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How do women get their roles in The Handmaid’s Tale?

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The Handmaid’s Tale is coming back to our screens. Curious about the hierarchy of women in the series? How do the women get their roles?

The time has come to watch The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5. We’ll get to see Serena Joy head back to Gilead based on the trailer for the season. At the same time, June is dealing with the aftermath of her and other former handmaids killing Fred Waterford.

As we go into the new season, we’ve been rewatching previous ones. It led to questions about how the women ended up with their roles in Gilead. Why was June a Handmaid? Why did Lydia become an Aunt? Here’s a breakdown of the hierarchy of the women (and Unwomen).

Wives and Econowives in Gilead

The Wives have the highest role in Gilead, but they’re still not treated anything like men. They’re still not allowed to read or write, and they play no part in the creation of laws. Their only job is to run their household and stand behind their men.

The initial Wives appear to be the wives of those who made Gilead a possibility. Look at how Serena Joy helped to create the world of Gilead with Fred. However, young girls raised in Gilead can go to Wives School and learn how to become the female head of the household. Wives can be Handmaids or can be sent to the Colonies.

Then there are Econowives. These are below Wives, and they are still not able to read or write. Their task is to do whatever job Gilead has given them and raise their children. They are married to men who aren’t Commanders, such as Drivers, Guardians, and other tasks. They can have their own children, and they can be forced into the world of Handmaids.

At first, these women were those considered not to be trouble as Gilead was created. Many of them would have already been married, and they were allowed to live out their days as Econos as long as they behaved. Now, young girls can end up being Econowives through their schooling.

Aunts in The Handmaid’s Tale

The next rank down is Wives. They even get to tell Guardians to stop doing what they are doing! Aunts train the Handmaids and Marthas. They will even be involved in training the Unwomen, as we see some in the Colonies.

As well as training, they look out for the “well-being” of the women in Gilead. However, they will brand and maim the women to get them to submit.

Aunts are the most faithful of the lot. In many cases, they are barren or older women, but there are some younger women who can go down this path. In fact, some of the younger girls can choose to go down the path of being Aunts if they declare they have received a calling for this. We see this happen in The Testaments*.

It’s unclear why women are chosen to be Aunts and not Econowives, but it’s likely linked to their pious nature before Gilead and in the earlier days. Lydia was a teacher who wasn’t afraid to turn women in when it came to their immoral lifestyles.

Marthas and Handmaids

We’re immediately introduced to Marthas and Handmaids in The Handmaid’s Tale. Marthas as cooks, cleaners, and the general “dogs body” of the house. They are assigned to various houses or other locations around Gilead that need upkeep. They do rank a little higher than Handmaids. Marthas will raise the children of Gilead in their households.

The women are usually older, or they are barren women. They can still end up in a lot of trouble, but they do have a little more freedom than Handmaids. They have created a network between them, which was seen in The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 when getting the children of Gilead out.

Handmaids are the fertile women who are tasked with birthing the children of Gilead. They will be assigned to Commanders and their wives, and they are raped once a month via a ceremony in an attempt to get them pregnant. Their babies are that of the Commander and the Wives, although that didn’t stop June from fighting back.

Not all women who can have children end up being Handmaids. We see some remain as Econowives. The Handmaid role is assigned to those who are viewed as sinners, whether it involves having children out of wedlock, being adulterers, or being “gender traitors.” If they have “two good ovaries,” they’re saved from being sent to the Colonies.

Any woman can end up becoming a Handmaid. Not all Handmaids are safe from the Colonies. If after six years they don’t have a baby, they are sent to the Colonies. Those who are deemed too problematic as Handmaids can be executed or sent to the Colonies. It is possible to bring Handmaids back from the Colonies if there is a desperate need, as seen in The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 when Emily and Janine are recalled.

The Handmaid's Tale Season 5
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4 — Courtesy of Hulu — Acquired via Hulu Press Site

Jezebels and Unwomen in the universe

Finally, we have the lowest of the low. Jezebels are the women who refuse to follow the rules of Gilead. They are sent to male-only areas of Gilead and end up being sex workers. In some cases, they were originally sex workers who continue that job. In other cases, they were well-educated women who are given the choice of prostitution or going to the Colonies. Some are Handmaids who try to escape and are caught, as we saw with Moira.

These women are exposed to plenty of drugs and alcohol. Many of them die while being a Jezebel due to the drugs given to them.

Then there are the Unwomen, who are sent to the Colonies. Any woman can be sent here, and we did see one of the Wives sent there after having an affair. They are forced to work in the toxic lands and have been stripped of everything they are. However, not all of them will stick together. We see them lash out against the Wives.

They are forced to work until they die. That doesn’t take too long due to the toxic land and water. This is the highest form of punishment.

MORE: Is Alexis Bledel coming back in The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5?

The Handmaid’s Tale* is available to stream on Hulu.