Earlier this week, 18 women dressed up in red cloaks and white bonnets, stood in pairs in the rotunda of the Texas state capitol, and began chanting, “Shame!” in unison. They didn’t stop shouting for eight minutes.
They call themselves the Texas handmaids. You probably first saw them back in March, when images of their original protest in Austin went viral. That’s when they sat silently in the Texas senate gallery, watching as lawmakers debated bills that would make it harder for women to get an abortion.
What you may not know is that their demonstrations, inspired by Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and Hulu’s vivid TV adaptation, are slowly spreading across the country.
Women are holding sewing parties to turn yards of blood-red fabric into capes. They’re swapping ideas on private Facebook pages about how to stage protests. They’re even planning a coordinated demonstration where dozens of handmaids simultaneously show up at state capitols or in other public places in cities across the country.
If the visually striking meme takes off, it could become one of the most effective acts of protest from the resistance. The sight of even a dozen women wearing the handmaid costume, while staying silent and keeping their heads down, offers a stark contrast to a group of mostly white men deliberating over what happens to their bodies. The imagery is practically made for the digital era.
The point, activists say, is to send a powerful message: We’re closer to a government that strips women of their bodily autonomy than you might think.
“The easiest way we try to explain it is that the handmaids represent a future where women are nothing more than their reproductive capacity,” says Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. “Unfortunately, with the laws that are being passed, that future is not so unrealistic and not so distant.”
We’re closer to a government that strips women of their bodily autonomy than you might think.
The idea to enlist Texas women as handmaids started with Busby a few months ago. She happened to see women dressed as the title character from The Handmaid’s Tale at South by Southwest. That was a marketing stunt by Hulu, the streaming entertainment provider that brought Atwood’s novel to the small screen.
But Busby then joked on Facebook about how someone should send the handmaids down to the capitol, where lawmakers had been busy introducing bills that would curtail abortion rights. Soon NARAL Pro-Choice Texas ordered white bonnets from Amazon Prime and a volunteer rented red capes. A small group of volunteers quickly drew up a plan. They liked the element of surprise in showing up at the capitol in costume and wanted to let legislators know that women were watching.
After that yielded local and national press coverage of the legislative agenda in Texas, activists around the country started reaching out to Busby for tips on how to start their own handmaids brigade.
You could argue that all of this is moot, that the United States is nowhere close to becoming the Republic of Gilead, The Handmaid’s Tale‘s totalitarian, theocratic state that freezes women’s bank accounts, forbids them to work, sends them to re-education camps, and forces many of them to bear children for leaders and their wives.
The New York Times‘ conservative columnist Ross Douthat argued this week that liberals are seeing the wrong parallels. On the same day, Times op-ed contributor Mona Eltahawy wrote that the Republic of Gilead already exists in Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive and may be imprisoned for disobedience. For her part, Atwood has said that nothing in her novel hasn’t already happened before in history.
“I still have a credit card, I still have a nice car, but I can feel the future here.”
For the volunteers who are deep into the work of creating and wearing the costumes in public, it’s not about whether they still have credit cards or the right to get a job. What they see is the federal and state governments largely in the hands of conservative, even authoritarian, men who’ve vowed to defund Planned Parenthood and roll back reproductive health rights like abortion and access to affordable birth control. At the same time, those men plan to funnel money to abstinence-only education and vouchers for “school choice,” which includes religious schools.
The fact that they’re led by Donald Trump terrifies these women.
“We have somebody in the White House who thinks it’s OK to grab women and do whatever he wants, and I’m supposed to sit back and be cool with that?” says Emily Morgan, executive director of Action Together New Hampshire, an activist group that emerged in the wake of Trump’s election.
Earlier this month, Morgan contacted Busby for details on how to create handmaid costumes. But instead of bringing women into the New Hampshire legislative gallery during a debate or hearing, Morgan and her co-organizers asked them to appear at a press conference calling for the resignation of Rep. Robert Fisher, a Republican who The Daily Beast identified in April as the creator and former moderator of Reddit’s popular men’s rights “Red Pill” forum. The message board bills itself as a “discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men,” and Fisher regularly questioned whether rape is real, according to The Daily Beast. (Fisher resigned later in the day following the press conference.)
“Fisher and the Red Pill embody exactly what The Handmaid’s Tale is a foreshadowing of or is a warning against,” Morgan says. “Saying that we’re not there it’s sort of degrading to what’s actually happening to women.”
