An “Unwoman’s” Perspective


HandMaids Tale Lest the headline of this post give you pause, I’m still very much a woman. At least I know I am, but in Margaret Atwood’s unsettling book The Handmaid’s Tale I would be an “Unwoman.” Now, before I partake in the questions offered up in this latest Barren Bitches Book Brigade, let me just say that despite the sexy curve of my waist, and legs that have caused more than one head to turn, when it comes to being infertile, many in our society (not simply those in Margaret’s novel) would have you believe that I, too, am an “Unwoman.” That’s because I can’t seem to bear children. I used to buy into that twisted philosophy, but now I know better. There’s more than one way to “glow.” So, on with the book tour…

You may have read The Handmaid’s Tale before, perhaps for a class or your own pleasure reading.  If you did, what was it like reading this book for the second time, specifically thinking about it from an infertility angle?  Did your thoughts and feelings about the book’s premise or any of the characters change?  Did any things strike you differently the second time around?

I’m dating myself, but I read this novel the first time in 1987 when I was single and closing in on 23 years of age. At that time I naturally identified with Offred and imagined, with horror, being imprisoned solely for my ability to conceive. I was also blissfully unaware of my endometriosis and assumed I could breed with the best of them.

My response the first time around was also colored by the fact that I was among the first generation of “liberated” young women who no longer had to worry about Help Wanted classifieds being segmented “For Men” and “For Women” – yes! I still recall seeing those categories in the newspaper when I was girl. In my early 20s, the world was my oyster and I was going to have it all: a rewarding career and children. No need to choose. Tra la. Infertility was some weird diseased state that came from environmental pollutants or some other nefarious cause.

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Reading the book 20 years later I now have greater sympathy and understanding for the infertile Aunts and Wives. I don’t particularly like the way they’re portrayed, but I know better now how their bitterness came to be.  What  hasn’t changed in 20 years is my allergic reaction to societies or cultures that oppress women, that strip their rights or say in their destiny. I may be infertile but I still have power and I exercise it.

I realize today, too, how brainwashed I was at an early age to believe that women who couldn’t reproduce were sub-human — they lacked value to society.  Nice messages, huh? It’s taken me far too long but I’ve saved myself thousands of dollars in therapy by arriving at the realization that much of my anger and sadness – caused by infertility – stems from preordained self-loathing.  Coming to terms with my compromised biological condition would have been infinitely easier if society didn’t propagate its own pervasive and subliminal “Unwoman” philosophy.  Excuse me but there’s some nuclear waste I need to get busy cleaning up…NOT!

In an interview, Atwood said that “This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions. For example, I explore a number of conservative opinions still held by many – such as a woman’s place is in the home. And also certain feminist pronouncements – women prefer the company of other women, for example. Take these beliefs to their logical ends and see what happens.”   In your time dealing with infertility, what “casually held attitudes” regarding ART have you encountered?  How have you responded, either to the opinion-holder or internally?  Is it conceivable (pun not intended) that these opinions will change for future ART patients and what do you think may need to happen to make that possible?

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There’s a casually held attitude in today’s society that ART works for all — given enough time and money. That’s just not true (witness yours truly and others I know). That fallacy causes many to assume that not only is there something wrong with someone who can’t conceive naturally there must be something DOUBLY wrong for those who can’t conceive with ART.

There’s also a casually held attitude that children are interchangeable, like trading baseball cards.  Oh, you can’t conceive? Well, there’s a bunch of kids in foster care or those tragic orphanages overseas. Why not adopt one of those? (as if adopting is free, easy or without mind-numbing paperwork and bureaucracy or personally invasive home study visits that scrutinize every aspect of your life — naturally occurring parents, I’d like to see how you’d stack up in these examinations). Or if it’s kid time you want, you can babysit mine.  Uh, no thanks.

For all that Handmaids are supposed to be serving the society’s greater good and should be honored, they are looked down upon by just about everyone.  Wives resent that the Handmaids do what they cannot, Marthas resent the time spent caring for them, Econowives resent them for the ease of existence they feel the Handmaids must enjoy.  And the reverse is true as well, Handmaids resent the other women for having little freedoms they do not enjoy, whether it’s control over a household, the ability to hold a knife and make radish roses, or to simply not be a possession without a name.  Does this mutual resentment exist in the world of infertility?  Do “fertiles” resent “infertiles” and vice versa?  If so, in what way?

Well, I can’t speak for fertiles, but I do get the sense that there’s a natural tendency to assume that couples without children chose that path freely and deserve any downsides that might come with it. While some couples are childfree by choice, there are many, many others who arrive at the childfree state after years of unsuccessful efforts at conception or adoption – worn down by emotional, financial exhaustion.

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I am not going to sugar coat it. I do resent that some people’s fertility knows no bounds and therefore they completely take fertility for granted.  I admit that I resent fertiles who make wrong-headed assumptions about my life. (Yes, I drive a nice car now and shop at my leisure but that’s because I don’t have any college funds that need tending. I may more flexibility for trips than my mommy peers tied to school schedules but I also never get to see my kids graduate from kindergarten or high school. I may have more spa appointments than the mommy crowd but I also never get to look forward to becoming a grandmother, so spare me the envy or judgments around material indulgences or how I spend my time. They are delayed gratification after years of have my life controlled by 28-day cycles and seeing money pour out of our bank account and into endless medical tests, surgery and infertility treatment cycles not covered by insurance). See, now there I go sounding bitter again. I’m not that way, really, with those who don’t jump to the wrong conclusion.

