A white, wide-brimmed bonnet and a red cloak have come to mean one thing: women’s oppression. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale seared this image into our souls with its depiction of a near-future dystopia in which women are forced into reproductive slavery to bear the children of the elite – and wear this uniform to underline their subservience. For more than three decades, the image has shown up on the covers of the book around the world, on posters from the 1990 film, in ads for the 2017 TV series, and even on real women at demonstrations for reproductive rights.

More like this:

- The fiction that changed history

How Harry Potter became a rallying cry

Why tyrants love to write poetry

The handmaid we’re presumably seeing in most of these images, though we often don’t know for sure, is Offred, the tale’s narrator. As a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, she must routinely submit to ritualistic sex with her commander, Fred. (Her name derives from the term “of Fred.”) She’s one of the still-fertile women rounded up for the job of reproduction after many women in the ruling class were rendered infertile by environmental toxins. Before a coup toppled the US government to form the new theocratic state Gilead, she was married to a man named Luke and had a young daughter.

Atwood conceived the novel as ‘speculative fiction,’ a work that imagines a future that could conceivably happen without any advances in technology from the present. In other words, she said, “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” Every aspect of the book was inspired by social and political events of the early 1980s, when she wrote it.

Because of this, Atwood’s novel has an eerie way of always feeling of the moment, as it turns out, from its first publication through every other iteration that has followed. When it debuted in 1985, Atwood even took newspaper clips to her interviews about the book to show her plot points’ real-life antecedents. The book mirrored the United States’ embrace of conservatism, as evidenced by the election of Ronald Reagan as president, as well as the increasing power of the Christian right and its powerful lobbying organisations the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition – not to mention the rise of televangelism. The character of Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale is a former televangelist who articulates theocratic policy suggestions that have now forced her, like all women, into a life solely at home: Atwood writes of Serena Joy, “She doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word.”  

Atwood writes in The Handmaid’s Tale that African-Americans have been resettled to “National Homelands” in the Midwest

Though Atwood is Canadian and writing about a later time – Joyce Carol Oates, writing in The New York Review of Books, speculated the book was set around 2005 – she has said the commentary was aimed squarely at the United States of the 1980s, including the rising political power of Christian fundamentalists, environmental concerns, and attacks on women’s reproductive rights. The backlash against abortion in the US at the time included a widely distributed propaganda video called ‘The Silent Scream,’ a rash of abortion clinic bombings and arson cases and a proposed law that would give foetuses civil rights protections. The Reagan administration also broke with longstanding policy and declared that the US government would fund only international women's health groups that promoted ‘natural’ family planning – that is, abstinence – in underdeveloped countries. As English professor SC Neuman wrote in a 2006 paper published in the University of Toronto Quarterly, “Offred, in short, is a fictional product of 1970s feminism, and she finds herself in a situation that is a fictional realisation of the backlash against women's rights that gathered force during the early 1980s.”

Not everyone in the US government at the time even opposed apartheid in South Africa: future vice president Dick Cheney was against the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, while Senator John McCain voted not to divest from the South African government. Recalling the Bantustans of apartheid-era South Africa, Atwood writes in The Handmaid’s Tale that African-Americans have been resettled to “National Homelands” in the Midwest.

Puritanism and public policy

The Handmaid’s Tale is always discussed as a feminist warning of sorts, and has also been interpreted as a commentary on sexism in the book of Genesis. But some of what Atwood describes wasn’t merely speculation about the end result of the religious right taking power in the US but was based on what was happening elsewhere. Atwood says she was inspired in part by Nicolai Ceausescu’s preoccupation with boosting female birth rates in Romania, which led to the policing of pregnant women and the banning of abortion and birth control, not to mention the murders of dissidents by the Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines. The idea of ‘giving’ the offspring of lower classes to the ruling class came from Argentina, where a military junta seized power in 1976, subsequently ‘disappearing’ up to 500 children and placing them with selected leaders.

But American Puritanism is undoubtedly the central reference point in Atwood’s text – and she drew connections between what was happening in the US in the 1980s and the original Puritan colonists in 17th Century New England. “Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren't there already,” Atwood wrote in The Guardian in 2012. “Thus… the USSR replaced the dreaded imperial secret police with an even more dreaded secret police, and so forth. The deep foundation of the US – so went my thinking – was not the comparatively recent 18th-Century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-Century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.” Reagan himself referred to his dream of the US being a ‘shining city on a hill,’ coopting the term the Puritans had for their Massachusetts Bay colony.

