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Friday, November 9, 2018
Feminist Futures: The Gate to Women's Country
Dossier: Tepper, Sheri S. The Gate to Women's Country [Doubleday, 1988]
Executive Summary: Set some 300 years into a post apocalyptic future following an event called "The Convulsion", women live walled away in "Women's Country" while men are segregated into militaristic garrisons outside the walls of the city. Male children are raised by their mothers until the age of 5, at which point they are given to their fathers to be trained up as Warriors. They can later choose to stay as a Warrior or to return to Women's Country. Unsurprisingly there is quite a bit of social pressure for the men to remain Warriors and not be deemed a "coward". They talk of honor a whole lot.
The Gate to Women's Country is told in three parts and is focused on a woman named Stavia, daughter to one of the Councilwomen of Marthatown. The flashback is the driving force of the novel, which is Stavia's coming of age story and the reader's main entry into learning about the political and social reality of Women's Country.
In the present day, Stavia's son repudiated her at the time he had the opportunity to return to Women's Country. Tepper does return to the older Stavia's storyline throughout the novel, but the heart of it really is younger Stavia as she learns both who she is as well as the truth behind Women's Country. This happens through her interactions with Chernon, a young Warrior interested in her and the journey this takes Stavia on. This is, of course, a gross reduction of the novel.
The third art of The Gate to Women's Country is both the most resonant and the most baffling. Tepper has re-written The Trojan Women, a Greek tragedy written by Euripides (here I thank the internet for this data point) as Iphigenia at Ilium and runs the reader through a production of that play and Stavia's performance . The beats of the tragedy mirror many of the beats of The Gate to Women's Country. It is through this performance that the emotional heart of the novel comes through.
Feminist Future: After an apocalypse caused by men, women have taken control and view the violent tendencies of men as something biological that needs to be controlled and bred out of the species. There is a particular biological essentialist view of civilization here that Tepper is working towards, which is interesting if, I think completely wrong. The addition of the religious patriarchal hillbilly zealotry late in the novel is Tepper's attempt to show that if left unchecked by women's power, men will invariably revert to a bestial form of civilization.
Despite initial appearances, women are the true power in The Gate to Women's Country. Tepper posits a ruined future where women are the only real hope for a better civilization, a more equitable civilization (though one where women still have political dominion), but in order to realize that better civilization, women are working through eugenics, through selective breeding, through manipulating the social order to create a palatable future.
Hope for the Future: The hope for the future presented in The Gate to Women's Country is Women's Country itself, and it is a deeply uncomfortable one. The women of the Council are working towards making a better future, but they are doing so through a process of selective breeding in the hopes that generations down the line, violent tendencies will be bred out of men and there will be an opportunity for Women's Country to be the pure utopia it presents itself as.
This is...troubling, to say the least.
It does offer hope that men will be the almost equals of women, but it is also through subjugation. Whether for women or even just for me, if given the option between Women's Country and the garrisons of the men outside of the walls, the option that presents the greatest hope for a future worth living is still that of Women's Country. The future offered by the men of the garrison or the men of the Holylanders down south is not one that I would want any part of and it is certainly not one that women would want a part of.
Legacy: The Gate to Women's Country was on the longlist for the Locus Award for Best SF Novel. It is frequently named among the most important feminist science fiction novels. It is often listed as one of Tepper's finest novels, though the criticism of the ideas presented by Women's Country are noting that they are strongly out of fashion and offensive (assuming they were properly ever in fashion to begin with).
In Retrospect: I'm not sure The Gate to Women's Country is exceptionally well written, but it is compelling to read and is increasingly so the further into the novel readers get. The Gate to Women's Country is ambitious and I think Tepper mostly succeeds at hitting the mark she was aiming for, but a lot of it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
I get the concept of men messing up so badly that women are able to take organizational control of society (and that there will be more rural bands of humanity that have gone so far into a quasi biblical patriarchy that all I can do is shudder when reading those chapters), but the set up makes less sense than it should. Women and "cowardly" / civilized men behind the walls. Savage / Warrior men outside, fighting the battles and being manly men who embody a disgusting view of masculinity. They generally only interact on the twice annual Carnivals where the men can meet up with and mate with whichever woman is willing so as to make more babies and restock the population of warriors or the women of Women's Country. It's a weird set up that makes even less sense with the revelation that the whole system is engineered by the women to actually breed less violent men who will be compliant and choose the way of life of the women despite masculine indoctrination.
It's just that Tepper's prose itself is one of the novel's biggest problems. This is the first of her novels which I've read, so I don't know if her writing normally clunks if you read it too fast or if this is abnormal for her style. But it is Tepper's prose that causes the novel to drag in the early going and barely gets out of the way later on when we're fully invested in Stavia's story (assuming we lasted that long).
The Gate to Women's Country is over the top. I've been thinking about how I react to a novel going all in on an idea when I don't quite connect to it and my counterpoint is a novel like L. Timmel Duchamp's Alanya to Alanya, which also features overt and in your face sexism as well as striking a didactic narrative tone. Despite that, Alanya to Alanya is more personally engaging from the start than The Gate to Women's Country. Something about how Tepper uses the bold strokes she created this future with rings hollow. For me, as a reader, it doesn't work the way it should.
The Gate to Women's Country has a reputation for being among the great works of feminist science fiction, and it may have been at the time, but now thirty years after it was first published, The Gate to Women's Country does not quite hold up to that legacy. Its importance to the canon of science fiction is not in question. The Gate to Women's Country has earned that importance. Its reputation as a novel that remains great today is, however, very much in question.
For its time: 4/5
Wollstonecraft Meter: 6/10
POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.