Sex Crimes

The Handmaid's Tale Author Margaret Atwood Accused of Crimes Against Feminism for Defending Due Process

Atwood: "In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion."


Michal Dolezal/ZUMA Press/Newscom

In the first year of the Trump presidency, the Hulu television series The Handmaid's Tale—which concerns a dystopian future U.S. where totalitarian religious authorities subjugate women—became essential #Resistance viewing. Many saw parallels between the treatment of women within the universe of the show and President Trump's alleged history of abusive behavior.

One might expect, Margaret Atwood, the author of the source material—the 1985 novel of the same name—would be considered something of a feminist hero. But now Atwood must counter charges that she is actually a "bad feminist," because she thinks the University of British Columbia denied due process to a male professor accused of sexual misconduct.

"And now, it seems, I am conducting a War on Women, like the misogynistic, rape-enabling Bad Feminist that I am," wrote Atwood in an op-ed for The Globe and Mail.

In 2016, Atwood joined dozens of other writers in signing a petition that called on UBC to release the records of its investigation into Steven Galloway, an author and chair of the university's creative writing program. Galloway was accused of sexual misconduct, but the details were fuzzy, and UBC's procedures for handling the complaint lacked even a semblance of transparency.

Atwood has not taken a position on Galloway's guilt or innocence; rather, she believes the university was unfair to everyone involved in the dispute, and has made it impossible to determine the truth. (Galloway also lost his job.) As Atwood wrote:

…after an inquiry by a judge that went on for months, with multiple witnesses and interviews, the judge said there had been no sexual assault, according to a statement released by Mr. Galloway through his lawyer. The employee got fired anyway. Everyone was surprised, including me. His faculty association launched a grievance, which is continuing, and until it is over, the public still cannot have access to the judge's report or her reasoning from the evidence presented. The not-guilty verdict displeased some people. They continued to attack. It was at this point that details of UBC's flawed process began to circulate, and the UBC Accountable letter came into being.

A fair-minded person would now withhold judgment as to guilt until the report and the evidence are available for us to see. We are grownups: We can make up our own minds, one way or the other. The signatories of the UBC Accountable letter have always taken this position. My critics have not, because they have already made up their minds. Are these Good Feminists fair-minded people? If not, they are just feeding into the very old narrative that holds women to be incapable of fairness or of considered judgment, and they are giving the opponents of women yet another reason to deny them positions of decision-making in the world.

Several prominent signatories recently removed their names from the petition because they didn't want to appear like they are on the wrong side of the #MeToo movement. Author Carmen Aguirre, a spokesperson for the petition's signatories, told The Globe and Mail that "for those of us who have chosen to keep our names on, I get the sense that we feel stronger than ever about the content of the letter, which for us was always about due process and never about questioning the claims."

It's deeply unfortunate that due process has become synonymous with rape denial in the minds of some feminists. As Atwood made abundantly clear in her op-ed, due process is vital specifically because women deserve the same rights and status as men:

I believe that in order to have civil and human rights for women there have to be civil and human rights, period, including the right to fundamental justice, just as for women to have the vote, there has to be a vote. Do Good Feminists believe that only women should have such rights? Surely not. That would be to flip the coin on the old state of affairs in which only men had such rights.

Atwood also noted that the #MeToo movement, in bringing attention to the unfair treatment of women in the workplace and the inadequacies of the legal system, has done a great deal of good. But the overall goal must be to reform the legal system—not circumvent it in cases where the victim is a woman.

"In times of extremes, extremists win," wrote Atwood. "Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn't puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated."

Indeed, the supposedly "good" feminists in opposition to Atwood should keep in mind that automatic, unfailing, unquestioning belief is a hallmark of religious extremism—of precisely the kind of society Atwood was warning us against in The Handmaid's Tale.

(Related: "The Detroit Free Press Eats Its Own in the #MeToo Feeding Frenzy.")