17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale

Shannon Quinn - August 8, 2018

Most Dystopian novels, like 1984, Brave New World, and even The Hunger Games can all be considered “science fiction” because the authors all included technology or outlandish scenarios that will probably never exist in reality. It gives the reader a small sense of comfort this terrible world the characters live in could never actually happen in real life.

Margaret Atwood calls her book The Handmaid’s Tale “speculative fiction”, instead of “science fiction”. She made sure to only include technology that already exists, and write about things that had already happened at some point in history. As the saying goes, “history repeats itself”. Her goal was to write a worst-case scenario for a future dystopia from a female perspective.

The book was published in 1985, and it went on to be made into a movie in 1990 and an Emmy-Award-winning TV series in 2017. When she wrote the book, Margaret Atwood had no idea that some of those events actually would come true in the future, like the Taliban’s rise to power and subjugation of women in the 1990’s. And some people fear that Trump’s administration is a sign that things are going in the direction of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Here are 17 moments in history when the events in the book actually did happen in societies around the world. (Warning: If you haven’t read the book or watched the TV series yet, this list contains spoilers.)

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
Even though they are all women, Aunts and Wives take part in enslaving the handmaids, marthas, and un-women. Credit: Hulu

The New Jersey Handmaidens

During her research process in the 1980s, Margaret Atwood found an article about a fundamentalist Christian group in New Jersey called The People of Hope, who wanted to return to the old ways of society spelled out in the Bible. The group was started in 1975 by a New York stockbroker and ordained Catholic priest named Robert Gallic. They called the women “The Handmaidens of God”. Atwood took a pen and circled the word “Handmaidens” with a pen. She found the name for her dystopia’s subservient female characters, and the inspiration for the fictional religious group who would take over the government.

Women in The People of Hope were subservient to men, and children were not allowed to date. Marriages between young adults were arranged by their parents. They considered everyone outside of their church as “the empire of evil”. Unlike the Handmaids in Atwood’s dystopia, the real Handmaidens were similar to the Wives of Gilead. They were in a position of power, and it was their responsibility to set a good example for other women, and police one another to make sure they were following the rules of being subservient to their husbands. One ex-member, Kathy Manhardt, was having trouble in her marriage, and she confided with the other members of The People of Hope that she might want to go to marriage counselor. They all quickly told her not to trust a psychologist, and talk to a pastor, instead, who reminded her to simply obey her husband.

Even though they were an offshoot of the Catholic Church, the Archdiocese of Newark condemned the group as a cult. The 75 people who decided to follow the new rules of The People of Hope were fired from their jobs on local councils and Catholic schools, as well as excommunicated from their local Catholic parish. They continued to meet with their own group. Today, The People of Hope is still an active religious group.

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
After Decree 770, Romanian orphanages were packed with unwanted children who were not receiving enough attention, which resulted in developmental delays. Credit: The New York Times

Decree 770

One of the specific events that Margaret Atwood found during her research process was “Decree 770” in Romania. This was a law that passed in 1967 that made abortions and all forms of contraception illegal. This had nothing to do with religious beliefs. It was an action that the government believed was necessary for the future of their country. The government already taxed married couples a 6% income tax if they did not have children between the ages of 25 and 50, but they realized that this was not enough to stop people from using contraception.

During the 1950s, Romanian women were entering the workforce and having fewer children. By the 1960s, abortion became a common practice, because there were very few birth control options available to women to prevent pregnancy. This began a sharp dip in the country’s birth rate. The Communist Party wanted the population to increase from 23 million to 30 million in a single year, so they enacted Decree 770. After the change of law in 1967, and women no longer had access to birth control, the number of babies born that year skyrocketed to roughly double what they had been the year before. Thousands of new preschools and nursery schools had to be built. Orphanages were overflowing with children whose parents could not afford them.

Aside from making abortions illegal and taking contraception off of store shelves, women’s bodies were literally policed. Decree 770 forced women to visit the gynecologist once a month to check for pregnancy, and police officers stood in the halls to make sure women complied. If a woman was pregnant, the doctors followed her progress very closely. Wealthy women were able to buy birth control pills and condoms on the black market, but poor women did not have that option. There were some cases where women caught the pregnancy before the doctors did, and some women died while attempting to give themselves an at-home abortion. The policy continued until the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
The un-women are forced to clean up radioactive materials in order to fix the environment. Credit: Refinery 29 and Hulu

Prisoners Cleaning Radiation

In the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the biggest problems in society that lead to the cult’s political takeover is pollution. One of the missions of Gilead was to clean up the environment and un-do the damage done by mankind with toxic dumping grounds and locations of radiation spills. In the show, the clean carbon emissions by 78%, but it comes at the cost of women’s lives. The “un women”- mostly lesbians, radical feminists, and adulterers, are forced to clean up radioactive materials in a place called “the colonies”. They literally work themselves to death, as their bodies fall apart from radiation-related disease.

