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The Blazing Purple F on My Back: Thoughts on Feminism, The Handmaid's Tale, and the Barrett Confirmation

I wrote this post based on the novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel, not the TV show. I haven’t watched the TV show. I probably never will watch the TV show. Nor have I read the sequel Atwood published last year, The Testaments, because I’m fairly annoyed she even wrote it. Does that make me a handmaid’s-tale originalist?

In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the most important characters is an Aunt Lydia. In the society of Gilead, there are strict social assignments for women; the Aunts are women who instruct the Handmaids (whose sole function is to try to conceive and carry a baby to full term, preferably one who is not a “shredder.”) Women have almost no power in Gilead, except for the Aunts. In fact, the social structure wouldn’t work without the Aunts, because they are the people who indoctrinate the Handmaids. The Aunts support the patriarchal structure by subduing women’s ability to think and act for themselves. By fulfilling this role, they gain the tiny amount of power the society allots them. They can move about the world with more freedom; they can “work,” and they are not beholden to a Commander as the Handmaids and the Marthas are.

Handmaids tale folio
(Illustration from the Folio edition)

My thoughts were crowded yesterday with this story and these characters, as the reality of the Barrett confirmation sunk into my psyche. (I knew about it the night before, of course, but I blocked it out. Then I went to sleep and my psyche let it in.) But I also thought about America itself, and what I was taught about America. I thought of the lessons I had in my fifth grade class, which is my first memory of learning about politics; Mr. Strong taught us that one of the defining characteristics of America’s society is that the Supreme Court is impartial, neither conservative nor liberal. I remembered saying the Pledge of Allegiance on the first day of third grade, when I thought I might love school again after hating second grade, and the day in eighth grade when I said it in Spanish. (I can still say it in Spanish.)  I thought about other history and politics classes I took, in junior high and high school and college. The series of checks and balances that were designed to keep justice impartial. The scarf across Justice’s eyes, meaning she was blind to left or right. The ideals a president should represent, whether he (it was always a he) was a Democrat or a Republican: intelligence, fairness, broadmindedness. The concept that politicians were, in effect, in their position to serve the American people.  The lofty goals of the founding fathers, based on the lofty morals of the Greeks who invented Democracy.

I believed in that America. I thought that America was real. Of course, as I grew older and I learned more about humanity, I also learned the reality of people. How often we are motivated by selfishness and greed. How power corrupts. How racism affects so many people. How women's voices are silenced. How presidents have simply been men, with both good and bad traits who either rose to the challenges of their times or didn’t. How history is almost always only one side of the story, usually the victor’s. How much is erased, how much is filtered through the storyteller’s perspective. But I still believed in that America. Or at least, in the possibility of it. Imperfect, but we all had that beautiful, ambitious goal of creating a society where everyone is free.

And I thought about the Aunts. 

I first read The Handmaid's Tale during the summer after I graduated from high school. This comment from Aunt Lydia stuck out to me. It stayed with me even after I finished the book; when I reread it a few years later, I read waiting to meet it again, because it troubled me. I didn't quite understand it:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

Freedom from: the threat of rape. The threat of other violence. The necessity of getting out of bed in the morning to go to work. The real pain of dropping your baby off at daycare. The worry of finances. The heartache of a bad marriage. The emotional drain of always feeling less than because you are a woman. Freedom from those things can only be gained, Aunt Lydia is saying, if you give up your freedom to: to make your own choices, to control your own body. Isn't it worth it?

Whether or not it's worth the exchange is not in the thought process of the Aunts. Of course it is worth it, because the freedom to brings risk, while the freedom from brings safety. That that safety is suffocating doesn't matter. The lack of risk matters, and if the Handmaids understood their value (as breeders, of course, not as human beings), they wouldn't feel suffocated. It is the Aunts' duty to ensure this way of thinking, to protect the women from their own weaknesses. They feel righteous in their position, these Aunts, because they are a hinge. They "protect" women from themselves while simultaneously ensuring men's power (and thus their own illusion of power).

Those Greek ideals of the founding fathers? They are still levers pulled mostly by men, and the Aunts are behind them, supporting their elbows.

When the Kavanaugh confirmation happened, part of me was destroyed. It changed my relationship with male figures of power forever. It altered my relationship with my faith in ways I doubt will ever be repaired. But part of me knew: it is men being men. Bros are going to support their bros. It’s what they do. Men are always going to support men, even the worst of men, because in doing so they reinforce their own power structure.

But this Barrett confirmation?

This is a whole other level of betrayal.

