I spent yesterday afternoon at the Rhode Island State House dressed as a handmaid from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. For the uninitiated, Atwood’s handmaidens are forced to endure pregnancy that is the product of rape because the theocracy governing the former United States has decided that all fertile women must procreate and must do so with the theocratic leaders. Handmaids also must wear clothing that identifies them as separate and basically the property of their families. They do not have names and are titled by the men who essentially own them. The clothing removes their individuality and hinders their autonomy–red, boxy dresses, red capes, and white, winged bonnets.
My fellow Womxn Project activists and I donned red capes and white, winged bonnets, and held “Pass the RHCA” fans to silently protest the state Senate’s delay in bringing the bill to the floor for a vote. We sat in silence in the Senate gallery. We then silently moved to a Senate Labor committee hearing. Finally, we walked to the rotunda and stood silently in an outward-facing circle for almost 30 minutes. It felt like forever standing there.
Throughout the afternoon, I felt physically and emotionally uncomfortable. The costume intentionally obstructs your vision and is very hot in the already-hot State House. The costume is disorienting, and I didn’t feel like myself. Wherever we went, we were met by stares, smiles, giggles, and audible gasps. I’m not a shy person, but the attention even made me a little uneasy.
Attention, however, was the point. And it worked. Senators and spectators were visibly disturbed by the visual of several handmaids. Some snapped photos. Some wagged their fingers. Some were clearly annoyed and uncomfortable. Good.
With the Senate’s inexcusable delay on the RHCA, we have to increase pressure. Usually, people who support the right to abortion try not to make a scene. Many of us have been trained to ignore the antics of our opposition who scream in our ears that we are baby killers damned to hell. A crew of handmaids peacefully upsets the apple cart just enough to destabilize the activism status quo. It’s unconventional, theatrical, and attention getting. It forces the people that encounter us to think about their position regarding the RHCA and the ramifications of their inactivity or apathy. And that’s the whole point.
Throughout the evening in that costume, I felt what it must be like to lose your voice in a system where you are powerless. Well I am not powerless. And I will use my voice and speak out.
I have zero interest in allowing any government to take away my autonomy and reproductive freedom. Rhode Island has the option to proactively protect a women’s rights and make sure we control when and how and if we become pregnant and protect our ability to control our own futures. The Rhode Island Senate must send the RHCA to the floor for a vote now. No amendments. No delays. Now. Rhode Island women are tired of waiting. I am tired of waiting.