You may notice groups of women dressed in red robes and hoods walking around town these days. They are so dressed to make a statement, to wake us up, to remind us that a dark fictional tale could become reality.
It is unsettling to see these figures walking silently through our farmers’ market and our grocery stores. That is the Handmaid’s purpose, to stop us long enough to stir curiosity and raise awareness about disturbing decisions our government is making. This is not about further dividing us, it is about having the necessary uncomfortable conversations within our community. The Handmaids are a visual representation of the disturbing changes being proposed in our country.
South Whidbey’s figures in red represent characters, women slaves, in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985. The dystopian story takes place in a time when birth rates are plummeting and women are routinely forced to give birth against their will. In Atwood’s story, women’s bodies are literally owned by men. The women who break men’s laws against ‘sexual purity’ are punished by becoming slaves called Handmaids, breeders of babies, and forced to wear red capes and hoods. In the novel, a woman seeking an abortion following a rape is forced into becoming a handmaid, and is publicly humiliated for attracting a man’s violent behavior.
In a PR campaign promoting its chilling series based on the book, Hulu hired women to dress as handmaids, who then stood motionless at the series’ premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2017. Reproductive rights activists picked up on the meme, and created similar costumes. A dozen of the red-robed women then visited the Texas Senate to protest a bill restricting abortions. In the wake of states’ recent passing of legislation to restrict women’s right to abortion, women in red movements have taken hold.
These days, the legality of Roe v. Wade, a national law permitting women’s choice for their bodies, is being debated among our Supreme Court justices.
Alarmed at the trend to limit our country’s civil liberties, a respected local woman started a Handmaids movement after learning of the proposed revocation of Roe v. Wade. The South Whidbey group is one of a growing group of Handmaids, representing awareness for a proposal at the Supreme Court level of taking away of women’s right of choice.
“I never thought our Supreme Court Justices would consider overturning Roe v. Wade,” said ‘Ofgeorgia,’ a name the woman chose for her role as a Handmaid. In the novel, Handmaids are stripped of their personal names, and given their commander’s name, for instance, ‘Offred,’ taking Fred, the commander’s name. The lowest classes are the ‘unwomen.’ ‘Ofgeorgia,’ meanwhile, chose to honor mothers and matriarchies by using her mother’s name, Georgia.
When the documents were leaked in early May that Roe v. Wade was on the table for axing, Ofgeorgia went walking and thinking.
“I was walking with a friend the Monday after the protests began,” Ofgeorgia noted. “I wanted to do something.”
Ofgeorgia invested some cash in buying a number of the Handmaid costumes, and has since been walking with other Handmaids around Langley, at the Payless Market in Freeland, and at the Bayview Farmers’ Market. Ofgeorgia and her longtime walking partner, Ofmary, don their red robes for their morning walks.
“The story is really creepy,” Ofgeorgia said. “What’s happening in real life is really creepy. I thought, maybe a bunch of us could wear these costumes and walk around town and go into a grocery store—the handmaids walk in grocery stores in pairs of two in the series. It is theater. We are intentionally playing this role to be a disturbance to provoke conversation. It’s about getting people to think and reflect. It’s about: do you care enough to look at this and have conversations with each other? Can you see what’s happening to our rights?”
As to whether the expanding group of South Whidbey Handmaids are receiving pushback, Ofgeorgia replied: “Not yet. We’re not calling ourselves a protest. We are a movement where we are embodying and bringing to the eye what a future could look like with our human rights slowly being stripped away. Walking with our heads down, we are quiet, we are silent.”
During the group’s first walk in Freeland, there were five women who entered Payless Foods and made purchases. Later as a larger group, they visited the Bayview Farmers’ Market.
“We were being mindful and respectful,” Ofgeorgia added. “Saturday (May 28th) ,12 of us walked from the Bayview Park and Ride to the farmers’ market. A woman said political protests were not allowed. We explained what we do is about showing up in the community. We are community members. We are reflecting what our society could look like if we continue on our current trajectory. This fiction is becoming reality.”
The Handmaidens’ silent protest will hopefully raise awareness to maintain women’s right to choose and other civil liberties that are at stake.
Ofgeorgia said the handmaidens stand in silence and do not converse with one another. When they are out in the public, they are sometimes approached and spoken to.
“People want to engage and some of us speak for what is true personally,” Ofgeorgia added. “One woman said, ‘It’s happening now.’ Another said, ‘Don’t go back to sleep.’”
The movement is continuing to grow, Ofgeorgia noted. A man offered to make a donation for buying the costumes.
Ofgeorgia wrote in an email that she wants the Handmaids’ movement to open a door for dialogue.
“We are hoping that curiosity actually draws liberals and conservatives into conversation, and that labels can be dropped,” she wrote, adding, “Basically working in a way that brings us together and does not further divide feels really important.”
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