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Margaret Atwood: Argentina’s Dictatorship Was Source for ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

By | [email protected] | January 22, 2018 1:20pm


Yesterday, dystopian author Margaret Atwood tweeted that crimes committed during Argentina’s last dictatorship were a source of inspiration for her harrowing book, The Handmaid’s Tale, the 1985 novel that inspired an award-winning TV show released for streaming on Hulu last year.


To readers who know both stories, the comparison makes a lot of sense. The stories are strikingly similar: babies are stolen from women and given to the families of military generals. The contexts are different (Atwood’s story is fictional) but the outcomes are eerily similar, and yesterday’s tweet by Atwood draws attention to a dark story from Argentina’s recent history.

The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a world in the future with a catastrophic fertility criss, where the few women still able to carry children are called “handmaids,” based on a fictional fundamentalist interpretation of an Old Testament story. The women serve as slaves to military generals, bearing children in the place of their barren wives. Several American writers compared the TV show to the 2017 US under the Trump administration, and women even protested with Planned Parenthood in Washington, DC, in June, wearing the red handmaids’ robes from the show.

Women protest Planned Parenthood budget cuts in Washington DC, June 27, 2016. (Photo: Mollie Leavitt)

Women protest Planned Parenthood budget cuts in Washington DC, June 27, 2016. (Photo: Mollie Leavitt)


The practice is popular in the US, as many women wore the robes to Saturday’s women’s marches.


While Americans fear the Handmaid’s Tale is their future, the story recalls a dark past for Argentina. During the Dirty War in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, as many as 30,000 political dissidents were “disappeared” by the government, abducted in the middle of the streets or in their homes. The majority were tortured and killed in secret government prisons. About 30 percent of those were women, and they suffered a particularly brutal imprisonment, and were often raped by prison guards and torturers.

According to statistics, three percent of the abducted women were either kidnapped with their children, pregnant while they were kidnapped, or became pregnant from rape in prison. Human rights groups say that up to 500 newborns and young children were stolen from their imprisoned mothers and given to childless police and military couples. Sound familiar (and terrifying)? The women were then “transferred” –– the word the Argentine military government used for execution.

The rest is history, as the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo organized in front of the Casa Rosada for the return of their stolen grandchildren. 126 children (now adults) have been returned, and many abuelas keep searching. [Movie recommendation: La Historia Official]




Yesterday, Atwood brought Argentina’s story back in the news, after being embroiled in public criticism by the ongoing #MeToo movement.

Atwood wrote an op-ed in the Canadian Globe and Mail two weeks ago called, “Am I a bad feminist?” in which she advocated for the rights of those accused of sexual assault. She even mentions the Argentina Generals in her article:

“This structure – guilty because accused – has applied in many more episodes in human history than Salem. It tends to kick in during the “Terror and Virtue” phase of revolutions – something has gone wrong, and there must be a purge, as in the French Revolution, Stalin’s purges in the USSR, the Red Guard period in China, the reign of the Generals in Argentina and the early days of the Iranian Revolution.”

After the article came out, there was swift backlash, as several activists accused Atwood of betraying survivors of sexual assault and harassment in favor of her “powerful male friend.”

Update: After seeing this story, Margaret Atwood clarified that she did not know the accused man in the University of British Columbia case (whom her Globe and Mail op-ed was about).


The controversy became international, and Spanish journalist Elvira Lindo penned an op-ed defending Atwood in El País, which Atwood tweeted.


Loli Molina Muñoz, a Spanish writer living in the US, replied to the tweet, telling Atwood she too agreed with the op-ed. Atwood then quote-tweeted that reply, in which she told all of Twitter that the Argentine generals served as inspiration for her famous novel (top).


Atwood was in Buenos Aires just last month for a book talk at the National Library.