During the 1970s, prisoners in the Soviet Union were forced to do manual labor in uranium mines to gather enough material for their arsenal of atomic bombs. Obviously, prisoners were exposed to extremely high levels of radiation. The average lifespan of a prisoner in these mines was just two years. Everyday, train filled with new prisoners would arrive at the mines. They estimate there were roughly 5,000 men who died working there. It was common for prisoners to collapse, and die on the spot. Their overseers would smash their heads in if they fell, because they did not want anyone to escape by faking their death.

The prisoners who had the worst diseases were removed and studied by doctors in order for them to get more information about what would happen after dropping an atomic bomb. It was such a painful and awful experience, 12 prisoners made a suicide pact, blowing themselves up in the mines. A documentary was filmed about the experiences of the miners, called The Nuclear Gulag.

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
In The Handmaids Tale, refugees from The United States flee to Canada and form a community called “Little America”. Credit: Bustle.

Dropping Canadian Birth Rates And Immigration

Around the time that Margaret Atwood was writing The Handmaid’s Tale, she also found articles that showed Canada’s birth rate was dropping for the same reasons the Romanian birth rate was dropping. Some people tried to blame it on pollution, saying that inorganic foods and toxins in the air made it less likely for women to get pregnant. While it’s true that an unhealthy lifestyle can lead to infertility, the major factor that lead to the drop in Canadian birth rates was women entering the workforce.

This is why Canada has a relatively relaxed immigration policy, (at least, in comparison to the complex and expensive process in the United States.) Since the 1970s, the majority of population growth in Canada has come from immigrants. The project that by the year 2035, 80% of Canada will be an immigrant population.

This is one of the many reasons why Canada is always featured as being the safe haven for refugees to flock to in books, TV, and movies. The Handmaid’s Tale is no exception. In the show, the diplomats from Canada try to work together with Gilead to learn how they are improving their birth rates, and their population only goes up as refugees escape across the border. However, people attempting to immigrate to Canada after President Trump was elected were shocked to find out that becoming a Canadian citizen is not something that can be done overnight. People need to live in the country for several years with visas and find full-time employment before getting citizenship.

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
Handmaids and Marthas are forced to do household chores like grocery shopping and cooking without pay, and they were forced to give up their careers. Credit: Vanity Fair and Hulu

Women Forbidden to Work

For centuries, women were not allowed to work and earn money. The only way women could earn their own income was if they were prostitutes or “Fallen Women”. These women were often unwed mothers, or grew up in abusive circumstances that lead to them turning to prostitution in order to survive. Even though it was a necessity, they were still ostracized by society. Charles Dickens was one of the first public figures to sympathize with fallen women, and include them as characters in his novels, like Oliver Twist. He paid for a rehabilitation house to help them turn their lives around. But this wasn’t purely out of the goodness of his heart. He interviewed fallen women to learn their life stories, in order to make his own writing about them more realistic.

Until the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, it was not common for women to work without shame. Even then, there were plenty of men who believed that women need to stay out of the workforce, and continue doing unpaid labor in their households while their husbands earn the money. It was also seen as something only lower-class women did. During World War I and World War II, it was far more common for women to pick up on jobs in the place of men. Even Queen Elizabeth went to work as a mechanic. This evolved public opinion that women from all walks of life could have careers. In some parts of the world, like Saudi Arabia, women are still not allowed to work.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are not allowed to work, even if they have a high level of education and useful skills. Even Serena Joy, a woman and wife of a commander who helped Gilead take over the United States, was later pushed out of her position and forced to stay at home. The Marthas and Handmaids do all of the housework and grocery shopping, so there is nothing for a wife to do except knit, and pray for a baby.

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
Even in the moments when The Commander seems to respect June’s intelligence by asking her to play Scrabble, he still continues to refer to her as her slave name, “Offred”. Credit: Hulu

Slave Names

In Gilead, the Handmaids are no longer allowed to keep their real names when they are assigned to work in a new household. They have become possessions of their masters, or Commanders. The main character’s name in the show is actually June, but she is called “Offred”, or “Of Fred”. In the book, there is no mention of the main character’s first name. A woman serving a man named Warren is called “Ofwarren.” Etcetera. If they move to a new house, their name is changed to suit their new master.

