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Burning Questions: Margaret Atwood on Feminism

Margaret Atwood has long been hailed as a feminist icon. The Handmaid’s Tale and the sequel, The Testaments, continue to hold up a mirror to the state of women’s rights around the world. The patriarchal and discriminatory practices of Gilead are the kinds of practices Equality Now tackles every day.

In 2019, we were lucky enough to partner with Margaret Atwood on the release of The Testaments and couldn’t wait to get our hands on her new book Burning Questions, full of Margaret’s essays on everything from women’s rights and the climate crisis to being a writer and zombies.

With over fifty essays, for this month’s Feminist Culture Club, we’ve rounded up some of her key thoughts about feminism and gender equality:

From Eve to Dawn:

In the foreword for Marilyn French’s three volume history of women in the world, Atwood concludes:

“Women, it seems are not a footnote after all: they are the necessary centre around which the wheel of power revolves; or, seen another way, they are the broad base of the triangle that sustains a few oligarchs at the top. No history you will read, post-French, will ever look the same again.”

On Beauty: 

Her 2014 essay On Beauty is a reflection on the magic of the idea of beauty, how it changes throughout a woman’s life, and its relationship with the male gaze.

“Skin-deep or not, curse or blessing, disdainful or seductive, reality or constructed illusion – beauty retains its magic power, at least in our imaginations. And that’s why we continue to buy those countless little tubes of lip gloss: we still believe in fairies.”

Reflections on the Handmaid’s Tale:

In this piece, written in 2015, to mark the 30th anniversary of The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood talks about the development of the novel following the second wave of feminism, and the importance of the law in Gilead.

“The answer to how to cram the women back into the homes was simple: dial back history a hundred years – no, even less. Take away women’s jobs and their access to money – the latter via their bank and credit cards. Oh, and their most recently won civil rights, such as the right to vote and the right to own property, and the right to their own children. To do that, you’d change the law. Some people are fond of invoking “the rule of law,” but they should remember that there have been some very unjust laws. The Nuremberg Laws – directed against Jews – were laws. The Fugutive Slave Act was a law. The decree forbidding literacy for American slaves in the South was a law… I could go on for a very long time on that subject.”

We Hang By A Thread:

In this speech, given in Canada ahead of the 2016 US Presidential Election, Atwood said, ‘You have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re awake.’ Ahead of what became defining period of history, she spoke of the importance of protecting the rights we have, as a key part of pushing for progress toward gender equality:

“We hand by a thread, even in the so-called advanced West. We hang by a thread, even in the so-called advanced West. It wouldn’t take that much to roll back recent legal entitlements for women and send us right back to 1843, or even earlier. The old saying—attributed to abolitionist Wendell Phillips—is right: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

A Slave State:

This piece from 2018 was written in support of the movement for reproductive rights in Argentina. The movement celebrated victory in 2021, when the Senate of the country approved abortion legalization in a historic decision, a ground-breaking move for a region that has some of the world’s most restrictive termination laws.

“No one is forcing women to have abortions. No one either should force them to undergo childbirth. Enforce childbirth if you wish, Argentina, but at least call that enforcing by what it is. It is slavery: the claim to own and control another’s body, and to profit by that claim.”

Do you have any suggestions for us to share next month? Do send them over to supporters@equalitynow.org. We’d love to hear from you!

Feminist Culture Club x No Nonsense

Achieving gender equality will happen faster if everyone takes up the challenge. Equality Now is proud to stand with No nonsense in our shared commitment to enduring, inclusive equality for women & girls.

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