The Handmaid’s Tale

fujifilm xpro2, ISO 800, FL 200 mm, 1/60 sec @ f/4


Two things in the news recently have made me think, once again, about the roles of women in our society.  Last week, Bill O’Reilly – one of the top grossing TV celebrities on Fox News was terminated because of allegations of sexual harassment.  His misbehavior was not a new item.  The network had paid millions of dollars of hush money over several years but an investigative reporter was able to unearth the gory details and published the findings in a print source.  And then, lo and behold! Current Mad Men began to pull their marketing dollars from his show.  As that movement escalated, Murdoch and his sons decided the negativity outweighed the positivity and O’Reilly was no more.

That was last week.  This week, HULU – a streaming media service – began their made for TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale.  The book, a dystopian science fiction, was written by Margaret Atwood.  I had read it years ago when the feminist movement was at its strongest.  I was particularly attracted to the book because Margaret, a Canadian writer, actually finished writing the book in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where she held an MFA chair.  So, that attracted me, a native Alabamian – a book started in West Berlin and completed in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  The book was published in 1986 and, at the time, I was a second year medical resident in a pediatric residency program in Alabama.  I remember when I read the book that I found it somewhat frightening but was reassured by the rapid changes that I had personally witnessed of the way women’s roles were changing in a positive way in our society.  There was no reason for me to think that the steady forward emancipation of women from traditional restrictions would not continue to surge. The book was interesting but definitely science fiction.

Understand, I was not naive.  I had personally experienced some of the obstacles often placed in women’s paths.  Some of those obstacles were blatantly obvious.  Some were very subtle.  It is only now, in my more advanced age (smile), that I realize that I had been so indoctrinated to the accepted role of women that I was blind to prejudice and discrimination when it happened right in front of me.  It was what had always been – those subtle little reminders by society of what the female identity should be.

I felt so privileged in my first year of medical school.  I had been an outspoken feminist and member of the National Organization for Women in college and I felt that choosing a male-dominated profession that I yearned to be a part of was a reflection of both my career goals, my desire for service to humanity, and my politics.  My class was a small one – that’s why I chose the medical school that I did.  My COM 1 class was exactly 68 students – 10 of which were women.  In the 4 years that we were together, we got to know each other very well.  Never once did I feel anything but equality with my fellow students.  The attitude was – we were all comrades on this very stressful battlefield and we supported each other without reservations.

But what was also very true is that there were very subtle whispers that constantly reminded the female students that women were different from men.  How?  We spent very long hours in the first year of medical school trying to absorb massive amounts of knowledge – gross anatomy, histology, cell biology, embryology, genetics, immunology, neuroanatomy, physiology.  The classroom hours were long and tedious.  One of the common distractions that the professors would use to try and jolt students awake after hours and hours of the eternal slideshow lectures  would be to insert random ‘pin-up’ slides of women, scantily dressed or nude, into the lecture slideshow.  I remember one example in physiology when we were studying the very complex Kreb cycle of chemical processes employed by all organisms to release energy.  I’m sure the professor, after hours of a long drawn out, complex lecture, decided it was time to wake us up. The distraction pin-up that he used was a woman on a motor cycle, dressed all in leather, with her jacket unzipped to her naval and a skimpy leather skirt pulled across her legs as she straddled the machine.  Kreb cycle – motorcycle.  And, as usual, everyone in the class laughed, some applauded, and the professor would smile approvingly.  Even the female students laughed!  And why?  Because we were told, both by our male colleagues and by our professors, that women frequently could be seen as sex objects but not all women.  Certainly not the female students in the room.  We were different than other women – we were professional equals.  Looking back at all those episodes, I realize now that we were as much a part of the problem as the men.  We condoned and we colluded and we did it from the viewpoint that it didn’t apply to us – we were different. I’m sure part of it was that we were also afraid.  We were a minority group in this fraternity of physicians in training and their medical school professors (not a single one of my medical school professors were female).  We felt so lucky to be part of the experience. If we raised a ruckus, if we questioned these subtle discriminatory practices, we might lose our place in line.

How often does that happen?  How often does an individual participate in subtle discrimination because they don’t see it as applying personally to them?  How often does an individual collude because of fear of being excluded, of having hopes dashed, of having dreams shattered?  How naive I was.  How imperfect I was (and still am).

Two years later, I’m pulling very long clinical hours in the hospital.  Basically, I would work two 12-18 hour days in a row and then a third day of 36 hours.  This was my schedule, week in, week out.  The only place that I could take a shower while working these long hours was in the physician’s locker room, which should have been okay because I was a physician in training.  BUT – the physician’s locker room was a male only locker room.  There was a nurse’s locker room but because nurses didn’t work longer than a 12 hour shift, they took their showers at home.  There was a shower in the nurse’s locker room but it had not worked for years and was basically used as a storage area for stacks of boxes of hospital scrubs.

Fortunately, my best friend in my medical class was also pulling the same long hours.  So, we had a deal.  We both wanted a daily shower so no matter how little sleep we had gotten on our 36 hour on-call stretch, we would meet in front of the physician’s locker room at 3 AM.  One of us would go inside the locker room and take a shower while the other stood guard outside the door, ready to give an alert if someone approached.  Then we would switch places.  This is what we did rather than asking for shower facilities for female physicians and medical students.

Why didn’t we ask? We were working the same hours as our male colleagues so certainly we were entitled to the same considerations.  But we accepted the subtle discrimination, we didn’t even question it.  I suspect fear played a role in this also.  The fear that if we pointed out the inequalities too aggressively, that we might be excluded, that we might lose the position that we had worked so hard to achieve.

Oh, we weren’t completely meek and humble.  If there was overt, blatant discrimination, we spoke up against it.  But there was so much of the subtle, pervasive, way it has always been discrimination that we just accepted.  Some of it, I dare say most of it, we just accepted as the way it had always been and we honestly didn’t see it being any different.

And now, we have as President of the United States a man that manifests all those subtle, pervasiveness nuances of discrimination toward women.  He wouldn’t even shake Angela Merkel’s hand!  He speaks trash about women when he thinks he won’t get caught saying it.  He is writing executive orders that severely restrict women’s choices and freedoms and he does it surrounded by men, posing for the television cameras.  This was not a faux pas.  This was deliberate.  He was sending a message to his base of male power and male machismo and male domination of women and their issues.

In my later years of wisdom, I’m a lot more perceptive than I was when I was a naive 30 year old.  I have seen equality among people, regardless of gender, religion, or culture.  I recognize the subtle, pervasive, erosions of that equality. And I will not accept it.

And I’m rereading ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ with a new recognition that equality and democracy, once achieved, may not last forever.  It’s more frightening to me than even my first reading.


About Diana Davidson

Physician, traveler, photographer, tennis player, reader, teacher, student

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