As a feminist, I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like if the governments of the world were female dominated. Would we still live in a world dominated by men with guns? Would we work more collaboratively and more empathetically? Or would we make the same mistakes as the men who have given us this world? Would we, perhaps, create worse monsters?
One of the most enjoyable aspects of speculative fiction for me is its ability to ask these questions and then play them out. Sherri Tepper’s had a long career of novels that take a hard look at gender and environment; The Gate to Women’s Country is certainly one of them. Tepper’s setup in The Gate to Women’s Country was so interesting that I stayed up late night after night to see how the social experiment would work out.
Written in 1988, the novel is quite contemporary to the politics of the late 80s, when the Cold War was still very much a part of the national conversation. The setting of The Gate to Women’s Country is post-apocalyptic, after nuclear war has destroyed the landscape and decimated the human population. Some technology survives, but the ability to use it is challenged by the knowledge of the surviving population and the wide radioactive minefields that surround the towns.
The story opens in Marthaville, one of a series of sister towns that is run by a powerful set of all-female Councils. The Councils set the ordinances that govern Marthaville life, which create separations between the men and women by dictating that all boys must be trained as warriors and separated from their families at the age of five. When they are fifteen, the boys are given a chance to return to Women’s Country if they desire it, though the warrior culture shames and abuses any boy who chooses to leave and become one of the servitors that work with the women.
We meet Stavia, the youngest member of the Council, who is on her way to see her fifteen year old son Dawid. Dawid has summoned her in order to inform her that he has decided to stay with the warriors, which Stavia knows, but goes to the garrison in order to act out the ritual.
How could she have forgotten he was fifteen? Well, she hadn’t. She was thirty-seven, so he was fifteen. She had been twenty-two when… when everything. All this pretense that the summons was unexpected was really so much playacting, a futile attempt to convince herself that something unforeseen might happen despite her knowing very well what the plot required. Despite Dawid’s ritual visits on holidays, his twice-yearly homecomings—during which the initial shyness of the original separation had turned to fondness, then to shyness again, finally becoming the expected, though no less wounding, alienation—despite all that, she had chosen to go on thinking of him as she had when he was five and had gone into the hands of the warriors.
So, now, she must guard against speaking to that child, for this was no child confronting her in his polished breastplate and high helmet, with pouted lips outthrust. No child anymore.
The early part of the novel is filled with the sorrow of mothers and sisters, as they sacrifice their children to the garrison. We learn, too, that with the majority of the men sequestered that family life has also dramatically shifted. Marriage is an archaic concept — one that Stavia reads about in books, while shaking her head at the foolishness of it. Instead, biannual carnivals are held in the sister towns, when soldiers and women have trysts in carefully monitored assignment houses. All pregnancies are planned, so that the scarce resources available to Marthatown can supply the town and so that venereal diseases remain a historical problem. Instead of a nuclear family, Stavia and her sister are raised by their mother Morgot and their servitor Joshua and given all the educational opportunities available to women in this new world.
The plot thickens when young Stavia meets the young warrior Cheron, who is being used by the older warriors to infiltrate Stavia’s home in the hopes that Morgot may have shared Council secrets with her youngest daughter. Cheron, who is often a pathetic and vulnerable figure, asks Stavia for books, as the ordinances prohibit education to the warriors so that no town’s garrison develops a technical advantage over any other town’s garrison. Stavia takes pity on Chernon and begins breaking the ordinances to supply them to him. Before long, she begins to feel a sense of pity and obligation to him that I think most women can empathize with, even as she begins to distrust him.
The Council is a hereditary oligarchy that is dedicated, on the surface, to preserving a meaningful way of life. And yet, the decisions that they make cause wide-scale pain and segregate the society, isolating the warriors into a competitive and brutal culture. This segregation pits them against the women who control their lives, begging a question of nature versus nurture.
He was not tricking Stavia out of the city entirely for his own purposes; she had been going anyhow. He was not risking her life or health for his own gratification; he had no diseases, and had no intention of acquiring any. Michael had promised that when the time came that the warriors took over Marthatown, Stavia would belong to Chernon, if he still wanted her. Chernon supposed that he would still want her, and this assumption made his conscience clear. He was doing nothing, planning nothing which would not continue in the future time. In the end, she would be glad of it. Michael had assured him of that.
Tepper zings with these passages that seem to comment on the folly of all societies that allocate power based on gender. There’s a sadness that permeates The Gate to Women’s Country, which often feels like a sorrow about unnecessary pain. We feel Stavia’s true mourning at the loss of her son, even as she provides the context and meaning behind why she feels that it is necessary. And it is perhaps this contrast that makes the novel so haunting.
Although Women’s Country is contrasted with a neighboring society where women have few rights at all, it is clear that there are significant costs to the freedoms that Stavia and the other women of Marthatown enjoy. When Stavia ventures into Holyland, a town to the south of Marthaville, it’s an relentess horror of the subjugation of women. We begin to understand that Women’s Countries garrisons are both to protect the town from outsiders and from the warriors themselves. Freedom from an oppressive patriarchy is worth significant sacrifice.
Baby had no name. If he lived to be a year old, Papa would give him a name. If he lived to be six, he would go over to Papa’s house every day and attend school. Boys had to be able to read and write so they could discuss the Scriptures. They had to be able to calculate some, as well, in order to be efficient shepherds for All Father, who wouldn’t tolerate lack of discipline or diligence. Until the first year was over, however, babies were only “Baby.” “Sweet’ums,” sometimes. “Honey child.” Not when Papa could hear, of course. Baby names and displays of affection were trivial things, unworthy of All Father. Anytime during the first year, a baby could disappear, just up and vanish, with nobody knowing a thing about it. That’s what had happened to the two girl babies between Faith and Baby. Most always, it happened to girls. Hardly ever to boys unless there was something wrong with them. Though, sometimes, an Elder might sell a boy baby to some other Elder desperate for sons. Not that anybody would ever let on.
There are some appalling choices that are made by the Council of Marthastown, dreadful choices that are made in the hope of creating a better way of living. As is to be expected of good speculative fiction, there are several powerful questions in the novel that have lingered with me since I put it down.Although The Gate to Women’s Country was written nearly twenty years ago, it felt modern and pertinent to current politics.
While The Gate to Women’s Country felt a little sparse on the characterization from time to time, the world that Tepper kept me deeply involved with the novel from the very first page to the last. It’s definitely a good read for anyone that’s as fascinated with societal structure and gender relationships as I am.