In the days before the press conference, volunteers made six costumes, but some of the women bowed out after learning the media would be in attendance. Morgan says they feared in-person and online harassment. Nevertheless, she thinks more women will step forward to participate in upcoming demonstrations, particularly since volunteers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire are sewing new cloaks so that activists in New England quickly have access to them for future protests.
The time-intensive, costly aspect of buying the bonnets and making the cloaks is one challenge to growing the handmaid ranks. There’s also the danger that different groups will splinter in an effort to launch the first nationwide demonstration. Morgan is moderating a private Facebook page to coordinate a national action. A similar page started by one of the Texas handmaids has close to 300 members.
The handmaids’ signature costumes are also a relatively obscure reference compared to pussyhats, the knit pink caps that have become a symbol of the resistance. But they’re also memorable even if you don’t know the origin.
Ane Crabtree, the costume designer for the Hulu series, says the outfit’s visual power is rooted in both the bright red color, which can signify blood, birth, and passion, and how the cloak conceals women who wear it. The combination tells the viewer what she needs to know about how the body underneath the costume is oppressed.
“It’s an easy form of expression to say that everything’s been taken away and is being taken away, and its a real thing,” says Crabtree, who is encouraged and inspired by people making their own version of the costume.
Deborah Marsh, a 65-year-old retiree who is one of the Texas handmaids, says people who get the reference often approach her on the street or in the capitol’s rotunda to thank her profusely for the act of defiance. Some, however, have seen the symbolism and don’t like it. Marsh says a few people on the street have had “outbursts” or called the women “pathetic.”
Joe Pojman, executive director of the anti-abortion rights nonprofit group Texas Alliance for Life, seemed to criticize the handmaids a few times, focusing on the fact that they’ve used smartphones while silently protesting in the gallery, a silly point that Marsh feels makes their case about men who are obsessed with policing women’s behavior.
What Marsh didn’t expect was how confident she would feel while wearing the costume. “It’s such a bold costume, it’s making such a bold statement,” she says. “And my body is inside that costume, so why wouldnt I feel bold? Why wouldn’t I feel empowered?”
Among reproductive rights activists like Marsh, the Texas legislature is infamous for its anti-abortion legislation. In 2013, the state passed a law that effectively led to the closure of dozens of abortion clinics, which the Supreme Court found unconstitutional last year. The Republican-led legislature recently voted to ban the safest type of second-trimester abortion and require hospitals and abortion clinics to bury fetal remains, including those from miscarriages that happen at home. Texas has already moved to keep Planned Parenthood from state and federal funding.
In other words, as Texas limits access to both abortion and reproductive health care like birth control, it’s easy to imagine a future in which women have little practical control over how and when they have children. That vision shouldn’t be limited to Texas either; other Republican-dominated states are pursuing a similar agenda with regard to limiting access to reproductive health care, as is the Trump administration.
“I still have a credit card, I still have a nice car, but I can feel the future here,” Marsh says. “If [people] aren’t affected by it today, they are going to be affected by it in four yours. Texas is a little bit ahead of the game.”
“Am I going to change someones mind who is pro-life? I dont expect that. Im aiming higher. I want to change the culture.”
Stephanie Martin, a mom from Round Rock, in central Texas, who recently dressed up as a handmaid for the first time, says she’s realistic about who the message is going to reach.
“Am I going to change someone’s mind who is pro-life?” she asks. “I don’t expect that. I’m aiming higher. I want to change the culture.”
It’s still early to gauge exactly how that culture will respond beyond the videos and photos that have gone viral. But the parallel between the male aggression and control that characterizes Gilead feels particularly fresh in a week where a Republican congressional candidate body slammed a reporter for asking a question he didn’t like, and the president appeared to shove aside a European leader to get a better position in a photo-op.
Let’s not forget the complicity of Ivanka Trump, who promotes herself as a champion of gender equality but says nothing critical about healthcare and budget proposals that are arguably hostile to women. Nor can we ignore the benign-looking malevolence of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who couldn’t come up with a single instance of discrimination at publicly funded schools that would give her pause when asked about it at a congressional hearing. In Gilead, after all, the women who are not outrightly oppressed get the privilege of wielding what small power they have against the vulnerable and marginalized.
Morgan admits that some people won’t make connections between what’s happening today and Atwood’s fiction. Yet she urges skeptics to focus less on a dramatic, sweeping end to women’s rights. What’s more important, at this point, is the underlying implication of attitudes and laws that see no harm in making it more difficult or even impossible for women to determine their own fate.
“These are steps on the same path,” she says of the parallels between Gilead and Trump’s America. “You have to start somewhere.”