When slaves were taken from Africa, they were never allowed to keep their real names, because they were often too foreign-sounding. Slaves were given new names, like John, Bill, or Sally. Their last names were also changed to match their masters. This is why many modern-day African Americans have English-sounding last names, like “Jones”. In the privacy of their quarters, slaves would call one another by their true African names.

This is why, during the Civil Rights Movement, there was a resurgence in African-sounding names in the black community. Malcolm X changed his last name to “X” because he did not know his ancestor’s original African last name. Changing their names was a way for African Americans to reclaim their identity and freedom. In modern times, many African-American names are not actually based on a name from an African country, but rather just a creative exercise in borrowing unique names from other cultures or invent new spellings and pronunciation variations for names that already exist.

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
Hannah, June’s daughter, was kidnapped and given to a Commander and his wife. Credit: Hulu

Stealing Children

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the main character, June, had a daughter named Hannah. She was taken away and adopted by a Commander and his wife. The government of Gilead does this because they claim that the Handmaids were unfit as single mothers. This sounds horrific, but it has actually happened several times in The United States.

In 1958, The Child Welfare League of America began what they called “The Indian Adoption Project“. They believed that children living on First Nation reservations were not living up to American standards, so children were very literally kidnapped from their homes, even if there was no proof of parental abuse. None of them were ever documented to keep records of their birth parents, and they were given to white families for adoption.

One man named Roger St. John described being kidnapped from his home in the Sioux tribe of South Dakota by the Child Welfare League in the 1960s with a few of his other siblings. He was the youngest of 16 kids. The older children were able to run away before they were captured. His photo was put on the front page of the local newspaper, celebrating the project, saying that the government was doing such a great job “saving” these kids. He was adopted by a young married white couple in their 20’s after a priest who was part of the project pushed them to adopt Roger and three of his brothers. He grew up to love his adopted parents, but they raised the boys in poverty, because the young couple was not prepared to take on raising four boys at once. Roger grew up feeling very angry that he was denied the right to grow up with his Native culture.

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
Handmaids are all forced to wear red dresses and capes with white veiled caps. Credit: Hulu and Vanity Fair

Mandatory Dress Codes

In Gilead, everyone has a uniform to make it easy to identify their rank in society. This is reminiscent of The Holocaust, when prisoners wore stripes, stars, and triangles to signify their race and status, but this has existed more than once in history. Back in the 1600s, it was mandatory for Puritan women to wear long dresses made of dark fabrics, and wear head coverings every single day. The traditions are still carried on by Amish people today.

The FLDS Church, which was a very strict sect of Mormons is famous for the mandatory dress codes, as well. Women are only allowed to wear loose-fitting skirts or dresses that are considered modest. They are usually various shades of blue, because even bright colors can be considered to be too flashy. They all wear their hair in the same sort of ponytail, as well. In 2017, the church finally added pants to the dress code as an option for women who work for the church.

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
“The Ceremony” forces women to carry the children of The Commanders. Credit: Hulu and Refinery 29.

Forced Surrogacy

While this reference is made clear in the book and TV show, “the ceremony” is based on the Bible verse Genesis 30: 1-3, which reads, “And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her”.

The Biblical story describes a woman named Rachel, who is one of the polygamous sister-wives to a man named Jacob. Her sister-wife, Leah, has many children, but Rachel has problems conceiving. So she asks her handmaid, Bilah, to conceive a child with her husband in her stead. It works, and Rachel gets to raise the babies, while we never hear from Bilah ever again. We know that polygamy was once a common practice, but we cannot be sure if forced surrogacy was a common practice back then. The fact that it was mentioned in the Bible suggests that it was.

Today, sex and child trafficking is a very real problem in parts of the third world. In some cases, women are paid to sell their babies. Two countries where this is a huge issue are Cambodia and India. In The United States, acting as a surrogate mother is legal, and it can pay mothers $150,000 to $200,000. Unfortunately, in India and Cambodia, women are paid far less money for their babies, which makes it a popular place for foreigners to hire a surrogate. The authorities do not see this as an issue of women in poverty carrying babies in order to survive. In Cambodia, they are treated like criminals and arrested on human trafficking charges.

