Hidden Atrocities: The Lives of Marthas and Unwomen in 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Protagonists make us feel like we are sharing in the experience. We see with that character's eyes. We hear what that character hears, and in that way, we become them. We also grow to know them and love them. We get attached, so when things happen to them, we care.
Writers use this emotional connection to get the audience interested in their story. We feel the thrill as events unfold, and we become invested in the way things turn out because it all affects someone we love.
It's very difficult to keep the audience engaged without that narrative lens. That's what made The Handmaid's Tale so difficult to write. The creators had to find a way to get us to invest in events that happen on a larger scale, things that affect an entire nation or the world, not the individual. Atwood solved this problem by refusing to name her protagonist. Instead, the novel depicted the life of the average handmaid, told from the perspective of one. The series would alternate perspectives, allowing us to see the world from Janine or Serena's point of view. But they couldn't show us what life was like across Gilead. There were millions of victims--slaves, who had endured unspeakable atrocities, and they deserve to have their stories told. It's a shame that will never happen.
Built on the Backs of Others
It would be impossible to downplay the suffering that handmaids faced, but it's the marthas and the unwomen that should interest us the most. They fueled a slave-driven economy. If a woman fell out of favor with the government, they would be labeled and shipped off to work. We don't know exactly how their labor was divided between the classes. At times, it seemed to overlap, and it may have depended on the availability of workers and the demand for labor.
Both marthas and unwomen worked on farms. In season 4, the marthas bottled cider and tended to the animals. They cleaned the rooms at Jezebels and managed the kitchens. Marthas were government issued, so it's possible that only certain institutions were allowed to make use of them, but they may have played a part in private business affairs. They may also have had a place in hospitals, cafeterias, and schools.
Unwomen were useful because they were fallen and therefore disposable. They could be worked to death. It's easy to imagine them around toxic chemicals or toiling on some harsh assembly line. We would often hear stories about them laboring in the fields on agricultural colonies, and it's likely that they played a part in factories as well. They provided the labor necessary to feed the country and perhaps clothe them and supply them with goods. Considering the strict nature of Gilead's justice system, it's likely that they made up the brunt of the country's workforce.
The Slave Economy
On the surface, Gilead was a meritocracy. Those who lived righteous lives were served by sinners. But more slaves meant more stuff and more food. Human greed took its toll and the nation enacted a giant witch hunt. Whenever commanders wanted to build a plantation, they'd jump up onto the pulpit, preach about the evils of something or other, and start pointing fingers. Then they'd round up as many workers as they needed. They'd even take a few domestics for themselves--fine looking ones, of course.
They would build massive estates where they'd grow food and raise cattle, and they'd expand their wealth by cracking down and tightening restrictions. From a Gileadean perspective, it looked like the righteous districts prospered. In reality, the people were being subjected to a predatory system that cannibalized itself in service of the elite.
The commanders weren't the only ones pointing fingers. The people were incentivized to turn against one another, and because the justice system was so discriminatory and hamhanded, they were able to take advantage of it. Spouses accused one another of various crimes, hoping to get a younger wife or a kinder husband. They'd frame their marthas or handmaids when they wanted to commit murder. Econos would turn each other in to curry favor with the establishment. This was how Gilead grew as a nation and established itself as a world power, by enslaving the masses.
The Life of a Slave
When someone was enslaved, they might be brought in by the eyes, turned over to the aunts, or interrogated. Some women would face a mock trial where the prosecutors would declare their crimes and a judge would meat out a sentence. It's doubtful that they'd have juries or lengthy litigation, just a declaration, maybe a piece of evidence and a judgment. They might not even be told what was going to happen to them. When Emily was brought before a judge, she was sentenced to redemption, not a clitorectomy. Her fate was left ambiguous, which would have made the experience all the more grueling.
From there, they'd be placed in the pens where they would await their next posting. We've seen the pens several times in the series. In season 1, June was held there while she waited to be sent to the red center. She watched as a group of guardians herded disabled women off to their death, shrieking and knocking aside their walkers as they did. In season 3, Commander Lawrence took her there to teach her a lesson. We saw what must've been hundreds of women packed into wire mesh cages, covered in their own filth.
They must've used retrofitted barns and old warehouses at first. There was no flooring, just mud, and Gilead would've tended only to the bare necessities. They might have sandwiches with artificial filling, a trough for water, and maybe a row of crusty buckets. There would be no privacy, no peace, only the sound of guardians yelling, dogs barking, and women wailing.