Forever relevant?

Atwood’s book was a hit with critics and readers, but the film adaptation four years later was a dud. The production’s own difficulties showed how relevant it was: most studios wouldn’t consider putting out a movie that was so heavily female, and many major actresses were afraid of the radical material. The 1990 film version is a sometimes serious, sometimes sexed-up version that squandered the talents of stars Natasha Richardson and Faye Dunaway. German director Volker Schlöndorff envisioned it as a sexual thriller, an obvious misinterpretation of the original material. Richardson as Offred, was not only stripped of her agency – the script avoided voiceover, losing the urgency of the book – she seemed more objectified than ever. Reviews were mostly dismissive, and the film failed at the box office, too, making back only $5m of its $13m budget.

Since then, The Handmaid’s Tale has inspired a number of lower-profile adaptations and related works. Stage adaptations have been produced in the United States at Tufts University and for a UK tour. An opera by Poul Ruders premiered in Copenhagen in 2000, and was performed by the English National Opera in London in 2003 and by the Canadian Opera Company in 2004-05. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet offered up its interpretation of the story in 2013. 

It wasn’t until last year, when The Handmaid’s Tale premiered on Hulu as a television series adaptation, that the work got its pop cultural due. The show’s producers changed details to bring the series into the present day, including modern touchstones like Uber, Tinder, cappuccinos, and Craigslist in flashbacks to Offred’s pre-handmaid life. But the series felt all the more chilling because of the massive shift in US politics with the election of Donald Trump, who was inaugurated just three months before the series premiered. Suddenly, the book and series’ major flashpoints felt more possible than ever: a government declaring martial law after an attack by Islamic extremists, a regime that systematically eliminates gay people, a society that prioritises procreation (and subjugation of women) above all else. “[H]ow eerily prescient that the Republic of Gilead was established by a coup when Christian fundamentalists, revulsed by an overly liberal, godless, and promiscuous society, assassinated the president, machine-gunned Congress, declared a national state of emergency, and laid blame to ‘Islamic fanatics,’” Joyce Carol Oates wrote in a Handmaid retrospective in 2006. “As in Orwell’s 1984, the Republic consolidates its strength by maintaining continual wars against demonised ‘enemies.’”

This all dovetailed with fears of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and his vice president’s anti-gay and anti-abortion beliefs. Handmaid costumes even became common at protests of laws intended to limit women’s reproductive freedom. The Women’s March inspired by Trump’s inauguration mirrored the TV series’ flashback scenes of women in the streets protesting the stripping of their rights.

As The Handmaid’s Tale returns for its second season, it feels more vital than ever, even though the cultural landscape has once again shifted in a major way for women. Since the last series, the #metoo movement has taken hold, and Offred’s story is shifting with it. Without giving too much away about the second-season premiere, which goes, in some fashion, beyond the narrative in Atwood’s novel, Offred is now finding methods to take back her own power in the oppressive regime and seizing those moments in satisfying ways – not unlike women finding power in telling their own stories via #metoo and #timesup. Of course, this isn’t a coincidence; the producers of The Handmaid’s Tale series were aware of the changing women’s movement as they constructed this season.

Since the book’s release, The Handmaid’s Tale’s most quoted phrase has been the one scratched, presumably by Offred’s handmaid predecessor, in the wall of her room’s cupboard: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. It has become such a feminist rallying cry that many women have the phrase tattooed on their bodies. “Revellers dress up as Handmaids on Hallowe'en and also for protest marches – these two uses of its costumes mirroring its doubleness,” Atwood wrote for the Guardian. “Is it entertainment or dire political prophecy? Can it be both? I did not anticipate any of this when I was writing the book.”

The Handmaid’s Tale’s messages and iconography feel more applicable than ever today. But we always seem to be saying that about Atwood’s story. Will we be doing the same if yet another adaptation appears, three decades from now?

BBC Culture’s Stories that shaped the world series looks at epic poems, plays and novels from around the globe that have influenced history and changed mindsets. A poll of writers and critics, 100 stories that shaped the world, will be announced in May and discussed live on stage at the Hay Festival 2018.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.