Margaret Atwood delivers a key note talk at The 8th Annual YWL Charity Gala in support of #AfterMeToo Organization
Young Women in Law (YWL) is a Not for Profit Organization for women lawyers in their early stages of practice. YWL acts as a central forum for women to connect, enhance their skills, and give back to their community. They held their 8th Annual Young Women in Law Charity Gala at 1871 Berkeley Church
“Each of you has worked very hard to get where you are and you have so much power to change conditions in your workplace,” said Mia Krishner, an actress and co-founder of the #AfterMeToo movement, as she addressed a crowd of 500 young women lawyers. “I don’t think there’s parity in your field right now. There’s certainly not parity in my field, the entertainment industry. I implore you to use your power. Organize yourselves — and don’t back down.”
The crowd cheered.
But the person they were really waiting for was Margaret Atwood, the keynote speaker of the Young Women in Law’s annual charity gala, which raised $45,000 for the #AfterMeToo organization. “We’ve been talking a lot as a board of directors about how we wanted to be involved and show our support for the #MeToo movement,” said Jessie Lamont, the events officer with YWL, in an interview. “So this is really a perfect partnership for us.” https://goo.gl/G8tK5A
What follows are excerpts from the talk Margaret Atwood delivers at the event.
“I applaud your initiative to make funds available to suitable charities and the charity I’ve chosen is very suitable for our times. It’s After Me Too and it’s dedicated to creating both a safe reporting space and a fair process involving independent professional investigators for accusations of sexual assault. Originally those arising in the entertainment industry but now expanding to workplaces in general and also to education. I am sure that you will support this much needed and thoughtful initiative. The second book I’ll talk about tonight is the Handmaid’s Tale. Sarah Polley and I were being interviewed and someone said to us, “So what do these two shows (Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale) have in common?” and Sarah quite soberly said, “One of them is about the way things used to be for women of a certain social status and the other one is about how we hope they will not be for women.” But I said, “What they have in common is bonnets!”
Recently I have been thinking a lot about the laws of Gilead, the fictional country that has replaced most of the United States in the Handmaid’s Tale. The real revenge of the Handmaids seems to be taking place in various state legislatures and in several different countries including Croatia and so far their revenge has consisted of simply showing up in costume to protest silently. As my rule in writing the book and also in writing the TV series was that nothing goes into the Handmaid’s Tale that did not have a precedent in real life. I’ve been looking back in history at some of the odder laws having to do with women. For instance, in the code of Hammurabi. In Babylonia 1792- 1750 BC only aristocratic women and respectfully married free women were allowed to wear veils. Slaves and prostitutes could not. The penalty for a slave woman wearing a veil thus pretending to be someone of a higher social realm was death.
Many of the Gilead laws have to do with who can have babies and under what circumstances. There are lots of precedents in history for that. Two other obvious features of Gilead’s legal system are the laws about clothing -who can wear what and the prohibition against reading for women. Laws about clothing are very old, as we have seen from Babylonian veils. In Gilead, the different classes of women wear different colours so you can immediately tell by looking at someone who they are within the society. Handmaids wear red for a couple of different reasons. It’s harder to run away in red because like German prisoners of war in Nova Scotia, red shows up very well against the snow. And in Christian iconography, blue is the Virgin Mary colour but red is a Mary Magdalene colour. It may interest you to know that the designer of Handmaid’s, Anne Crabtree, examined 50 different shades of red before choosing the exact one. It could be a new book title! 50 Shades of Red! The shape of the outfits including the hats comes from nuns with the hats performing the same function – you cannot be seen by insolent eyes but also like a blinkered horse your vision is restricted. I must admit also to some inspiration from the Old Dutch clearstories of the 1940’s.
The prohibition against women reading in Gilead came from several sources. The most obvious one is American slavery in the pre civil war period when it was illegal for slaves to read. But there are many other examples in history of who could legally read what. Translating the bible into the vernacular could mean the death sentence in England at one time. The common people ought not be allowed to read such incendiary text filled with sex and violence. There is a reason why it has been so popular. The argument about whether women should be allowed higher education raged for many years. Wouldn’t such demanding intellectual work cause their brains to swell up and their sexual organs to shrivel? And now look what’s happened.
The 18th and 19th century argument about the reading of novels – so bad for you especially if you were female and therefore weak in the head to begin with. Gilead has a total prohibition on reading by most women. Even the family bible is locked up lest prying female eyes get into it. One detail in the TV series you may not have picked up on is that all the pictures on the wall in the Commander’s house are from the Boston Museum of Fine Art. In other words, the museum got looted and the artist’s names on them are the only bits of writing that are in public view. One of us said this when I learned this, “Impressive. Did the museum lend them?” “Oh no” was the answer, “a nice man in china painted them for us for twenty bucks apiece.” The legal system in the Handmaid’s Tale is not one you would wish to have. Gilead is totalitarianism. It’s not enough to say that a good country should have the rule of law. The Nuremburg laws of Hitler were laws. But the extreme alternative is lawlessness, which leads to warlords and then to some more unjust laws. The antidote to the totalitarian legal system on one hand and no legal system on the other hand is a good legal system, which would contain fair laws and fair and reasonable rules of evidence.
What is seen as fair will of course vary over time but any law that comes to be seen by the general public as grossly unfair will pass out of use over time naturally thus cutting down a tree on a homeowner’s land or poaching a rabbit is no longer a hanging offence in England. Another example -the laws of evidence in the Salem witch trials were such that anyone accused was bound to be condemned because there was no way you could prove your innocence. The laws of evidence included spectral evidence. If you were fast asleep in your bed with witnesses but someone saw you messing with their cow a couple of miles away that proved that you could throw your specter and were therefore a witch and there was nothing you could say to the contrary. The rules of evidence also included touching. If one of the accusers touched you and then went into a fit that too proved you were a witch. It was a rigged system and people continued to be accused and hanged until the trial judges decided to no longer admit that kind of evidence.
There are many examples of rigged systems in our present era or in the immediate past. A fair legal system must have an independent judiciary not under the thumb of the executive branch of government that is not like Stalin’s and Hitler’s. And we are about to see that tested out I suspect in the country to the south of us. So far they’re not doing too badly but the accused must have the right to a defense. This goes back to the code of Hammurabi. You shouldn’t be able to go around saying verdict first, trial afterwards and off with his head like the Queen of Hearts in Alice In Wonderland and also like Stalin though some people desire this power and consider themselves entitled to it. Even in our country, lawyers who defend unpopular clients are often reviled. This is because many people seem to have forgotten about the basic right to a defense. The law must be competently interpreted and administered.
We seem to be having some trouble with this in our country as all countries have had from time to time. What’s the answer? Better training for those doing the administering and enough money for them to do it. And occasionally, an earlier retirement! Corruption, bribery, undo influence and bias and the threatening or murdering of legal officials should be avoided and the outcome of a legal case should not be determined by how much money you can throw at it. Sorry to tell you this. The other form of justice common among us is the lawyering of weaker and poorer opponents into bankruptcy. Drive it up and they will give up. You hear of such things all too often. And of slap suits and nuisance suits. These do not increase respect for the legal system. Any legal system should be treated as a work in progress. Otherwise the law becomes ossified. There, I just said a bunch of things that in Gilead would have gotten me tasered by Aunt Lydia or worse. But of course in Gilead, I wouldn’t be here saying these things to you and you wouldn’t be here listening to them. It would not be allowed. So I will now conclude with the four words with which the novel concludes, “Are there any questions?”