Confinement has a way of making people impatient. Prisoners in jails will often call out to passing guards, begging for information and making requests to pass the time. Could they have another sandwich? A tissue? Were there any updates on what was going on? There would be a level of suspense hanging in the air, choking the women and forcing them into a heightened state of desperation. It would've been unbearable.
Everyone would want to know how long they would be there and what was going to happen to them. But unless they were fertile, their fates would be the same. They'd work until they died. The distinction between marthas and unwomen was marked by how long they were allowed to live and the conditions they worked under. None of them would reach old age. Instead, they'd be discarded, refused a Christian burial, and erased from existence.
As conditions changed, and the old ways started to pass away, the women would often become convinced that they deserved their fate. The unwomen would beg for redemption every morning, fully convinced that they didn't deserve it. The marthas would go about their tasks happily, considering them to be a holy obligation. Rita would add a touch of love to her work. That was what Gilead did; it warped the minds of the masses, turning fear and a rebellious spirit into loyalty and twisted logic.
We see marthas in almost every episode. They make up the brunt of the cast it seems, and yet, we know almost nothing about their lives. It's sad. But there are clues in the series about what their lives must have been like. They must have been given some sort of education.
Commander Lawrence once asked June whether or not she thought a former accountant would fit the role. A famous pediatrician was assigned a posting. There were also women who knew how to cook and clean. Beth, for example, said that she would've been shoveling dirt had she not been trained as a chef. So some of the women did in fact have experience in domestic arts, and some of the women did not.
Either way, Gilead had specific standards of quality when it came to food, cleanliness, and manners. You can't build an army of domestic servants capable of recreating Julia Child's entire library of work without some sort of training. The marthas would have to learn those things before they could be posted. They might learn how to bake bread from scratch, how to prepare a consommé or a bouillabaisse, how to properly bleach linens, or bake cookies. It's likely that their training centered around traditional culinary arts. We saw a lot of classical recipes taken from the Victorian era and French cuisine. This would all be in line with what we could expect from a general, modern curriculum. They may have had training in the use of cleaning chemicals, and many seemed to be skilled in crafts such as sewing and mending. They could replace a lost button or patch a hole in a jacket. Rita was able to create a fake finger for Serena using leather. Their skills likely varied, but they definitely had a universal set that would allow them to manage daily tasks.
In order for any government to rule effectively, they need a mandate. This is some sort of contract or permission given to them by the public allowing them to rule. There would be no conscious consent, of course. They would simply have to find ways to keep the masses from rising up. Even in modern times, when governments have access to superior weaponry, nuclear missiles, ammunition, and armor, governments still need their soldiers and guards to follow orders, and if the people truly decided that it was time for a change, nothing could be done about it. We've seen this play out with guerrilla warfare, where small insurgent groups, such as those found in the Middle East or Eastern Europe, have been able to stave off world powers like the United States and Russia.
Gilead solved this problem by using fear--guardians patrolling the streets, public executions, and corrections--along with propaganda and brainwashing. Some women would be forced into a cell, robbed of the light, stimuli, and human interaction they'd need to stay healthy. If they were given a glass of water, a kind word, or a moment outside, they would learn to love Gilead and be thankful to the aunts who oppressed them. It worked. They might also have their former beliefs torn apart in blame circles. There would be social reinforcement, punishment, and reward. They'd take everything, your possessions, your loved ones, sometimes even your name, and reduce you to nothing more than a blank slate. Then they'd fill in the gaps with whatever twisted message they wanted to instill.
This process was integral to the survival of the regime, so it's likely that marthas went through it, but we've never seen what ii looked like. We do know that aunts would have been the ones to handle their education. In the beginning, they were eager to find people to make an example out of--eyes to pluck out and fingers to cut off--so the other girls could see what happened when they acted out. We saw this in the pilot when Janine was dragged out of class and had her eye removed. While corrections were very much a part of life in Middle-Gilead, the aunts in the later years had a solid line that couldn't be crossed. The women could avoid punishment if they simply followed the rules and displayed a healthy level of submission. But unlike handmaids, marthas were not considered sacred vessels. Anything could be done to them so long as they were capable of working. We can safely assume that the aunts would take liberties with them that they wouldn't have taken with the others. They might have even killed to prove that death was a potential consequence. There would've been a metaphorical body hanging in front of the chalkboard as a constant reminder, and the marthas would've felt that threat every second of their lives. It would've followed them into their homes or their places of employment when they left their education camps. it would become a hallmark of their existence. Marthas were registered property, much like a dog or a cat. Killing them may have been seen as property damage, not actual murder, and if that was the case, it would have been treated as such in Gilead's justice system.
