Two by two, they ascend capitol steps to overlook Senate galleries in eerie silence. In their contrasting blood-red cloaks and stark white bonnets, the women look like they might have stepped out of history.
Borrowing from the imagery of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a Hulu TV series that started in April, activists dressed as handmaids are providing perverse optics at demonstrations for women’s rights at state houses across the country. Quiet and demure, they mimic the women forced to bear children for a childless elite in a theocratic dystopia envisioned by Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book, which returned to the bestseller list after the bruising gender wars of the 2016 election.
“That’s why it’s such a perfect visual for this — because you see these women who are completely hidden,” said coordinator Emily Morgan, a 33-year-old mother who lives in Milford, N.H. “That is how they would have us, if they could, really and truly.”
A trio of handmaids, heads bowed, provided a backdrop for Morgan and other demonstrators this month at the New Hampshire State House, where they called for the resignation of a legislator they accused of condoning rape culture.
Representative Robert Fisher, who ultimately did step down, had been unmasked by The Daily Beast as the creator and continuing contributor to The Red Pill, a men’s rights forum where he dwelled on the idea of false rape accusations, mocked women’s intelligence, and advised men to record their sexual encounters on video for evidence of consent.
“That struck a chord for me,” Morgan said. “Again, it was another man who was being vile and vulgar and really derogatory and enticing and encouraging other men to do these sorts of things — and he was about to get away with it.”
When a friend suggested dressing as handmaids to make their point, Morgan began looking for ideas and found that women were already doing it, in other locations.
It started in Austin, Texas, in March, when women costumed as handmaids gathered ominously near the South by Southwest festival, as a publicity stunt for the upcoming series launch.
“Please tell me they’re going to walk around inside the Capitol,” Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, joked on her Facebook page, where she posted a photo of the handmaids Hulu recruited for its guerrilla marketing effort. “It would be such a missed opportunity if they don’t. Related: Who wants to make a bunch of handmaid costumes for use this session?”
Thus, a movement was born.
At first, the Texas activists rented costumes. Then, they began stitching — as others had months earlier, crafting pink “pussy hats” for the Women’s March on Washington. Morgan — the executive director of Action Together New Hampshire, a political group that was formed after the November election — began networking with chapters from other states. Recently, she created a private Facebook page, called the Handmaid Coalition, to share patterns for stitching and strategies for protest with women across the country.
“We all saw how the women’s march energized and gave license to women who otherwise wouldn’t have stood up,” Morgan said. “If we can do that with hats before anything gets really going, you’d better believe we can do it now. We know what’s on the line.”
In most states, women are using the costumes to protest individual bills on reproductive rights — creating a funhouse mirror image of what women’s lives might look like if their rights were stripped away.
In Texas, when women showed up for a hearing on a bill that would ban a second-trimester abortion procedure, state troopers surrounded them in the Senate gallery. They willingly surrendered the signs they had smuggled into the chamber — signs aren’t permitted under the Senate rules — and played submissive, staying in character.
“When they come to take your sign or escort you out, just do it,” Busby had warned them. “Don’t fight back.”
Since then, handmaids have shown up for at least four other political events in Texas and to oppose a similar bill in Tennessee. Sometimes, they gather in a circle in a State House rotunda, holding signs, with downcast eyes.
In Missouri, handmaids appeared for a hearing on a bill activists say could cut funding to women’s health centers if they refer women elsewhere for abortions.
There, 11 handmaids walked up the steps of the Capitol in the rain, silently, holding signs with messages such as “The Handmaid’s Tale is Not a Manual,” said Alison Dreith, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a bleak, science-fiction twist on an extreme anti-feminist state. In it, women lose all rights — to work, to earn or spend their own money, even to read — after a crackdown by a theocratic regime following terrorist attacks and amid diminished fertility rates. Those who remain fertile are forced into sexual slavery, while other women become servants for the privileged couples who claim the offspring.
Dreith maintains that the book no longer feels quite so hyperbolic, pointing to a string of bills in her state that would chip away not just at abortion rights, but at birth control coverage, too.
“Forcing women to drive 100 miles just to get birth control seems extraordinary,” she said. “We see it in the news all the time. There’s religious exemption laws, and if you’re at a rural pharmacist in the rural part of the state, how do you get your prescription? All of this is under the guise of health and safety of women, but it’s completely the opposite. It’s forced childbirth.”
Joe Pojman executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, an anti-abortion organization, thinks that’s a bit much. He didn’t recognize the point of the handmaids in the Senate chamber until his wife explained it to him later, he said, and she took issue with their imagery.
“She didn’t think it is at all an appropriate way to protest, because she thinks there’s actually no chance our society is sliding into a dystopian society of that kind,” he said.
While he said he admires the activists for getting involved, Pojman noted that women are leading the fight against abortion, too. And in Texas, they appear to be winning.
And, he was amused to spot the handmaids, in their otherworldly costumes, still furtively clutching one modern luxury.
“Presumably in this dystopian society they’re alluding to,” Pojman said, “women would not be permitted to have cellphones.”