Gilead, a biblical land rich in spices, balm, and myrrh, is a common allusion in literature. It is on the river Jordan, and is famed far and wide for the aromatic balsam produced there that soothes and heals. Our home state of Connecticut is often viewed similarly, as a bucolic place of peace and comfort. Yet here, in Connecticut, instead of healing and protecting, we are deliberately jeopardizing our young and putting our teachers in peril, all because our governor and his cronies are pushing to reopen schools in person.
Yes, this is happening in liberal, cautious, considerate Connecticut, home of the soft-spoken Gov. Ned Lamont, ever so genial, proper, and mild; he is the seeming opposite of the outspoken and brazen ideologue in the White House, yet in his own way just as dangerous.
Governor Lamont has decreed that, like Florida, Connecticut should resume school on a full-time or hybrid basis in August, with no hope for the ability to consistently distance an appropriate six feet, with no hope that students will cooperate and wear masks all day, with no testing of students or staff before the return, and with no actual or practical cohorting.
A few students will get sick and some may die. Some of their caregivers may get sick and a few may die. Many teachers will get sick, and many may die. The governor keeps mentioning the “metric” that supports his back-to-school decisions, but the real and relevant “metric” was calculated somewhere by an actuary, who determined just how many deaths are acceptable in the grand scheme of a fully functional economy, because X-number of teachers and students are expendable.
So call me Offred, slap a bonnet on my head, and send me back to my classroom.
I can feel the eye-rolling already: a feminist reference… ALL teachers are not women. Ugh, women always want to make everything about sexism. These innate responses allow this type of bias to flourish, and it is continual, subtle, and insidious. The patriarchal overtones of our nation shine through in the subjugation of various groups and in various respects, and while #metoo shed light on some of the ways in which women are oppressed, there are many other ways that are much more indirect.
The National Center for Educational Statistics indicates that 76% of public school teachers are women. 76%. In no way is this meant to throw shade at also-endangered male pedagogues, but is there another field that is male-dominated where the male employees will be put at such risk, where they have so little agency and control over their fates, and where every expense won’t be spared to make and keep them safe?
I’m certainly not the first to connect some aspect of 2020 with a fictional dystopia, and I assuredly won’t be the last, but why Gilead when most other connections are to Orwell’s Oceania, Huxley’s World State, and even Collins’ Panem?
In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, most women are infertile, and those who have been proven fertile are enslaved by the government of Gilead and used as vehicles for the men in power to reproduce. They are raped and inseminated by the patriarchy, their bodies are used as incubators, and their children are taken from them at birth. They are told that it is for the greater good of societal survival, and although they are sacrificing their bodies and their choice to risk childbearing, “the greater the risk, the greater the glory.” If they fail or refuse, they are sent to the wastelands to work themselves to death, and if they give birth to viable children they are lauded for a brief period and then sent to another elite man to provide the service again.
People read the novel or watch the television series and say what they always say when encountering dystopian fare: that can never happen here. It’s far too extreme. Women are equal, and they have rights.
But here we are. In a few short weeks this female-driven workforce will be corralled back into classrooms, ironically where under any other circumstances they’d most like to be. Women are not being sexually violated or literally imprisoned. Before any of you “but teachers are essential workers” zealots get up on your high horses and begin shouting half-truths, however, I agree that teachers are essential, but being in schools is not; you are twisting the meaning of that phrase to fit your convenience or your narrative, and in no way are teachers given any of the protections that other “essential workers” have been provided since the beginning of the pandemic, despite the much greater dangers they face compared with students and almost all of the “essential” workforce.
“Social distancing” and providing “proper ventilation” are part of the plan, but with classrooms taped off at three feet (not the minimum of six feet that every other aspect of society is forced to honor), only 17-20 desks fit in a room, but there will be 25 students or more in many. School buildings are decades, if not centuries, old, many to most with no A/C or antiquated ventilation systems, and many with classrooms that have few or no windows.
Hospitals and stores are air conditioned. Patients and customers are seen one at a time. Proper PPE is provided. In schools our children, our most valuable possessions, will be maybe two feet from each other, “masked” unless they were able to wrangle a note from a practitioner, sharing communal cleaning supplies that they may use to clean their areas, all for hours at a time.
And let’s look at those masks: as the teacher is attempting to keep six feet away from a potentially life-threatening source, she is supposed to teach, police mask-wearing and attempt at “distancing” to protect other children, and (in what appears to be the case in most districts) monitor and perform for the “synchronous” distance-teaching that students and parents, who were afforded the choice, selected, in order to keep their jobs and retirement. All because Commander Ned and Commander Miguel are tired of hearing complaints from parents about watching their children and trying to get them to participate in school from home, and don’t want to provide free or affordable alternative and safe childcare for those who truly have no options.
Much like the president, they pick and choose which data to manipulate to say what they want (those surveys about what teachers “expect” for the fall…), and they are also supported by the patriarchal CDC, who changed the rules with no real data to support the changes to satisfy the economical and political leaders of the free world: these patriarchal organizations that are still meeting via Zoom and, when forced into public scenarios, are masked and at least six feet from others, and who are afforded the luxury of regular testing of both themselves and those with whom they interact.
I’m not seeing a big difference between our officials’ stance and that of Commander Don and Serena Joy DeVos, are you?
So how is this comparable to the Handmaids’ situation? Why the analogy? In the novel, Offred explains that she and the other Handmaids are now “two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices,” while her mentor, Aunt Lydia, explains to her that, for society’s “purposes your feet and your hands are not essential.” These women have lost autonomy, been devalued as human beings, and have become merely the parts and services they can provide for the patriarchy; Offred ironically calls them ladies of “reduced circumstances.”
Well, in Connecticut women aren’t being physically raped and forced to bear children, but their beings ARE being sacrificed: they have been reduced to mere bodies who are supposed to willingly endanger and possibly sacrifice their physical beings to perform a function for the convenience and desire of the patriarchy, they have been stripped of their physical autonomy and largely of their agency, and they are expected to do it willingly and with a smile on their face, because isn’t maternal instinct part of their make up? Didn’t they go into education to literally give their all for the children? Aren’t teachers sacrificial by their very natures?
Teachers are NOT refusing to work, so save the tired and twisted rhetoric and the statements to “find a different job.” Teachers are hired and paid to teach, and this can be accomplished in the distance-learning models unless schools can be remodeled and fitted with the ability to socially distance and breathe safely that every other aspect of society is afforded.
Teachers are not, and have never been, daycare, even if that is how they have been used. This workforce of largely women has continually made themselves available to substitute for other necessary areas of society: filling their classrooms with necessities out of their own meagre earnings, filling in as substitute parents and counselors, and filling their “days off” with correcting, planning, and communicating with their students and their guardians.
But now you, Ned Lamont, are expecting them to unnecessarily sacrifice their very lives to try to bolster an economy and keep a work force happy and satiated, ignoring all health and safety warnings applicable to the rest of society, and you are not even giving them a voice in their fate.
Are you alone, governor? No. This is a nationwide issue. But throughout the rest of this pandemic you have comported yourself admirably, as a role model to the nation of what happens when leaders “put lives first”; somehow these largely-female lives, belonging to people who are also mothers and caregivers, are not as worthy of protection as the denizens of local bars.
The leaders of Gilead manipulate scripture much like the politicians manipulate data, claiming “blessed are the meek” and “blessed are the silent” as they seek “the greater good” while simultaneously oppressing and exploiting women. Well, we may truly be women of reduced circumstances now, but we do not need to remain silent.
Lisa Durant lives and teaches in Wolcott.