One of the themes in my novel A Better Next is sexism. In this book, I try to expose everyday sexism in the workplace and in our society by shining a light on sexism writ small—the confining roles given to contemporary women serve to restrict their performance and limit the contribution they can make in the larger world. Think glass ceiling as an example. I’m not talking about blatant sexual abuse or physical intimidation, but the more subtle, yet pervasive role norms that have been carved out as acceptable for women in the changing workplace. 

I’ve been a proud feminist all of my life. It’s gratifying to see women today break out of  confining roles and re-define everything: beauty, sexuality, power, career and family dynamics. Fueled by the velocity of societal change, women are increasingly creating their own opportunities and not waiting for an invitation to participate. History suggests it would be folly to expect one…

My book club read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood when it came out thirty-plus years ago. This past week, I read the sequel, The Testaments, also by Atwood. I also went to see the musical “The Six.” 

At first thought, one would suspect little similarity between the two works of art. One, The Testament, a work of dystopian or speculative fiction, describes the events that occur fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. The fierce grip of power held by the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead may be threatened from within. Margaret Atwood does a great job of creating a backstory for Aunt Lydia that goes far in explaining how she ended up on the Dark Side…or did she? No spoilers here, I promise. It’s a good read, and a fitting sequel.

The other, The Six, by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, debuted as an original musical at the Edinburgh Festival after it won the opportunity through a Cambridge University Musical Theatre contest in 2017.  It’s described as a revisionist romp through Tudor England. If it was a book, it would be historical fiction— the re-imagining of the six wives of King Henry the VIII. Structured as a singing competition, Six is told by the wives, but as a girl group performing a pop concert for an audience. Bored with everyone arguing over who’s the most important wife, the Queens decide to hold a competition between them: whoever had the worst time in her marriage to Henry VIII to be crowned the leading lady of the girl group. The pop concert consists of each Queen singing a solo in order to stake a claim for the spotlight. 

While most of us know the basic information about the wives, cast as pop stars, each tells their compelling story in a strobe lit, raucous stage play over seventy-five minutes. The wives appear in chronological order and the lyrics remind us: Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.

I thoroughly enjoyed both of these works. Atwood is, of course, a master, and we are all fortunate that she continues to make us consider our world, to try to avoid her version of a bleak future for women. And, I was blown away by the originality of The Six. I appreciated that each of them made me think. 

Both of these works portray male-dominated patriarchal power with male privilege and rampant misogyny. In both, women are victimized, often brutalized, frequently killed.

We don’t have to look back in history, The Six, or to a dystopian world of the future, The Testaments to find this—these facts describe much of our world today. 

Social change is slow, and progress spotty. These Her-Stories, coming to us as works of art with broad appeal help us reflect on our own lives and keep the conversation going. Fortunately as these women take back their stories and are individualized, the discovery in both works is that there is power in unity among women. A great take-away.