometimes violates the etiquette of the game, but this is because of who she is as an individual, nothing to do with her “status.” She has, as I have observed, always been treated with respect and dignity, though her poker skills have, at times, been questioned. Jim Jefferies has suggested a rule for this, but really all behavior: “Don’t be a [email protected]#t…..” Wise words. But can we stop (or at least greatly reduce) all this pointless discussion of trans issues?

Last edited 1 year ago by James Joyce
M Harries
M Harries
1 year ago
Reply to  James Joyce

I object to my mind beign twisted. Would I be a [email protected]#t if I referred to the transwoman as ‘he’, which is the correct pronoun pursuant to his physiology? Isn’t someone being a [email protected]#t for forcing me to use ‘she’ lest I be condemned and possibly charged with a crimnal offense – the utterly insane ‘misgendering’?

Last edited 1 year ago by M Harries
Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
1 year ago

Atwood is only a novelist, a creator of fanciful tales. Why should anyone take her seriously?

David McDowell
David McDowell
1 year ago

I thought it was clear that Atwood had written about an Islamic future, but she wouldn’t say so and the commentariat joined the conspiracy of silence.

Andrea X
Andrea X
1 year ago

Well said!

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
1 year ago

(moderation ‘in progress’)

Last edited 1 year ago by Hersch Schneider