There will always be misunderstanding around infertility unless people take the time to understand the myriad and complex issues that arise when conception and delivery don’t succeed. What I hope is that some day there’s greater awareness that infertility is not self-inflicted and that its effects last a lifetime. Motherhood and infertility share one very big thing in common: sacrifices. While the former’s sacrifices are well documented and understood,  the latter’s are not…

For more insights, find other blog’s on this tour by visiting the main list at  You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Fowler (with author participation).



15 Responses

  1. Rebecca

    December 12, 2007 9:30 am

    Really interesting answers – interesting to see your perspective, given that you’re the ‘other’ side of the journey, if you see what I mean.

  2. Samantha

    December 12, 2007 12:58 pm

    Your answer to #2 rings so true. It already seems a little embarrassing and shameful to admit you needed ART, and I’ve heard people comment in disdainful ways, “well she HAD to resort to IVF.” But people just can’t wrap their minds around the fact that it might not work, and the doctors have no idea way. I think it’s also scary for people to accept that medicine isn’t always perfect.

  3. Lori

    December 12, 2007 3:11 pm

    The “Unwoman” philosophy permeates our being. There are the bible stories of the bleakness of Unwomen such as Sarah and Rachel and Elizabeth, who were mentioned only because their dry streak ended.

    And in current times, IF was posed as the penultimate outcome to fear (second only to death): If you don’t get an annual pap, you might lose lose your fertility. If you take this drug, you might not be able to get pregnant. If you do this, that or the other, you might suffer these dire consequences. Like losing one’s fertility pretty much negates one’s existence.

    So you can be excused for carrying around that nuclear waste, and commended for choosing to rid yourself of it.

  4. motherofnone

    December 12, 2007 7:51 pm

    I have never read this book, but I saw the movie at a young age and am still traumatized by certain scenes. In my strange imagination, I go to a whole different place with the “unwoman” concept – that as a female who can’t (or doesn’t want to) conceive I am neither man nor woman, but something else, and this feels strangely appropriate to the life I’m leading and the way I feel about traditional concepts of femininity. Rather than it originating with self-hatred, it feels empowering.

  5. Mel

    December 12, 2007 8:14 pm

    I think your point about the snap judgments (spa treatments=good) without considering the long-term reality is dead-on. I think many times when we’re judging another person’s life and weighing it against our own, we only consider the here and now. Which is short-sighted.

  6. Erica

    December 13, 2007 2:10 am

    Thanks for your honest answers. I must admit that when I first saw my RE I was so optimistic. I was naive and thought “they will get us pregnant” like it was a forgone conclusion. I have since learned that that is not how it works for everyone. Although it did work for us, it hasn’t for many people I know. And like you said, they don’t always have answers.

    My sister is currently going through treatments. Something that she has chosen to not share with a lot of people. And many of our friends and family have commented on how “lucky” they are so have money to spend on themselves, to be able to take all the vacations they take, etc. Just like what you said. And my heart always breaks for her. I know that many people think they have chosen to not have children, so I know they aren’t trying to be insensitive. It’s very very tough to hear though.

  7. Lisa

    December 13, 2007 12:10 pm

    Your answers are fabulous! I agree with so many points you made. One in particular is how so many people just assume fertility treatments will work eventually. I actually had a co-worker ask me why it hasn’t worked yet? And she waited like I’m supposed to have an answer?!

    Again, thanks for your wonderful comments. I always enjoy reading them.

  8. loribeth

    December 13, 2007 2:07 pm

    “Unwoman” was another of those terms (along with “shredder”) that made me wince. “I am unwoman, hear me roar!!” lol Bravo, PJ, another brilliant post. I loved all your answers, but especially the first. I think we are roughly the same vintage ; ) — I too was born in the early 1960s & came of age in the early ’80s when the message was that we could “have it all.” Well, nobody can have it all, and nobody knows that lesson better than the women here — but even so, I am glad for all the choices that were & still are open to me today that weren’t to our mothers. However, the fact that society still places so much emphasis on pregnancy & motherhood as the be-all & end-all shows we still have a long way to go.

  9. deanna

    December 14, 2007 12:38 am

    I HATE that ignorant assumption that ART works for everyone. I had a boss who said to us, “Go to the doctor! They have all these treatments. They can get anyone pregnant these days.” (insert my exploding head)

  10. Bea

    December 14, 2007 4:06 am

    I love your response to the first question, and the whole “unwoman” philosophy. I especially love it because it ties in with my genie question.

    It’s also interesting, regarding the last question, how many people’s answers have included the observation that they only resent fertile people after they’ve been “wronged” by them in some way (through assumptions or assvice, etc).


  11. zeke abrams

    December 22, 2007 10:40 pm

    Pamela, you hit the hammer right on top of the nail. But I sense there is much more to it. As a man, I have my own issues that I have to fight with and deal with and I’m not winning the war. Everything you said rings true in our lives. Especially in church. You did a good job in this article. I have yet to read your other works. And write some of my own. Thanks… thanks a lot.

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