Barrett is an Aunt. Rather than rebelling against the dominant male power structure, she believes it. She uses the male system to gain power, and the power she wields she will use to harm women.

Yesterday, I sat in my kitchen. I needed to get things done at home before I left for work—clean the kitchen, swap out the laundry, get some packages ready to mail. If nothing else, I needed to put clothes on and brush my hair. But for a little while, I couldn’t. For a little while, all I could do was sit on the stool in my kitchen, weeping. Because all of those ideals, all of those lessons about the constructs of American society that keep us from slipping back into the dark ages: they are broken. Or maybe they were only ever lights and mirrors, only the appearance of a democracy.

What do I believe in now? Now that I have lost my religious faith and my national pride?

Men using power to hurt women is one thing. It is what they have tried to do for most of human history.

Women using power to hurt women?

Well, that has been done throughout history, too. There have always been Aunts. Think, for example, of the Salem Witch Trials. There would have been far less damage done to women if there hadn’t been so many Puritan Aunts, busy turning other women in as witches because that was the access to power that men allowed them. Or what the nuns did to orphans during the 1950s in Quebec. Or your local high school Queen Bee. I have known them at church, in jobs, at school. Especially in the Mormon church, where so many women refuse to even acknowledge the way the power structures of the church suppress them.

Maybe this part of me is breaking, too. Maybe feminism is the next thing that will break.

I’m not sure I could count how many times I have had a discussion with so many different men, churchgoers and neighbors and friends and random library patrons and even family members. Those men who think that the problem with feminism is that it seeks to elevate women over men at all costs. That, to me, has always been a basic misunderstanding—a blatant one, in fact, for if you try to learn about feminism, you will start to understand that it is not about elevating women above men. It is about equality. About anyone, whatever their gender (or orientation, or race) being able to be the person they are, not the person society says they must be.

No one gets to say that anymore.

Because no feminist worth the purple F scrawled on her back would be OK with this confirmation. Not just because most Americans wanted whoever wins next week’s election to nominate the next Supreme Court judge. Not just because RBG’s dying hope was that she wouldn’t be replaced by a trump nominee. Not because the Republicans said we could hold them to their word if this happened in 2020. Not because Supreme Court justices should be impartial, not lackeys for the current president. Not because having the confirmation at the White House blatantly disregards even the smoke-and-mirrors approach of objectivity.

But because Barrett is an Aunt. Her motivation isn’t equality for all. It isn’t liberty or justice for all, not in English or Spanish or Swahili. It isn’t even to make things more equal for her own gender. Her motivation is suppression and power. It is the imperative of all Aunts throughout history: The correct way to live in this world is the way that men decide, and the Aunts exist to make sure that male vision becomes reality. The rest of us—Handmaids or Marthas—can submit willingly or be forced, but the Aunts will see it done.

The Aunts are traitors to their gender.

In a few days, I will be able to remember that the Handmaids are the rebels. But yesterday. But today. Right now I am still consumed with rage, frustration, sorrow, grief. 

A today will come, though, when I can turn those emotions into change.

We cannot let the Aunts win.

Scrapbooking is a Way I Tell the World I Loved It

I had the opportunity to record an episode of The Scrap Gals podcast. (It will be downloadable next week!) The topic: Your favorite scrapbook layout you’ve ever made.

When Tracie told me the topic, two layouts immediately sprang to my mind. But then I thought…well, I’ve made a lot of layouts. What if I’ve forgotten some? So I pulled out an album, thinking I’d thumb through and see.

A pleasant hour or so later, with my crafty space even messier than it was before (I am in the middle of a quilting storm!), I had found a few other “favorite layout ever”s, but I kept going back to the same two I originally thought of, so these are the layouts I talked about in the podcast.

Here is the first one, and it was, literally, the first layout that came to my mind in connection with the word “favorite.”

2000 10 xx Nathan Cascade Springs

Why is it a favorite? Partly for that photo. (The enlarged one on the left side. Remember when you had to take your negative back to the photo developing place, after having figured out with your lightbox exactly which frame you wanted to enlarge, and then wait for even longer to get the big print back?) That is Nathan at 11 months. That autumn day we went to Cascade Springs, which is a spot in the mountains here with gentle paths and wooden bridges over the springs. The other pictures are cute, but that one of Nathan? One of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. (It makes me more determined to figure out a digital camera option, because if I had taken this with a cell phone yesterday, it would not be this lovely.)

So…that photo.

