Christy's Reviews > The Gate to Women's Country

The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper
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** spoiler alert ** On my second reading: I don't think I gave Tepper enough credit the first time I read this book.

The treatment of homosexuality still bothers me. Although, as one commenter has said, it could be argued that this is simply an authorial choice to make it easier for Tepper to explore the specific issues she wishes to focus on, it strikes me as too simplistic to simply say, "Oh, teh gay, we fixed that a while back," especially since the book is so much about questions of biology and essential natures and this particular issue (as opposed to the issues of violence and masculinity) seems to be rather taken for granted where it could be explored in very interesting ways.

Where I think I sold Tepper short on first reading is in her treatment of gender differences and biology. Upon re-reading, her approach to the issue of masculine versus feminine natures is quite complex. Tepper reinforces biological essentialism through the plot mechanic of breeding for nonviolence among the men (and through discussions of women's inherent nurturing natures) but also simultaneously critiques it by painting the actions of the Council as, at the very least, morally ambiguous. In the end, the women seem to be making some progress toward a world with no violence and no war, but, Tepper leads the reader to ask, is that acceptable if, to reach that world, they must engage in violence themselves?

As is said in the play-within-the-novel, Iphigenia at Ilium,
Dead or damned, that's the choice we make. Either you men kill us and are honored for it, or we women kill you and are damned for it. Dead or damned. Women don't have to make choices like that in Hades. There's no love there, nothing to betray. . . . Hades is Women's Country.
The women who are in the know, therefore, are damned by their choices to kill men to save themselves and their sisters; the women who live in Women's Country all unknowing (most of the women there) are in Hades, which is "like dream without waking. Like carrying water in a sieve. Like coming into harbor after storm. Barren harbor where the empty river runs through an endless desert into the sea. Where all the burdens have been taken away." They live in a hell of ignorance, lost choices, and emptiness. This is quite a condemnation.

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This is a fascinating exploration of the relationship and differences between men and women. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, The Gate to Women's Country presents a society in which men and women have two very different cultures. The women live inside walled cities, growing food for both the men and the women, doing medicine and art and science and family; the men live in the garrison, outside the city walls, fighting and preparing for war. The women support the men and the men protect the women. Except for some men, who, after spending their childhood (from age 5) living in the garrison and being raised by the men to be warriors, choose to return to the city through the Women's Gate, to becomes servitors who live among the women and to learn to be productive members of that society instead of becoming warriors.

The book sets up several key dichotomies--men/women, warrior/servitor, strong/weak--and then calls them, or at least our assumptions about them, into question. In doing so, Tepper makes an argument for the women's cities as the beginning of a true feminist utopia, a utopia that is not without men but that is without a certain kind of men. Morgot, a powerful leader of the women's community, explains:

"Three hundred years ago almost everyone in the world had died in a great devastation brought about by men. It was men who made the weapons and men who were the diplomats and men who made the speeches about national pride and defense. And in the end it was men who did whatever they had to do, pushed the buttons or pulled the string to set the terrible things off. And we died. . . . Almost all of us. Women. Children. . . . Martha [a founder of women's country:] taught that the destruction had come about because of men's willingness--even eagerness--to fight, and she determined that this eagerness to fight must be bred out of our race, even though it might take a thousand years" (301-2).

Tepper, in this argument combines an argument against war as we know it with an argument for gender equality--for the violence and destruction unleashed by this war is mirrored in the violence and destruction that had existed within human society (e.g., domestic violence, rape, genital mutilation). She is very careful, however, to again make the distinction between types of men and types of society, as Morgot says that it wasn't "that bad as a general rule, I don't think. Love existed, after all. Some men and women have always loved one another. Not all cultures oppressed women" (292).

There are problems with this book, however. One is the essentialism of the argument. Although Tepper does allow for those men who are not warriors, who return to the cities as servitors, she still bases her argument on the assumption that men and women are fundamentally different. Men are, mostly, violent, aggressive, dominating; women are, mostly, cooperative, pacifist, nurturing. The fact that these things are changing as the women attempt to create a new kind of man, replacing the old kind through the process of genetic selection, could either be the saving grace or the final evidence that, in Tepper's world, men and women are fundamentally what biology says they are. The relationship between biology and culture definitely needs to be furthered explored.

Another major problem is the treatment of homosexuality. Basically, it doesn't exist any more. It's explained that "even in pre-convulsion times it was known that the so-called 'gay syndrome' was caused by aberrant hormone levels during pregnancy. The women doctors now identified the condition as 'hormonal reproductive maladaption' and corrected it before birth. There were very few actual HNRMS--called HenRams--either male or female, born in Women's Country" (76). This is troubling for the queer movement because it turns homosexuality into nothing more than a disease to be cured and reasserts the hegemony of heterosexuality. In a world where men and women are segregated, it seems that outlawing homosexual behavior or "curing" homosexuality as an orientation only serves to limit the kinds of love and desire available. Frankly, it seems unreasonable. It's an interesting counterpoint to other feminist utopias (for instance, Joanna Russ's The Female Man) and their treatment of female sexuality.