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
The Gilead government makes old school Biblical rules actual law. Credit: Hulu


In The Handmaid’s Tale, The Republic of Gilead is run by a Christian Fundamentalist cult, and the law of the land is motivated by their strict religious beliefs. A society run by religion was coined as a “Theonomy” by Thomas Aquinas way back in the 1200s. During The Middle Ages, society in the western world was run by a Theonomy. The common law was intertwined so tightly with religion, that any moral sins- like adultery- were punishable by death.

In the United States Constitution, there is a mandatory “separation of Church and State” that prevents a theonomy from ever happening again. But obviously, there is still a lot of political debate in dealing with moral choices. People who are pro-life are often Christian Republicans who believe that a baby has a soul since conception and that it would be murder to perform an abortion. Pro-choice advocates, on the other hand, say that in the early stages of pregnancy, the fetus is not yet a person. In many states, it was illegal to get an abortion for a very long time, and anyone who was caught getting one would be punished. It was decided that this was a religiously motivated law. The landmark Supreme Court case was Roe v. Wade in 1973, which prevented the criminalization of abortions performed before the end of the first trimester.

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
In The Handmaids Tale, Emily is considered to be a “gender traitor” because she is a lesbian. Credit: Hulu

Homosexuality is Illegal

In the Handmaid’s Tale, homosexuality makes someone a “gender traitor”. Women who were known lesbians were forced to work in the colonies, and only the fertile women were forced into becoming handmaids. Gay men were killed and hung on the wall.

A lot of people forget that homosexuality was not legal in the United States for a very long time, even though it is only opposed because of religious and moral beliefs. Before “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” became a thing during the Clinton administration, any gay man discovered to be serving in the military was discharged. During World War II, gay men were often shot for being discovered, even if these men were only in the army because they were drafted. Homosexuality was still illegal in 14 states until the year 2003. Marriage equality just recently passed in 2015.

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
In The Handmaid’s Tale, they are so used to seeing dead bodies that the women stop for a break near a corpse. Credit: Hulu

Public Executions

One of the most horrifying aspects of Gilead is “the wall”, where people are hung in a very public place, in order to strike fear into the hearts of people in society. It is a well-known fact that for centuries, criminals were executed in public. They were either hung or had their heads chopped off by a guillotine. This was seen as a gruesome form of entertainment, but it also reminded the public to behave, if they did not want to be forced upon the scaffold.

Without giving away any spoilers, season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale shows a scene with a public execution that takes place at an indoor swimming pool. In the Bible verse Matthew 18:6, If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
Emily speaks to Aunt Lydia after she realizes what has been done to her during the surgery. Credit: Hulu

Female Circumcision

In The Handmaid’s Tale, we see at least two characters, Emily and Moira, become “sterilized”, or have a forced female circumcision. This is gruesome mutilation of the female anatomy where the outer sexual organ is completely removed, making sex a painful experience for the rest of their lives.

Sadly, this has been happening to women for a very long time, and in some countries, it is a ritual act made to oppress women in every generation. In other places, it is used as punishment. In some African tribes, every single girl is forced to have a female circumcision. In many cases, mothers and grandmothers are doing this to their own daughters, even though they understand how painful the procedure actually is. They have been brainwashed into believing that the female sex drive and that they are born with a “bug” that is making them “sick”.

While this was going on for centuries, the western world was not made aware of this tradition until the 1950s. Today, this is still a practice in 30 countries- 27 of which are located in Africa. It also happens in Indonesia, Kurdistan, and Yemen.

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
Commander Waterford takes June on a “date” to Jezebels. Credit: Hulu

Secret Prostitution Rings

In The Handmaid’s Tale, June or “Offred” is shocked to learn that the Commanders of Gilead pretend to be religious and pious when they are at home, but they actually indulge in secret nightclubs filled with drinking and prostitution called Jezebel’s. Offred finds her friend Moira, who is actually a lesbian, forced into sleeping with men. Her new nickname is “Ruby”. In the real world, it is no secret that sex trafficking exists, but there was one time in society where there really was a secret sex ring used by government officials.

In Nazi Germany, soldiers were allowed to go to secret brothels filled with women from conquered territories who were being forced into prostitution. The chief of the SS police, Heinrich Himmler, believed that prostitution was completely necessary for the morale of the Nazi soldiers. In the 1930s, brothels were state-regulated, and women were forced into medical exams to make sure they were clean of STI’s before having sex with men.

