Democracy: Use It or Lose It

Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, A.M. '62, was the recipient of the 2003 Radcliffe Medal and gave an address at the Radcliffe Association annual luncheon on Friday, June 6. She began her talk by speaking of the Radcliffe of her own day, pre-pantyhose and other significant cultural markers, and ended with words of contemporary warning:


It's an enormous honor to have been given the Radcliffe College Alumnae Association Award by you today. I am in truly distinguished company and I thank you for it very much. I'm not sure I deserve it—I am after all a poet and novelist, and these are ambiguous characters.

This award certainly is not the sort of honor I ever would have dreamed of when I first arrived at graduate school here in the autumn of 1961. Just to place that time for you: John F. Kennedy was president, Elvis wasn't dead, the Cuban Missile Crisis had not yet happened, and panty hose, mini-skirts, the birth-control pill, and Flower Power were still in the future. So was that loose assortment of various but explosive energies known as the Women's Movement. The cause of the moment, back then in 1961, was civil rights; Sylvia Plath's Ariel was yet to be published; girls of my generation, having been through Peyton Place, were all reading Mary McCarthy's novel The Group. I first heard the term "role model" that year—it was what we Cliffies, undergrad or grad, were supposed to turn into—and I was convinced that I myself could never be such a thing, as I had the wrong kind of hair. How I longed for a blonde pageboy, but it was not to be.

In 1961, the Radcliffe and Harvard graduate schools had not yet merged, so my first year was spent at Radcliffe. The next year was spent at Harvard, though still in a Radcliffe graduate women's residence—Founders' House, at 6 Appian Way. During those years I mooched studiously about the Cambridge streets, dressed in my Filene's Basement tweed coat and Hush Puppy disguise. I attended the annual Bogart film festival at the Brattle Theatre, I burrowed in the stacks at Widener Library. All of these buildings appear in altered form in my 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale. By that time I'd traveled, not only in Iran and Afghanistan, but also in the then Soviet empire—East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia—and had seen many an ex-palace converted to party uses, architecture having no choice of its own about what human beings get up to inside it. "It could never happen here" has not been, since then, a belief in which I can place much faith. All those countries had once been democracies. Any form of human behavior—given extreme conditions—can happen anywhere.

From 1963 to 1965 I took two years off, during which I worked at a market-research company, got engaged, got unengaged, traveled to England and France, was sick on a park bench in Paris and also in the Lake District—one needs these literary experiences—and taught grammar to engineering students at 8:30 in the morning in a Quonset hut on the campus of the University of British Columbia. I made them study the paradoxical fables of Franz Kafka, which I thought would be helpful to them in their future careers. I lived on Kraft Dinners and at Denny's Pancake House, and glowed a strange greenish color. In my off time—that is, at night—I put together a collection of poetry, and wrote two novels, one of which—happily for me—was never published. So, the typical life of a young semi-educated female of the early 1960s.

Then I came back to Cambridge for two more years of study. The first was spent in a rooming house, which is quite accurately described in a short story of mine called "Dancing Girls"; the second in a three-person flat on Harvard Street. We took turns cooking dinner, and fretting about who had left the wet bathmat on the floor, as roommates have been doing for eons. In that year, which was 1967—pantyhose had appeared by then—I unaccountably won the major Canadian literary prize for poetry, and traveled to Ottawa to receive it. My two roommates, Karen and Susan—one of whom is here today—lent me bits of their wardrobes for the occasion, and took advantage of my absence to do away with my Hush Puppies. Now that I was that admirable item, an award-winning author, they considered this type of footgear no longer suitable for me. I got interviewed by a Toronto reporter on his way back from covering the Vietnam War. He didn't at all know why he had to talk bout poetry, and finally said, "Say something interesting. Say you write all your poetry on drugs." The photo shows me in an orange minidress and fishnet stockings, an image I have been trying to repress ever since.

I was very lucky to have been able to attend Radcliffe/Harvard at the time I did. Doing so had not been part of my life plan—I'd wanted to be a writer since the age of 16, so after I graduated from college I would have to go to London or Paris or New York, Canada not being noted for the literary life at the time—for instance, you had to drink beer in cellars with the curtains closed, so no one on the sidewalk could see you. Once in some more sophisticated metropolis, I would get a job as a waitress, learn to smoke cigarettes, wear black clothing, live in freezing cold attics, drink absinthe, compose masterpieces of stunning genius, and cough myself to death an an early age, sort of like Katherine Mansfield. But my undergraduate advisor, Northrop Frye of the University of Toronto, gave it as his opinion that I might get more masterpieces composed at graduate school, since waitressing could take it out of a person. (I tried it later. He was right.)

