The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4: What is a Magdalene Colony?

So was created a system in which, once a month, when a Handmaid is at her most fertile, she would be forced to lie down between the legs of her household’s wife, to be raped by its Commander with the aim of conceiving a baby. If successful, once born that baby would then be taken from her and she would be moved on to the next commander to repeat the cycle. 

Just one of Gilead’s many degradations, the Ceremony came with drawbacks for the Sons. For a start, as a result of the fertility crisis that paved the way for Gilead, many of the Commanders were infertile. That lead to wives (including Serena Waterford) attempting to ‘mate’ their handmaids to any available stud in an attempt to conceive a baby. More importantly, the system failed entirely to recognise that handmaids weren’t cattle but people, and the experience of rape would have severe psychological consequences. A Handmaid might kill herself, like June’s predecessor at the Waterford house, or kill her Commander, or – feeling an attachment to her own child that the Sons of Jacob failed to foresee, attempt to take her baby like Janine did in season one. 

In season four episode three, Aunt Lydia reveals to June that a new system has been introduced to solve just this problem: the Magdalene Colony. Designed for troublesome Handmaids who refuse to subject to the existing process, Magdalene Colonies are camps where Handmaids will be forced into performing agricultural labour, like the “unwomen” condemned to clear nuclear waste in The Colonies. The difference being that, once a month, a Handmaid will be visited by their Commander and his Wife, to be raped on site. When the baby is born, the Handmaid can simply return to her farm work while she awaits the next rape, and the next pregnancy. Aunt Lydia describes it as “a blessed cycle of service.” She had her doubts about the innovation, Lydia tells June in ‘The Crossing’, but “can see the value for certain temperaments.”

The name refers to biblical character Mary Magdalene, who in the Christian faith, travelled with Jesus and his apostles, and had demons driven out of her through worship. Around 600 AD, Mary Magdalene became associated with repentant sinful or ‘fallen’ women, and is often described as a reformed prostitute. That makes her the perfect namesake, in Gilead’s eyes, for those Handmaids too sinful to fit in with the existing system.

From the homes of their captors and rapists to a breeding camp, that’s the journey recalcitrant Handmaids can expect to follow. After all, no womb can be wasted in Gilead, especially not after the children lost in Angels’ Flight. 

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