The other problem I have with the book is less theoretical and more aesthetic. Although I enjoyed the book greatly and found the ideas worth exploring (even if I didn't always agree with the assumptions made by Tepper), sometimes the prose itself grated on me. Mostly, it did this when it felt like Tepper was trying too hard to be artsy or complex. For example, here's the opening paragraph of the novel:

"Stavia saw herself as in a picture, from the outside, a darkly cloaked figure moving along a cobbled street, the stones sheened with a soft, early spring rain. On either side the gutters ran with an infant chuckle and gurgle, baby streams being amused with themselves. The corniced buildings smiled candlelit windows across at one another, their shoulders huddled protectively inward--though not enough to keep the rain from streaking the windows and making the candlelight seem the least bit weepy, a luxurious weepiness, as after a two-hanky drama of love lost or unrequited" (1).

Now while this does get the reader thinking immediately of love, loss, and children (important in the upcoming scene) and also introduces the concept of self-division that Stavia describes occurring to her repeatedly throughout the book, it also creates a rather garbled set of metaphors. There's joy in the gutters, protection in the windows, and sadness in the light--that's a lot of emotion to lay on one street.

One more example to make my point:

"Septemius and his people were in the street when they saw Stavia next, she coming along the walk with her marketing bag on her shoulder, brow furrowed with concentration over something or other, so she almost bumped them before hearing Kostia and Tonia's greeting, a vibrating 'Hello, Medic," which hung on the air like the reverberation of a gong" (170).

The contrived word order and the sheer length of this sentence serve only to complicate what should be a very simple encounter on the street. Not to mention the oddness of the description of Kostia and Tonia's greeting.

I mention the style because it is a recurring issue while reading the book, but it is only an infrequently occurring issue. Most of the time, Tepper's prose is perfectly clear and serves to advance the plot nicely. Some of the time, the style is even good (I particularly like the play-within-the-novel and some of the descriptions of the landscape outside the walls of the city).

In the end, because this is a book that I enjoyed, that raises interesting questions, and that isn't without ideological problems to be discussed and worked out, this would make a great book to teach, especially in conjunction with other feminist SF.
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Reading Progress

06/12/2010 page 1
0.0% "Re-reading as a refresher before I write about it."

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Brimate nice review! it has helped me revisit the book and think about it some more. i forgot about the homosexuality part or i must have glanced over it because i don't really remember it. that is quite problematic, like you say.

and for the counterpoint of books like The Female Man, I wish I had gotten more out of Russ' book. It didn't make much sense to me; I guess it was over my head, especially with the experimental narrative style. I did like the utopia part, and that does provide a juxtaposition to Tepper.

Your point about it being a good book to teach makes me consider teaching literature. My plan is to teach history, and maybe I could sneak in a novel or two, but it would be so much more fun to teach literature. and there are so many amazing books which raise all kinds of issues, that a literature course could be incredibly political.

anyway, thanks for your review. i also distro this book and i'll keep the essentializing of gender and dismissal of queer folks in mind when i talk to folks about it.


message 2: by Hazel (last edited Jun 13, 2010 04:58AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hazel This is one of my favourites, Christy. I had also overlooked the 'homosexuality part'. Thinking about it now, I wonder if Tepper found this a simpler/easier way to deal with homosexuality in the story. I imagine working out the genetics and the gender roles would be more complex otherwise. She'd have to consider whether gay women would behave differently from straight; whether gay men would behave differently from the warriors/servitors.


Christy I looked at it as part of the larger point Tepper was making. Also, I've always been worried that it would happen in our society. If it really is a gay gene, what would stop the homophobes from eliminating it? The way people sex select now?

I like this way of thinking about it, but I'll have to give it some more thought. Although the way homosexuality is treated in the book is definitely interesting for its time, it still makes me uncomfortable. And not in the same, obviously intentionally challenging, way that the selective breeding does. I think it makes me uncomfortable because it's dealt with so briefly and thus almost becomes a throwaway idea. And as a throwaway idea, it is too easy to assume that homosexuality is bad. And so, even though I know that all of the things you mention are true, it remains far too easy to read this as growing out of the 1980s discomfort with and judgment of homosexuality, too. If Tepper had just spent more time on it, developing some approach to it a little more, I would feel better.

Finally, I have not included Darkover Landfall (or any Marion Zimmer Bradley, actually) in my research. I think I may have overlooked her because, in order to put some kind of limits on what I have to read, I'm trying to stick primarily to science fiction instead of fantasy and I thought she wrote mostly fantasy. Am I wrong?


Christy Cool, thanks for the recommendation! I'll definitely check those out. :-)


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