Theme’s in The Handmaids Tale – An empowering history lesson.

You may have heard of a pretty popular show being broadcast on SBS at 8:30pm Thursday nights (in Australia), The Handmaid’s tale, for those following behind we are up to Season 2. The story is based on its lead character June (Elisabeth Moss), held against her will in Gilead. Gilead is controlled by a regime similar to Nazi Germany with the parallel set in a near future version of North America. The show, ordered by the streaming service Hulu, is based on the book of the same name by Margaret Atwood and you can buy it here.

I’ve been discussing this series with my bestie, and it causes her an immeasurable amount of discomfort for a reason that she just can’t place her finger on. I recommended the series to her and after the first few episodes she was so uncomfortable watching that she had to turn it off. But she has come back and is now messaging me to remind me when its on.

I know the unsettling feeling she is talking about, and yes, I too feel a little disturbed by the topics it touches on because given our current political climate, the events in Gilead, could actually happen. In many instances they already have, making the program even more realistic, and drawing on issues that may be repeatable in our future.

Essentially Atwood’s book, is a story, telling of women who have suffered in the real history of the world events, and she is giving them a voice to share their stories and remind the world that this should never happen again!

What instances have been portrayed in the series that reflect real life? All will be revealed in a brief history lesson. And I suggest you hold on to your entitlement ladies because with a few questionable choices by the people we elect to power, we may just be headed back down the path we came from.

History after all does tend to repeat itself.


On the night of 9 November 1938 (Kristalnacht), Night of Broken Glass, over 250 synagogues were burned, 7,000 Jewish businesses were broken into and vandalized, Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes were destroyed and dozens of Jewish people were killed – it appeared to be unplanned and the police and fire brigades just stood by watching the flames glow against the evening sky.

Jewish people woke to find that they were no longer considered human beings, were classified as a subclass and stripped of their German citizenship. Curfews were imposed and restricted their previously free movement from their homes. Mischling, as the Nazi regime now referred to the Jewish population, could no longer enter public spaces, attend schools and were outcast from society. Within 24 hours, 30,000 German Jews were arrested for the “crime” of being Jewish and were rounded up and marched off to concentrations camps. Our undeniable history tells us what occurred in these concentration camps and this should never be forgotten.

When comparing to The Handmaid’s Tale, the women of Gilead, are stripped of their rights to own property, hold jobs, run businesses, and without warning soldiers marched into offices and directed the women to leave their positions. Their banks no longer recognised ownership of the funds, and the women had to defer to men for direction. This is more than an act of discrimination, it’s a form of control removing women’s rights, entitlements and equality, leaving them vulnerable under the new regime.

Enforced surrogacy and adoption

This has occurred over history repeatedly, and very recently, with the effects continuing to the present day.

The Handmaid’s Tale, portrays the handmaids being forced to bear children through systematic rape by their Commanders, essentially their prison guards, when they are ripe for conception. Any baby that is born through this act is then handed over to the wife of the Commanders that performed the rape. These wives have already been deemed a more suitable mother to raise the child, due to their marriage to someone important in the regime.

Magdalene laundries were asylums located in various countries, but most well-known in Ireland. They were generally run through religious institutes and used to confine “fallen women”. Including those that were unmarried and pregnant. Infant’s born in these institutes were exposed to at least a 50% mortality rate, four time higher than those born into the general Irish population. Some institutes reported a 90% infant mortality rate. Then if these babies didn’t die while institutionalised, they were sold or shipped overseas through unauthorised adoption. The figures are astounding, the suffering these women went through devastating. The last Irish Magdalene asylum closed as recently in 1996, and over their 200 year existence over 30,000 women were confined to these institutes, the number of births and subsequent deaths is difficult to quantify due to lack of records available or cover-ups by those in charge.

Flicking further into our own history books, we can look at the indigenous Stolen Generation from Australia as recently as the seventies. Aboriginal children were forcibly and lawfully taken from their homes and placed into religious institutes or fostered out to white families for assimilation. Similarly, in the USA and Canada from the end of World War II up until the late seventies, the stealing of Native American children occurred, and is referred to as the Adoption era and residential school system, depending upon which country’s shameful past you want to delve into.

Again in Nazi Germany, Hitler stole approximately 200,000 Polish blonde haired blue-eyed children in order to Germanize and subsequently create his Aryan race. This was not the only instance of this abhorrent act occurring through the reign of the Third Reich.

In a 2017 interview with the La Times, Atwood explained: “Totalitarianism always has views on who shall be allowed to have babies and what shall be done with the babies.”

FGM (female genital mutilation)

In The Handmaid’s Tale, controlled women can be punished for their ‘immoral behaviour’. Their bodies are mutilated – and it is implied that the Aunts will also use FGM as a “corrective” punishment on anyone deemed an “un-woman”.

This still happens! 140 million women and young girls all over the world, without anesthesia or pain relief are believed to have undergone the procedure. Girls, only 10 years old, are held down, by women they don’t know and with a razor blade their outer labia, inner labia, and clitoris is removed.

In the UK, despite the fact it was criminalised in 1985, 23,000 girls are at risk of it happening to them.

Nimco Ali, 30, co-founder of Daughters of Eve, a non-profit organisation that aims to empower and protect people from FGM-affected communities, tells stylist.co.UK: “They say it makes you a woman; it’s a rite of passage. But as you start to grow up and learn about feminism, you start to realise this is about control and fear.

“I look at my three-year-old niece and she’s free and fearless. That is what FGM is there to stop. Break the girl and then mould her into an image of what men want.”

Powerless, oppression, control, fear, think of every opposite word that empowerment stirs in you, this is the result of FMG.

The Women’s March

We have watched as June ( Elisabeth Moss) and Moira (Samira Wiley) grab hold of placards, take to the streets, and march for their rights.

They still became handmaids.

In January 2017, millions of women all around the world rose up together to defend women’s rights and the sisterhood.

So far, women have maintained the rights that have been so hard fought.

And while these are just a few similarities of events in the book imitating our own history, there are many more embedded in the story line and the show which makes for compelling viewing.

It offers a timely reminder of how quickly the choices we make, can turn into repercussions we weren’t prepared for. And while we still regularly bang our heads against the unjust and mistreatment of women, is it really that far-fetched to think that life in Gilead might not be that far away?


Photo Credit: Hulu


  • Kevin McNamara

    Hi Nicole,

    Wow! I really do I have to watch Handmaids Tale! I had heard of it but have never watched it. You describe those horrendous acts throughout history so well. Frightening to think much of it is still happening today.

    The FGM is something I find hard to comprehend along with Hitler’s reign. Such evil stuff.

    Thanks so much for sharing and will definitely have to check it out,


    • Nicole

      It’s so good Kev, we are all eagerly awaiting season 3 now, so you have plenty of time to catch up before next year. It’s very compelling viewing, and I think that’s because its so relatable these days given our political climate, particularly in the US at the moment. It’s not overly uplifting viewing, but more eye opening!
      Let me know how you go checking it out!

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