In the first season, as protagonist June (Elisabeth Moss) learned of the underground “Mayday” movement among her fellow Handmaids — fertile women essentially imprisoned as sex slaves in a society plagued by barrenness — viewers likewise learned that the dystopian near future in which the story is set was never without brave individuals pushing back against the ruling theocracy. The second season picks up after a wave of such acts (Alexis Bledel’s Emily having mowed down a soldier; June, also known as Offred, having led the Handmaids in refusing to stone to death one of their own) and takes the resistance to a new level of fearlessness.
Though the society of Gilead and its Handmaids system are fictional, Atwood made a point of drawing on real history when she crafted that world. So it’s no surprise that this ever-present resistance does have parallels in American history.
When the government has regulated women’s bodies and sexuality, they have fought back, says Scott W. Stern, whose new book The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women zeroes in on one piece of that history.
Stern’s book focuses on the “American Plan,” one of the largest and longest quarantines in U.S. history. Under the plan, tens of thousands of women suspected of being promiscuous were incarcerated, just as women on The Handmaid’s Tale can be sent to labor camps for similar reasons. The mass imprisonment was justified on the grounds of ensuring national security during the two world wars by protecting the troops from sexually transmitted infections. In addition to being a time of military fear, the context for the plan was one in which women were pushing back against old restrictions. As more women in the early 20th century advocated for education and work and political rights, others worried that women would lose their way and succumb to indecency.
Detention facilities sprung up, specially designed to reform women suspected of committing vaguely defined moral crimes such as “vagrancy” and “disorderly conduct” through a paradoxical curriculum of physical labor and domestic arts. Stern says efforts to lock up women for suspected moral crimes was “a way of controlling women’s sexual agency [at] a time when women were banding together politically, beginning to get educated formally, and that was threatening to those in power, so this was really a way of controlling women — which is exactly what the whole Handmaids system is in the show.”
Inmates were largely forbidden from speaking to each other — an aspect of discipline that has direct parallels on The Handmaid’s Tale — because authorities “were really scared of women teaming up together, banding together for resistance,” Stern says. “There are records of government hearings where officials talked about [how] women aren’t allowed to talk to each other or smile at each other, except for a couple minutes a day, which is eerily and possibly unintentionally parallel.”
And yet the women still managed to fight back.
“In real female prisons — under the American plan and in women’s prisons in general — there were huge numbers of riots,” says Stern. “There were huge, truly mind-numbing numbers of women who escaped.”
In Seattle, there were stories of escapees covering guards in sheets, leaping out windows, breaking through plate glass, clogging toilets, destroying the sewing machines that had been installed for “vocational training” and refusing to go to breakfast. Inmates torched five of the 43 federally funded detention houses and reformatories that were housing women with STIs. City Farm of Houston burned down twice, while the one in Newport News, Va., burned down five months after opening its doors in 1919. A woman imprisoned under the American Plan in San Diego staged a three-day hunger strike in an effort to be released. More than 300 women imprisoned in Ponce, Puerto Rico, rioted and refused to take their mercury injections (an early treatment for some STIs). There were 80 escapes at the female-run detention facility known as “The Hospice” in Jacksonville, Fla., from 1919 to 1921, and one inmate per week broke out of the Alabama State Training School For Girls.
But, Stern says, there is one noteworthy difference between The Handmaid’s Tale and the real history of resistance to the American Plan.
Though the fictional Handmaids are drawn from all walks of life — the only qualification being their fertility — the primary rebels who are seen to be leading the charge are mostly college-educated, white women. (In fact, they are targets because of their level of education.) But in reality, the American Plan did not apply equally to all sectors of American society. The women who were targeted under the program were disproportionately non-white, working-class and immigrant. And those imprisoned during that time who actually did work in the sex industry did so in a labor market in which skin color could be a disqualifying factor from many other jobs.
Bearing that difference in mind in some ways only serves to underscore the link: the idea of imprisoning women over “promiscuity” appears on the show as well as in real life, and in both cases the women, regardless of education or privilege, are likely to fight back.
“The really big parallel between real life and show,” Stern says, “is the active resistance.”