Childbearing: A Loss of Identity for Women

Since women are the only individuals with the ability to give birth their biology has often led their culture to isolate them to specific roles and identities. The traditional patriarchies that have continually shaped most families, cultures, governments, and nations have made a woman’s first and foremost identity a mother while allowing men to take on the fathering role as secondary. This idea is rooted in cultural values rather than biology because, “there is no reason to assume that women would be more family orientated than men,” and there is no need to isolate women and not men to the family (Estrich 94). In the 1980s, however, women still were valued for their bodies over their minds and personalities while men were praised for their contributions outside of their physicality. Even though the women’s rights movement was sparked in the early twentieth century, many cultural values and political inequalities continued to influence the identification of women throughout the world. It was commonly held that women were meant to be mothers and they were dishonoring their gender if they chose otherwise. In the video clip, one of the Aunts scolds women who chose not to bear children and stigmatizes them as whores and sluts. It did not matter if a woman did not want to have a child because it was supposed to be her female duty to give birth. Many women in the 1980s felt like they did not have any choice besides motherhood because of the social, political, and economic restraints placed on them. Women were then forced into these roles but it was a lose-lose situation because when they took on their unwilling roles as mothers they were isolated as childbearing agents and lost all control over their bodies but if they they chose not to be mothers then they were condemned and criticized. Any culture or society that isolates and subjugates people against their own will creates a loss of identity and a loss of control amongst individuals that creates a severe dystopia for all (Johnson and Stillman). The worst problem is that women often do seem to have no other choice because they will always be needed as child bearers but to achieve true justice “in a sexually egalitarian society a woman should be both equal and free to say that her (individual) capacity for childbearing should not determine her social, political and economic options” (Eisenstein 236). Women should not have to be isolated or subjugated but should be given a voice to act against these restraints. Childbirth is well known to provide women with value, responsibility, and worth but if this is the only outlet that a woman is allowed to experience then she will lead a very empty and unfulfilled life. If women are not allowed to explore other parts of the world that will allow them to mentally, emotionally, and physically grow, challenge, and find themselves then they will not be able to live. In a culture where a woman’s ability to give birth is her most significant contribution, women  will fail to become passionate, driven, and fervent individuals. These societies will instead uphold values of female compliancy, silence, and insignificance because they provide women with no choice or control over their identity. Any society that confines women exclusively to childbearing roles will create a severe loss of female identity and thereby a dystopia for female sexuality.

It is pretty obvious throughout “The Handmaid’s Tale” that the women in Gilead who are classified as fertile are exclusively isolated to child bearing roles and forbidden to identify themselves as anything other than handmaids. The handmaids are seen as valuable and useful only for their viable ovaries and fertile wombs not for who they are outside of their biology. In the clip one of the women states that the only reason she was not banished was because “her ovaries are still jumping.” In the process of becoming a handmaid the women are first stripped of their old identited and renamed as possessions of the Commanders who control them. On each reassignment a handmaid is renamed according to the new man she serves and her birth name is never used or revealed. Offred explains how this works when she tells the story of how one day her partner “simply wasn’t there anymore, and this (new handmaid) was there in her place” with the same given name as the previous woman, showing just how easily replaceable the women’s identities were (Atwood 302). The women are also stripped of their identities in that they are not allowed to express their individuality by reading, writing, or even voicing their opinions. The narrative follows along the memoirs of Offred but she often struggles because she “has nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden” (Atwood 214). Offred usually resorts to story telling internally and talking to herself in hopes of one day being able to share her story to someone who will acknowledge her. The handmaids are also barred from expressing themselves to others through social interaction as they are forbidden from contacting or finding people from their past and engaging in real conversations with people from their present. Offred often clings to her identity through her memories of the pre-Gilead world but after living under the instruction of the Aunts and the service of three Commanders she begins to forget and lose touch with who she used to be. She stops constantly thinking and worrying about her old family, she begins to accept her position as a handmaids and becomes less resistant to its duties, and she gives in to the desires and power of her Commander. After only being able to identify herself as a handmaid for so long she begins to see herself only as a child bearer and a vessel for conception, losing whatever purpose she used to serve in the world. Atwood shows that when women are isolated to becoming only child bearers and excluded from participation in the rest of society, then women will lead unfulfilled lives with no true sense of who they are.

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