Of all the books by Sheri S. Tepper I have read, this is perhaps the most overtly feminist in that the post-apocalyptic society she describes is clear...moreOf all the books by Sheri S. Tepper I have read, this is perhaps the most overtly feminist in that the post-apocalyptic society she describes is clearly matriarchal. Yet it is not an angry, man-bashing diatribe. Instead The Gate To Women's Country presents a fledgling eco-utopian society where the ultimate aim is balance and equality between the sexes within a pacifist, non-violent culture. The means by which the Women's Council set out to achieve this balance, however, are both morally and ethically questionable. As well as being a very well written story, with excellent characterisation and a strong plot, this book raises issues that stay with you long after the final page has been turned.
The book opens with Stavia, the central character, meeting with her fifteen-year old son who has made the decision to reject her and Women's Country for the life of a warrior in the garrison outside the town. From this poignant opening the story shifts between Stavia as an adult and member of the Women's Council and her earlier life from the age of eleven onwards. She grows up with her mother Morgot and older sister Myra in Marthatown; a place where sons are given to their fathers at the age of five to be trained as warriors for ten years after which they have the choice to remain in the Spartan-like garrison or return through the Women's Gate for a peaceful life of learning and servitude.
Women's Country is a low-tech culture, still recovering from the destruction that occurred in the time of the 'convulsions' when North America was devastated by nuclear war. Farming, manufacturing, metallurgy, trade, education, medicine; these are all undertaken by women within walled towns, protected by their warrior brothers, sons and lovers in the garrisons outside the gates. Stavia is the daughter of a doctor and Council member and looks set to follow in her mother's path until she breaks the rules or 'ordinances' by giving books to an older boy with whom she forms a close friendship. However, we know that his motives are not as benign as Stavia thinks. There are secrets in Women's Country and while the men in the garrisons do not know what these secrets are, they are very keen to find out, wanting more power and influence in a society that pretty much excludes them.
Without wishing to spoil the plot, the men are right to believe that the women are holding back significant information from them. By segregating the sexes and restricting mens' access to education and pre-destruction knowledge, the women are able to manipulate the technology they have to make advances towards a non-violent society. How this is achieved is the secret that could destroy everything should the men uncover the truth. It also raises a very real moral dilemma... do the means justify the hoped for end result? Certainly it gave me plenty to think about after I had finished reading the book.
Sheri S. Tepper's writing is gentle and allows the plot to develop gradually over time. I found Stavia to be a compelling narrator, particularly when she used her 'actor' persona to hide her conflicting emotions. I also really liked Joshua, the family servitor, who, although very much in the background, was wise and insightful and provided balance to an otherwise divided culture. To some degree he was presented as an idealised male archetype, something the society strived for, yet because he had rejected the warrior life, he was also somehow lacking in honour and not always given the respect he deserved. The men in the garrison, on the other hand, were largely stereotyped as aggressive, resentful and hungry for power and control. Another group, the 'Holylanders', misogynistic polygamous descendents of fundamentalist-type Christians were interesting in that they provided a stark contrast to the culture of the Women's Country.
Throughout The Gate to Women's Country are scenes from Iphigenia of Ilium, the traditional play that the Council put on every year before the summer carnival. This is a reworking of the Greek tragedy The Trojan Women and used as a guiding theme or leitmotif, as the adult Stavia prepares to play her part in the performance. I found this particularly interesting as it was treated almost as a religious text, and indeed, highlighted certain aspects of this post-apocalyptic society.
It is fair to say that I really enjoyed reading The Gate to Women's Country and found it gave me plenty to think about. Would I enjoy living in such a matriarchal society, where, apart from the servitors, contact with men was limited to two carnivals every year? While I appreciated the desire for a completely pacifist society, I am not sure I would be prepared to go along with the measures the Women’s Council practiced in their attempt to achieve this. To me this felt oppressive and lacking in basic respect for the men, and the secrecy surrounding this was deceitful to say the least. However, this is a society still trying to rebuild itself some three hundred years after a nuclear war; a war that was indiscriminate in selecting its millions of innocent victims and blighted large parts of the land; a war that was started and fought predominantly by men… our own current society.