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
Painting of the War of 1812. Credit: History.com

Canada and the United States Go to War

While the books only hint at the possibility that the Gilead, which was once The United States, may go to war with Canada, if they cannot resolve their differences. Most people forget that the neighboring countries actually did face off with one another during The War of 1812.

The French settlers of Canada had to deal with the fact that Great Britain took over the countries in the 1800s. Since the United States already fought off the British during their own revolution, they saw this as another opportunity to get the crown away from North America. In reality, America was sticking their nose to an issue that wasn’t really their problem. The opinion among Canadians was divided. In the end, there was no real “winner” of the War of 1812, but of course, each side of the story will give you a different perspective.

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
In Season 2, the handmaids are more aware of “Mayday”, the secret society trying to free them. Credit: Bustle


In The Handmaid’s Tale, the secret group that is working to take down the government of Gilead is called “Mayday“. This term originated in 1923 when an unknown radio officer at the Croydon Airport in London began to use the word as a code for distress that would be clear and easy to understand over the radio. Pilots had heard different distress calls from Europe, and the French term for “help me” is “m’aider”, which English-speaking people pronounced as “Mayday”. It was decided that British pilots should use this as well, and it was eventually adopted by Americans and Canadians, as well. It only makes sense, then, that the handmaids are very literally saying “help me” to get out of their situation.

17 Moments In History that Inspired the Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaids are forced to shame each other for their past transgressions. Credit: Hulu

Pitting The Lower Class Against Each Other

For as long as there has been a divide in the rich versus the poor, there has always been a public opinion that gives higher respect to the people in upper-class circumstances, versus people who are considered to be lower class. People with money often worked hard for what they got, and it is idolized as the American Dream. Even if someone is living below the poverty line, and they are also lower-class themselves, they will still dislike and distrust someone on their same financial level. Even in modern times, the Los Angeles Times took a poll on public opinion. White people who work blue-collar jobs call poor people who need public welfare to survive “lazy”, even though they are only one paycheck away from being in the same situation.

This can be seen at the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale when June, or “Offred” is afraid to speak openly about her feelings with “Ofglen”, or Emily. The same distrust and careful testing of the water continue for June throughout the book, until she realizes that nearly all of the women are feeling equally trapped and terrified and that none of them actually want to be there because they believe in the religion.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Why The Handmaid’s Tale Is So Relevant Today. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. BBC Culture. 25th April 2018

The Handmaid’s Tale Is a Warning to Conservative Women. Sarah Jones. New Republic. April 20, 2017

Margaret Atwood On The Dystopian Novels That Inspired Her To Write ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Joshua Barajas. PBS. Sep 9, 2019

Margaret Atwood On The Real-Life Events That Inspired The Handmaid’s Tale And The Testaments. Penguin UK. 09 September 2019

What We Can Learn From Romania’s Complete Abortion Ban. Ilana Gordon. Medium. Mar 9, 2017

The Handmaid’s Tale’ Author On Anti-Abortion Legislation In Texas: ‘It Is Really A Form Of Slavery To Force Women To Have Children They Cannot Afford. Kirsten Acuna. Business Insider. Jun 4, 2017

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale Sales Boosted By Fear of Trump. The Guardian.

Our Evolving Black American Naming Systems. Elisabeth Pearson Waugaman. Psychology Today.

Sect Causes Split in Jersey Parish. New York Times. 1986.

Decree 770. Wikipedia.

Canada’s Fertility Rate Continues To Put Pressure on Immigration. Cheryl Ubelacker. The Star. 2017.

Soviet Prisoners Exposed to Fatal Radiation in Uranium Mines. Associated Press. 1986.

An Appeal to Fallen Women. Charles Dickens.

Theonomy in the Middle Ages: The Case of Thomas Aquinas. Marc A. Clauson. 2005.

Key Points About Mormon Dress Code. Eastessence.

Pregnant Cambodian women charged with surrogacy and human trafficking. The Guardian.

Female Circumcision: Rite of Passage Or Violation of Rights? International Perception on Public Health. 1997.

A Canadian Perspective on the War of 1812. Victor Suthren. PBS.

Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, Volume 1. Melissa Hope Ditmore. Greenwood Publishing Group. 2006.

How do Americans view poverty? Many blue-collar whites, key to Trump, criticize poor people as lazy and content to stay on welfare. David Lauter. Los Angeles Times. 2016.

Mayday. Wikipedia.

Native Americans Expose the Adoption Era and Repair Its Devastation. Stephanie Woodard. Indian Country Today. 2011.