The figure of the handmaid, clad in red, her head covered by a white hood has become a symbol of the time, a cultural emblem that has moved to represent the suppression of women’s rights, particularly reproductive rights. Women have protested by wearing these outfits around the world, from Texas to Argentina, Ireland and Croatia.
It’s an outfit that the author Margaret Atwood based on a woman’s image from the label of Old Dutch Cleanser that used to scare her as a child. And it’s one that lies at the heart of Atwood’s seminal text, The Handmaid’s Tale, in which she presents a patriarchal dystopian view of an altered America through the eyes of a handmaid, Offred. In this world, fertile women, enslaved as handmaids, are forced into producing children for childless couples, their lives controlled by the families they live with.
Published in 1985, the book has only grown in popularity in recent years as what was once considered dystopia is now frighteningly close to many women’s reality, especially following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016. It has also in part been thanks to the international popularity of the Hulu show based on the book. The symbol of the handmaid has become one of defiance, of women speaking up against misogyny and discrimination.
And this week Atwood published a sequel, The Testaments, that she says was inspired by readers’ questions and by “the world we’ve been living in.” The story picks up around 15 years after Offred disappears, exploring a Gilead that we no longer recognise. It’s told through the eyes of three women; one we know to be Aunt Lydia, another a teenager who grew up in Gilead, while the third is a girl who was brought up in Canada but is now in Gilead herself.
It seems as though the two younger narrators are Offred’s daughters; one raised in Gilead and the other over the border, in a free world. The book cover’s artwork, designed by Noma Bar, depicts each of the girls and their place in the other’s parallel world. On one side of the cover we see the now well-known imagery of a woman wearing the handmaid’s clothing, while the other shows a recognisably modern woman’s silhouette. But as Bar explains, each image contains the other, because “each sister contains the other…freedom contains oppression and oppression contains freedom.”
In honour of the book’s publication, the cover art was projected onto the side of the National Theatre along London’s Southbank, as Atwood discussed the novel in front of a live audience while the conversation was screened to more than 1,000 cinemas around the world.