We've only been given a small glimpse into life in the colonies--and the series focused entirely on the irradiated wastelands in the Southwest, but the show took pains to help us understand the structure behind their lives, which would've dominated their existence. Every morning the unwomen would be led through prayer, knowing that their deaths would soon be at hand, and ask God to forgive them for their sins. Gileadeans did not believe that you could simply ask Jesus into your heart and be saved. They followed an old European philosophy, common in Mennonite and Amish communities. It's also a huge part of Islam. The idea was that God had all the power. He chose who to send to heaven, who to condemn, who to curse, and who to bless, and it was not for us to know his ways. Followers would live their lives as obediently as they could, keep God in their hearts, and hope that He saw fit to redeem them. Of course, chances were bleak. Everyone was born in sin, and very few were chosen to live in God's presence when they died. Most could fully expect to be sent to Hell, even if they lived righteous lives, unless of course they were able to obtain some sort of power or wealth in Gilead, which would have surely been a sign that God had blessed them. They acted like cowering servants kneeling before a malevolent master, hoping that he'd throw out some scrap of food from his giant banquet table. That mindset came with a hefty dose of self-deprecation and over-exaggerated humility. They'd essentially say, 'I know you hate me, and I deserve it, but I hope that you can find it in your heart to help me.' That was the general attitude in the more dangerous colonies. It defined them.
Many people assume that Gilead irradiated the colonies during the war. But that's not the case at all. The Sons of Jacob were greedy. They wanted to pillage the Southwest, not destroy it, and they were never going to stop with the United States. They believed in a principle called Christian dominion, which gave them the God-given right to take whatever they wanted. It didn't take long for the United States to realize what they were dealing with. So, when it was obvious that they were going to be defeated, they decided to detonate a portion of their nuclear stockpile in order to keep Gilead from becoming a nuclear power. They couldn't detonate the whole that. That would reign in the apocalypse, but it put Gilead on equal ground with the rest of the world. They were just as vulnerable and powerless. There was no credible threat of retaliation if Russia or China decided to bomb them, meaning they could be taken down. Unfortunately, that meant sacrificing Arizona, parts of California, New Mexico, and the surrounding areas.
These are dry, mountainous regions. Water was sparse. Cities were mostly built in valleys where they could tap into streams from the mountains or divert rivers and create canals. Rather than build costly shipping operations and send water across the country, Gilead would've likely made use of existing infrastructure, like the Colorado River and underground aquifers. This meant that the unwomen would've toiled in places like Phoenix, Tucson, and Las Vegas, where the land was flat and Gilead had the resources to at least make sure that they didn't die from dehydration. Temperatures would have been unbearable. In these places--even farther north, like in Nevada--they'd work in fatal heat--even as high as 40 degrees celsius or 115 fahrenheit during the summer. During the winter, the hills would be slick with frost and sometimes even ice. Dry air allows for a level of contrast that can't be found in more temperate climates. Regardless of where they were posted, the climate would have been unforgiving, never temperate, and rarely mild, and they weren't given the kind of gear they would need to feel comfortable.
Colonies were created for two reasons. Gilead wanted to make use of free slave labor. It was the quickest, easiest way for them to boost food production, allowing them to prosper without having to expend the resources necessary to provide their workers with a modern lifestyle. It also allowed them to come down hard on the populace. If they wanted to succeed at controlling the masses, they'd have to enact some sort of depopulation scheme. It's easier to dominate 500,000 people than it is to dominate 2 million, and they wanted to scare the country into obedience. If they could hold the colonies over the public's heads, they could leverage them, threaten them with certain death or a life of servitude, and keep them in line. Thanks to Commander Lawrence and his research, they knew that their scheme would work, and it did. Not only did people accept their fate, but they also raised their children to be believers to keep them safe. The result was a faithful, passive nation convinced that it was their religious obligation to do what they were told.
Gilead was careful with the resources it expended on the program. Women in the irradiated colonies in the series were kept in old barns, where they'd be provided with basic bedding, a simple, contaminated water supply, and whatever scraps they could scrounge for food. What little the women had was used against them. Be good and you might get an extra hardboiled egg for breakfast. Break the rules, and you'd starve slowly and deliberately. The aunts who ran the colonies would witness that happening, prodding them, berating them, and urging them on. They'd shriek, bark orders, and dole out corrections, making it clear that the women needed to fill 10 bags of dirt every day, or they wouldn't eat. Those that got too sick and had to be left behind went without. That is how many unwomen died, not from infection, disease, or radiation poisoning, but from neglect. Their skin would peel off in sheets. Body parts would fall off, and eventually, they'd get too exhausted to do anything, so they'd die in bed.
