Handmaids are a class of women in the Republic of Gilead. They are perhaps the most important - but also the most oppressed - class of women in Gilead, as they are tasked with breeding and thus supplying Gilead with more children. All fertile women are forced to become Handmaids - otherwise, they will be sent to the Colonies, where they will almost certainly die. They are assigned to the homes of Commanders and sometimes Angels, where their task is get pregnant by the men, so as to provide them and their Wives (if she is incapable of conceiving) with a child. The novel's main protagonist, Offred, is a Handmaid, as are a few of the secondary characters.
Handmaids have to wear red - the colour of blood; therefore, life. They wear full-skirted, ankle length red dresses, that cover their figures. The dresses are full sleeved, and they wear flat-heeled, red shoes "to save the spine". When they go outside, the Handmaid's must wear red gloves, and they can wear red shawls or cloaks if it is cold or raining outside. Even their umbrellas are red. The only item of clothing they wear that is not red are a pair of white colored "wings", which they wear on their heads to frame and hide their faces. The "white wings" give the Handmaids next to no peripheral vision; they can only see what is directly in front of them. The idea is to "prevent us seeing, but also from being seen".
The concept of Handmaids comes from the Biblical story of Rachel and her husband Jacob, in Genesis. Rachel was unable to conceive children, so she suggested that Jacob impregnate Rachel's maid Bilhah and thus get children that way.
Role in SocietyEdit
In Gilead, Handmaids are fertile women, who are supposed to be impregnated by Commanders or Angels whose Wives are infertile, thus providing them with children. Only high ranking men - such as Commanders - are allowed to have a Handmaid assigned to them. Handmaids are 'trained' in their role in the Rachel and Leah, or 'Red' Center, before being sent out on their first assignment. Handmaids are not supposed to have identities; they are forbidden to use their real names and are given new names whenever they are assigned to a new Commander. Their name consists of the word 'of', coupled with the first name of their Commander; for example 'of-Fred' = Offred or 'of-Glen' = Ofglen. Handmaids have three chances to get pregnant in three different households during two year assignments. If, after the third time, they are not able to produce a living, healthy baby, they will be declared Unwomen and sent off to the Colonies. Handmaids that become infertile or reach a certain age without having ever conceived are also sent to the Colonies; as are women who refuse to become Handmaids.
Handmaids usually live with the couple they are assigned to, in a spare room, though they occasionally go to sleep at the Red Center, where they live when they have not been assigned to anyone. They are sometimes required to help around the house, taking part in prayer time, shopping and helping to cook, but the rest of the time, they mostly stick to their rooms, having little else to do. They are required to take a walk once a day, to keep their abdominal muscles functioning. Handmaids are not allowed to be alone except when they bathe, use the bathroom, or sleep. When they go out in public, they are always accompanied by another Handmaid, and occasionally a Guardian, to protect pregnant Handmaids.
If a Handmaid conceives, then she is venerated (and envied) by many other women. She no longer has to take the walk or do chores; it is in fact considered risky for pregnant Handmaids to be out in public, in case something happens to the baby, or she is attacked by jealous women. Once a Handmaid gives birth, provided the baby is healthy, then it will immediately be given to the Wife of the Commander they are assigned to, who receives all the credit for the Handmaid's hard work. The Handmaid is generally ignored or overlooked, although she may be comforted or congratulated by her fellow Handmaids. Handmaids are allowed to stay with their babies for a few weeks, breastfeeding them, but after they are weaned, the Handmaids are forced to leave the household and are assigned to a new Commander. The babies they give birth to are not regarded as 'theirs' but rather their Commander's and his Wife's. It is likely that they never see their children again. The only comfort is that Handmaids who have successfully given birth to healthy children will never be declared Unwomen nor sent to the Colonies (unless, of course, they break the laws of Gilead).