Sheri S. Tepper

The Gate to Women’s Country

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The Gate to Women’s Country Summary

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Sherri Tepper’s 1988 science fiction novel, The Gate to Women’s Country, takes place three hundred years after a catastrophic war has decimated human civilization. In the US Pacific Northwest, female survivors have established a network of walled cities that adhere to a matriarchal social and political order. Women hold political power and live within the city walls, while most men are relegated to garrisons outside the walls. Stavia, the daughter of a Councilwoman in the city of Marthatown, questions the matriarchal system and its strict separation of the sexes. Her journey of discovery exposes the difficulty of balancing power with ethics.

In Marthatown and its sister cities, boys live with their mothers inside the city walls until age five, after which they live with their fathers in the garrisons. A warrior culture prevails in the garrisons. Strength, courage, and stoicism are upheld as the defining qualities of a man; without them, he is unfit to participate in mankind’s most honorable occupation: waging war. While women in the city apply themselves to education and the arts, including technology, the men in the garrisons disparage learning and reading, which, in any case, is forbidden to them by government ordinance.

After ten years of immersion in the warrior culture, fifteen-year-old boys are given the choice to remain as warrior defenders of the city or return through the gate to “women’s country.” Few males return to the city, partly due to the influence of the garrison culture, but largely because of their masculine affinity for violence. Those that do return become “servitors,” valued, but nevertheless, second-class citizens who serve as assistants to the women. Because servitors have rejected the warrior lifestyle and the violence it glorifies, they are exceptionally peaceful, sensitive men. Indeed, some are so empathic they’re clairvoyant.

At the beginning of the novel, Stavia’s fifteen-year-old son, Dawid, has chosen to renounce his mother in favor of continuing to live as a warrior. This doesn’t surprise Stavia, but it still unsettles her. After enduring Dawid’s public ceremony of repudiation, she goes to rehearsal for the city’s annual staging of Iphigenia in Ilium. Stavia’s mother, Morgot, a powerful political leader, once played the part of Iphigenia. Now Stavia, at thirty-seven, is rehearsing to perform the title role. According to Greek mythology, Iphigenia was sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon, to obtain favorable winds for the Greek warships. A re-working of Euripides’s tragedy The Trojan Women, the city’s production of Iphigenia is billed as parody, even as it conveys the violence that war perpetrates on women in particular.

During rehearsal, Stavia is preoccupied with thoughts of Dawid and her past. While the narrative periodically returns to scenes from the present production of the play, it jumps back in time, revealing Stavia’s distracted recollections of her relationship with Dawid’s father, Chernon.

Stavia is ten years old when she first sees Chernon. As her brother, Jerby, is five, Stavia, her mother, and her older sister, Myra, are delivering him to his father, Michael, at the garrison. Although women and men live largely isolated from one another, twice a year the city holds a carnival, during which the two sexes are allowed to mingle as they please. At these times, Morgot has paired up with Michael, a handsome, headstrong garrison officer. Chernon, a thirteen-year-old boy, catches Stavia’s attention while she is at the garrison, but having witnessed Myra acting “illogical” around boys, Stavia considers herself too rational for romance.

When Stavia meets Chernon again, a year later, she is attracted to him despite herself. Moreover, Chernon is keen to cultivate a relationship with her as he has been recruited by Michael to do so. Because the warriors receive no education outside of military training, they cannot read, have no scientific knowledge, and are limited to only primitive weaponry. Honor-bound to protect the women, covertly, they wish to dominate them and take over the city. Michael and the other warrior leaders hope that by winning the affections of Stavia, a Councilwoman’s daughter, Chernon can procure information about any secret technologies the women have developed.

Chernon beguiles bookish Stavia by expressing an interest in reading and learning. Defying the city’s ordinance against supplying warriors with educational materials, Stavia smuggles science books to Chernon in the garrison. She admires Chernon’s apparent desire to educate himself, but her unlawful behavior, as well as her growing infatuation with him, causes her turmoil. Joshua, a beloved and perceptive servitor for Stavia’s family, intuits Stavia’s distress. Following his advice, Stavia departs for another city where she studies medicine for eight years.

When she finally returns to Marthatown, however, Chernon is waiting for her, and his persistence pays off. Morgot suggests that Stavia undertake a research trip to lands south of the city, and Stavia clandestinely arranges for Chernon to join her. Once they’re alone together outside the city, he forces himself on her in what constitutes rape. This marks the beginning of an ill-fated sexual relationship, which soon disillusions Stavia. Recognizing Chernon is aggressive by nature, she wants to part ways with him, but then they are captured by the Holylanders, a rogue community of religious fundamentalists.

The antithesis of the Marthatown community, the Holylanders are a patriarchal sect that cruelly controls and oppresses its female members, justifying such abuse with religious doctrine. Stavia is ultimately rescued by Joshua and another servitor, but not before she experiences brutal mistreatment. She also discovers she’s pregnant with Chernon’s child.

Back in Marthatown, Morgot finally shares with Stavia the “women’s country’s” secret campaign to genetically engineer a peaceful population. The carnivals and the “assignations” that take place therein are simply a ruse. Unbeknownst to most women, they’ve been implanted with contraceptives. The medical exams following the carnival are not actually to ensure gynecological health, but to artificially inseminate select women with a servitor’s sperm. The violent warriors are not fathers; children are the offspring of gentle men.

Meanwhile, Chernon returns to the garrison with news of the Holylanders’ patriarchal practices. Inspired by this model of male dominance, the warriors plot in earnest to conquer the city, but Morgot and Joshua are wise to them. They kill Michael and the other insurgent leaders and conspire with neighboring Tabithatown to manufacture a war that will wipe out the remaining Marthatown warriors.

The narrative ends in the present, with Stavia performing as Iphigenia.

While Tepper’s novel is often described as feminist, many recent reviewers object that its basic premise – that gender determines behavior – contradicts twenty-first-century feminist thinking. Moreover, the novel’s matriarchs use their power to control and manipulate men, raising ethical questions.