At Harvard, I had some exceptional teachers. I'll mention two of them. First, Jerome Hamilton Buckley, the leading Victorianist then, who sadly died earlier this year. One of his classes was held during the down-to-the-wire day of the Cuban Missile Crisis—there we all were, expecting to be blown to smithereens at any moment, but we just kept on discussing Tennyson. Well, it can have a bracing effect. "To strive, to see, to find, and not to yield"—that's music to clench your jaw to. I think he slightly regretted the fact that I did not continue on as a scholar; but he faithfully read all my books, and sent me smart and appreciative notes about them. His enthusiasm was contagious, and he brought his subject to life at a time when it was thought to be moribund. It is his spirit that infuses at least a part of my nineteenth-century novel, Alias Grace—the Dickensian part.

The second teacher I'll mention is Perry Miller, one of the daring Harvard handful who brought the study of early American literature and civilization out of limbo and into prominence in the middle part of the twentieth century. Miller was astonishing not only on the subject of the American Romantics, but also on that of the seventeenth-century American Puritans, founders of New England. Before starting to study this era, I did not think I'd find the material of interest—no Shakespeares, no Miltons, no William Blakes on hand, and a notable absence of female writers—but this period has been fascinating to me ever since, not least because a good many of my ancestors were participants in it. The Handmaid's Tale is dedicated to two people. One is Perry Miller, for obvious reasons. The second is Mary Webster, of the same family that produced Governor John Webster of Connecticut, Noah Webster of dictionary fame, and my grandmother. Mary Webster was a more dubious character, having been hanged for a witch, although ineffectually: when they came to cut down the body, the obstinate woman was still alive. It's as well to dedicate a book such as The Handmaid's Tale to an ancestral connection with a tough neck. The whole witchcraft episode underlines the importance of allowing women to participate in government, because if you don't let them do it, they'll get their oar in anyway. They'll accuse you of Satanism, and fall down in fits to prove it, and scare the daylights out of everyone. Much better to have them sitting on committees.

Back to the business at hand. On occasions such as these, one if expected to come out with something more or less optimistic. In unsettled and indeed foreboding times such as ours, this can be a stretch, but I'll do my best. First, writing is in itself an act of hope. However gloomy the content of the writing may be, the mere act of putting pen to paper is an act of communication; it presupposes a future reader, and thus a future. It's of note that more and more young people are drawn to this activity.

Second, things have improved in a great many ways for a great many women since I first arrived here in 1961. Ideas can indeed change things—they can change how people view one another and treat one another, and they can change how individuals view their own destinies. Many doors have opened for women since that time. They have opened in part because women in the United States worked hard to insist that the Constitution of their own country did indeed include them—that they too were fully adult human beings, with the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities that this status implies.

However, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau insisted in his crucial work, The Social Contract—a work much consulted by America's Founding Fathers when they were structuring the government of the United States— democracy is the most difficult form of government to maintain. Every loss for democracy will prove to be a loss for women—it always has. Vigilance is indeed the eternal price of freedom, and democracy as a form is like the brain, or a muscle: use it or lose it. When a democratic system feels itself to be under threat, individual freedoms are among the first things to be sacrificed, to be replaced by the secret exercise of increasingly arbitrary power. In whatever name this may be done, the result has almost always been corruption and tyranny. And if democracy in America were to fall, there would be no other country with the will and the might to ride to its rescue.

A favorite phrase of the American Puritans—used to describe the kind of society they thought they were building—was "a city upon a hill, a light to all nations." This comes from the great visionary prophecy of Isaiah, coupled with a snippet from the New Testament. It's been repeated by various American presidents and other politicians ever since, who have sometimes confused what could be with what is. In Isaiah, it expresses a hope rather than a reality, and so it remains today: a hope. It's a hope worth having, a hope worth working towards—a model society that will have a benevolent effect on others, that will be just and wise, that will dispense peace. But if you aspire to be a city upon a hill, you have to be worth looking up to. And if you are a light to all nations, other people will be peering in the windows. Transparency and democracy go together. Do not allow your own government to operate behind closed doors. If you do, the city upon the hill will be not one of light, but one of darkness.

Better to take another couple of verses from Isaiah: "Learn to do well, seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow" [1, 17]. And "they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" [2, 4].

I thank you again, and I wish you very well indeed.

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