The nation gave up on unwomen. Their fates were sealed, so nobody concerned themselves with them. They left them alone and allowed them to conduct their own affairs to a certain extent. That meant that public displays of affection in the LGBTQ+ community, perhaps drug use, and atheism could be allowed. This gave unwomen a level of freedom that the rest of Gilead would have killed for. There was a thriving black market, antibiotics, opioids, salves, and ointments. In season 2, the women held a gay wedding. It was a risk, and they could have faced serious retribution for it, but in the rest of the country, it wouldn't have been allowed to happen at all.
Justifying Bloodshed and Oppression.
The most terrifying thing about the colonies was the extent of the program. Gilead needed to make their threats real in the eyes of the masses if they wanted them to be effective. Econos who had never seen anyone shipped off were more likely to act out, so the commanders scorched the nation, gathering anyone who even thought about resisting. Millions were dragged screaming to their deaths through no fault of their own, and as a result, they were able to turn an irradiated region into viable farmland in less than 20 years, using nothing more than shovels and sackcloth.
Slavery altered the landscape of the nation. It became the force that characterized Gilead in the eyes of the outside world, and it was debated endlessly. Were handmaids really slaves if they were given the choice to either serve or go to the colonies? Were these actual Gulags, or did they serve some grander purpose, and as philosophy and mindsets began to shift in favor of Gilead, people would debate whether or not women deserved to be in that position. They committed a crime, and they were given consequences. At least they weren't killed outright. In the twisted logic of the indoctrinated herd, it made sense. It was neat and orderly, and there was a level of accountability involved; therefore, it was fair.
Marthas were not considered slaves. They were servants, and this distinction was very important from a PR standpoint. Throughout western history, slavery has been justified by changing the terminology. This fallacy takes its roots in scripture. There were different words for the 'slave' and 'servant' in ancient languages, so when the Bible--and the Koran's--blatant support for slavery came up, people would get into a lengthy conversation about etymology and how it wasn't really slavery in the way that we see it today. It was something more compassionate, even if there was an outline for a 19th-century horror flick a few paragraphs down. By the end of the discussion, people were always too tired to care, or they were satisfied because they wanted to believe. Gilead made full use of this argument in order to improve their standing on the world stage. Much like propagandists of our time, they would do their best to get the 'real truth' to the forefront. In Canada and other western nations, stories of the colonies, marthas, and handmaids would be blasted on mainstream news--outlets that could easily be dismissed as corrupt or controlled by some shady government body. So people would look to blogs, talk radio, and independent media for the truth. It worked. Gilead's culture spread successfully throughout the west, and while we don't know the extent of it, it's possible that many of their policies were enacted throughout Canada and maybe even the UK or Australia.
Seeing Gilead's evils cross international borders must have been the ultimate slap in the face. During the middle and late Gilead periods, slaves like Rita and Beth would have watched as refugees fled their homes, and Canadian parliament took on the same dreaded force that destroyed their country, and they would've felt powerless, as they were in all things.
What these women deserve most is a memorial. They were silenced and erased, reduced to nothing more than a number or a barcode--soon to be shoved into a furnace or a mass grave. Margaret Atwood understood that. That's how Rita came to be, and it's why Emily and Janine were sent to the colonies. We needed to know their lives, their struggle, and their pain in order to help relieve some of the wrongs that had been enacted against them.
We don't know what that will look like going forward, or what Rita herself will face. Marthas and unwomen have been pushed to the backburner. They were a silent presence, much like an obedient servant in polite society. But Rita is in danger now. Unlike June, Luke, and Serena she chose to stay behind in Toronto when they began to purge refugees. In Atwood's epilogues, this only got worse as time went by and Gilead began to threaten Canadian leadership. Many women were sent back, and that very well could happen to Rita. If it does, her participation in Angel's Flight would be taken into account, and she'd likely find herself shoveling dirt in the desert. Maybe that won't happen, and she'll find a way to go underground. Mayday will likely have a bigger part in the franchise going forward. She could also flee to the UK, where they continued to accept Gileadean refugees for the duration of the nation's history. She's such a gentle, beautiful soul. Kindness is in her nature. Let's hope that she doesn't end up facing a horrific fate. She deserves to live a happy, fulfilling life.