But I also love what I did on the layout. The colors in the patterned paper (I wrote on the back that it was made by “OAR” but damned if I can remember now what company that was) are perfect, and that gold crinkly paper behind the big photo, and how well it goes with the quote. (I realized looking at this that there’s a typo…can you spot it?) Like the gold paper is the shook foil.

What’s funny to me about this layout being a favorite, though, is that there is almost NO journaling. At least, on the front. On the back, I wrote about Kendell being grumpy that day, and kind of ruining the experience for me a little bit, and how we forgot Nathan’s shoes (probably what made Kendell grumpy). As I talked about it on the podcast, I realized that these photos are from a transitional time in our lives, when Kendell was out of work and we didn’t know what would happen, and this little moment was (mostly) a reprieve from that fear, when we were just this family of three in the woods. I wrote that all on the back because I didn’t really feel then, like I do now, that it is OK to have the more difficult details included with the good ones.

The second layout that came to mind was this one, which I made in 2016:

1972 12 25 Amy Christmas photo at Grandma Elsie's house

When I first saw that photo, which is from my first Christmas in 1972, I started to cry. Everyone in it is so young and hopeful, and I was just little and innocent and not yet damaged at all. This layout is probably not the best when you look at it from a design perspective…it is a lot of journaling to balance with the 6x6 photo (which is also not the best if you are looking at it from a composition perspective) and the title. But I love the patterned paper, the gold script “love,” and the fact that I used Basic Grey stickers for part of the title.

Really, though, this is another very-most-favorite layout because of the journaling. In it, I wrote about how the photograph forms a connection between me and my grandma Elsie, who I wasn’t very close with. And how that connection is also why I take photographs as much as I do, and why I make scrapbook layouts, so that I am also connected to the future.

I’m sharing a few other layouts that I didn’t talk about in the podcast, layouts that, when I saw them as I flipped through my albums, made me pause because they feel authentic to me. Like I made them not only as a reason to use pretty paper and cute embellishments, but as a method of drawing more of those connections between past, present, and future. 2006 05 20 kaleb six impossible things

Sometimes I look around my crafty space and just have to laugh. It’s amazing: I have an entire room stuffed to the brim with the supplies of my chosen crafts. I think when I first started scrapbooking, I did it partly out of…the concept of being virtuous, I guess, in relationship to my photos. Not just leaving them in an album no one looked at or on a computer file where they don’t even really exist. Writing down stories so my kids would have them accessible and know things about themselves they might not otherwise seemed like a…almost like a noble thing to do. Or maybe I just told myself that to justify the time and expense.

2001 06 xx Jake Still Waters

But as I have continued making layouts (I have been scrapbooking since 1995, when Haley was born), I have discovered something deeper.

If I am honest, I don’t even really know how to exist without scrapbooking. Even when I haven’t been actively scrapbooking for months at a time, I still think like a scrapbooker. I still write down stories and take lots of pictures and buy supplies. Not every layout I have ever made has been authentic in the ways that these layouts feel. Some have just been cute layouts or fun supplies. But even on those layouts—like the first one, with the 8x10 of Nathan sitting in the autumn leaves—they aren’t only frivolous. They say something about my personality, the things I find important, the way I choose to live my life.

2012 08 05 Haley Still Here

Thinking about what my favorite layout might be pushed me to think about the deeper reasons behind my scrapbooking. It is OK that it is sometimes only about the craft of it, the color & patterns & puffy stickers. Because that is a part of me. And trying to get more than one layer into the same space—a story and a photo—is also a part of me.


2001 12 xx Jake tender is the real tough

Once I am gone, I don’t imagine that the kids will keep all the layouts I ever made. I mean…I hope they do, but if they don’t I won’t haunt them from my grave or anything. I understand that what is important to me isn’t necessarily important to them.


2005 02 11 Nathan Kaycis Wedding how lucky I am to have you

But I do hope that some of them will speak to each one. That they will discover things they didn’t know about their own lives and about their mom. That the layouts will help them see me as a whole person, someone who happened to also be their mother. That the layouts will be proof that they are loved.

2012 09 03 Kaleb fall love you as much as


Does it mean that the reason I scrapbook is to leave a tangible record of my love for my kids, my husband, and my life?

2010 09 03 Kaleb be still my heart bicuspid valve

I suppose it might. I really like that thought, in fact. I mean, I do hope my relationships themselves show them that I love them. But a second form of proof isn’t a bad thing.

Scrapbooking is a way to tell the world you loved the world. It is my way (it doesn’t have to be yours), and, when push comes to shove, I will likely never stop doing it completely.

2001 03 21 letter to Haley