Review: The Gate to Women’s Country

TW: homophobia, transphobia.

This review contains spoilers.

It was only as I was leaving my local library with Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country in tow that I remembered that Tepper was responsible for the woeful The Margarets, an unfocused and regressive novel that took me simply ages to finish.

So it was with some trepidation that I opened The Gate to Women’s Country, and with some surprise that I realised I rather liked it.

It’s set in a post-apocalyptic version of what is probably North America, about three hundred years after what was probably a nuclear war. The recovering landscape is dotted with small towns with names like Marthatown and Susantown. In these towns, the women work, learn, practice medicine, grow food, raise children and generally run a functioning, sustainable society (complete with a thriving artistic culture), while the men (mostly) live in garrisons and conduct periodic wars with the garrisons of neighbouring towns.

It’s the kind of over-simplistic social stratification that I usually find deeply suspect. And, to be sure, Tepper makes her society’s views on queer people abundantly, vindictively clear:

“Even in preconvulsion times it had been 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 HRNMs – called HenRams – either male or female, born in Women’s Country, though there was still the occasional unsexed person or the omnisexed who would, so the instructors said, mate with a grasshopper if it would hold still long enough.”

That nasty paragraph, round about page 76, is extremely hard to swallow. (It’s worth noting that The Margarets is similarly homophobic and transphobic – though less explicitly so than here.) And I don’t want to play down the damage it does!

And yet – still I found Tepper’s novel fascinating. Because this isn’t a Hunger Games-style dystopia, where a Chosen One works to bring the system down. No. The Gate to Women’s Country is a bildungsroman of sorts: we watch as Our Hero, the young woman Stavia, grows into her society; as she strains against its apparently arbitrary restrictions and rules, she begins to appreciate their function.

Because one of the big questions the novel is asking is: what price utopia? The novel’s most vertiginous reveal, right at the end, is that the secrecy-shrouded sisterhood that rules this society is basically running a selection programme with the remnants of humanity: they’re striving to breed violence out of the population to avoid another catastrophic war. This, without the consent or knowledge of the people who they’re sterilising or impregnating to get the right results. It’s this sisterhood that Stavia grows into, having experienced first-hand the violence that men can visit upon women when she inadvertently strays into a community of paternalistic fundamentalist Christians which is suffering from a chronic shortage of wives. (Content warning here for rape.)

While the idea that violence is a) exclusively male and b) genetically determined is obviously simplistic, I think the moral picture here is quite interesting. It’s pretty clear that having to make these decisions on behalf of the populace is a curse for these women; and equally clear that they feel it’s necessary to protect humanity from itself. It’s also clear that Women’s Country is, by and large, happy, stable and functioning; there are sacrifices to be made, when sons reject their mothers to join the garrisons; but everyone is reasonably well-fed, everyone is healthy, and though the women work hard they also seem fulfilled. (Garrison culture, on the other hand, is basically toxic. But then that’s Tepper’s point.) So: is this contingent, imperfect utopia – which is getting ever better as the land heals and fewer and fewer boys choose to join the garrisons – worth the price everyone is paying for it?

There’s also a sub-question, here, about what honour looks like. Is it the men squabbling in their barracks, scheming maliciously against the women and punishing the weak – but, oh, how bright their banners? Or is it the women, working steadily to remake the world? I do enjoy Tepper’s examination of women’s work and how fundamental it actually is to a functioning society – it’s something SF doesn’t often consider structurally, and in that respect I can see how this has been hailed as a feminist classic.

Of course if you’re going to do that you also have to acknowledge the limits of its feminism: its exclusion of LGBT+ people, and its gender-essentialist conclusion that women are not capable of excessive violence (and that they’re genetically inclined to its obverse, the work of nurturing and caring). It is, in other words, a massively flawed work – albeit a well-structured one with an unusually coherent worldview and some pertinent questions about what society should look like. I enjoyed it without enjoying its politics, which I think is pretty rare for me. I’ll approach Tepper warily in future, though.

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