Literature / The Gate to Women's Country

The Gate to Women's Country is a 1988 novel by Sheri S. Tepper.

It's a familiar backstory. Three hundred years ago, humanity nearly destroyed itself in a nuclear war. Out of the ashes, a few survivors built a new society, Women's Country, which dedicated itself to making sure that no such destruction would ever happen again. They formed a new social order: the women would live inside their walled cities, dedicating themselves to education, farming, and rebuilding civilization, while the men would live outside the walls as warriors, dedicated to protecting the city.

Twice a year, each city throws a carnival, when the men are allowed to visit inside the walls for a few weeks—and during which time all children are conceived. When a boy turns five, he goes to live with his father in the warriors' garrison. Then, when he turns fifteen, he must make a choice: stay in the garrison, and become a full-fledged warrior, or return to the city and live as a servitor (a domestic worker subservient to the women). In the macho culture of the warriors, becoming a servitor is seen as cowardly and dishonorable—not surprisingly, few boys choose to do it.

The story opens with Stavia, a member of the ruling council of Marthatown, receiving a summons down to the garrison. Her son, Dawid, has just turned fifteen, and proudly declares he'll stay in the garrison. The two of them say the ritual words (he renounces all ties to her, and she tells him he's no longer her child), and Stavia sadly returns home to her two daughters and their family's servitor, Corrig.

The rest of the story takes place in flashback, as Stavia thinks back to when she was ten years old, and her family went to bring her five-year-old brother to the garrison. While she was there, she caught the eye of a warrior boy named Chernon, and the future was set in motion...

The Gate To Women's Country contains examples of:

  • Aerith and Bob: Michael, Joshua, and Myra live alongside Chernon, Corrig, and Stavia.
  • Black and Gray Morality: The men in the garrison come off as jerks, and Holyland is anything but heavenly, but the Councilwomen send their menfolk off to die in pointless wars in order to keep their population down and prevent them from reproducing. They may be the least-bad group, but their means are still questionable.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The book about reindeer breeding.
  • Circus Brat: The Birds, a family of traveling magicians and entertainers.
  • Cure Your Gays: Before they're even born, by "correcting" any hormone imbalance in utero.
  • Days of Future Past: The social structure of Women's Country borrows heavily from Ancient Greece.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Stavia's daughter Susannah is named for the Holyland woman who tried to help Stavia.
  • Fantasy Gun Control: Women's Country purposely keeps its weapons technology at the "swords and spears" level, out of fear that if one city had better weapons, it could start an arms race that would lead to another nuclear war.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Myra and Stavia have this dynamic, with Stavia being the responsible one even though she's seven years younger. However, when Stavia does do something foolish, it ends up having far worse consequences than anything Myra's ever done.
  • The Fundamentalist: The Holylanders are a whole society of them.
  • Heir Club for Men: Played with. All children are conceived during the carnival season, and the boys are sent to live with their warrior fathers when they turn five. Warriors take pride in fathering sons (even if they were too drunk to remember conceiving them), welcoming the little boys into the garrison and formally disowning their sons if they become servitors (with mothers doing the same thing if they become warriors). Meanwhile, girls trace their lineage solely through their mother (for example, Stavia Morgotsdaughter), and aren't even supposed to ask who their fathers are.
  • House Husband: The basic function of the servitors. They cook, clean, take care of children, and, fitting the trope, are looked down on by the more traditionally masculine warriors. Subverted, though, in that they aren't married or involved with the women whose households they serve. Not officially, anyway.
  • Humans Are Bastards: And Women's Country intends to breed it out of them.
  • Humans Are Psychic in the Future: It's noted that many servitors have a hint of psychic power, which may or may not have influenced their choice to come back to the city. Joshua uses it for things like finding lost toys around the house, and for weeding out a rebellion in the garrison.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Joshua is Stavia's father, as well as her brothers'.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: Invoked by Morgot when she explains why warfare in Women's Country is more humane than it was in the pre-apocalyptic society. Only men who've chosen to be warriors have to fight and die, rather than women and children being slaughtered and whole cities being destroyed.
  • Monochrome Casting: It's pretty clear that the entire population of Women's Country is white. Might be justified by the fact that the Pacific Northwest was mostly white when the book was written, and three hundred years of isolation could have meant other races blended into the majority.
  • No Woman's Land: Holyland, descended from the worst kind of Mormon fundamentalism.
  • Not So Different: One possible interpretation of Holyland. We see two societies in which one gender exercises absolute control while the other is reduced to servitude, and where being the wrong gender can get you killed. The main differences are that the men in Women's Country are treated well compared to the women of Holyland; and that the policies in Women's Country are designed to make the world a better place for both men and women, whereas the practices in Holyland are based on misplaced religious fundamentalism and are proving self-destructive.
  • Schizo Tech: A minor example. Women's Country depends on animals for transport, and most of the houses don't have electricity, but the country also maintains a hydroelectric dam (which runs a number of factories) and uses fairly advanced medical technology, including hormonal birth control implants. Justified by the After the End setting, and the fact that the country deliberately invokes Fantasy Gun Control.
  • Show Within a Show: "Iphigenia at Illium".
  • Single-Minded Twins: Kostia and Tonia, Septemius Bird's nieces.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Both the book and Women's Country itself are firmly on the cynicism side.
  • Tap on the Head: Averted. Cappy Brome tries to play the trope straight when he whacks Stavia with a shovel, but ends up giving her a near-fatal brain injury.
  • Troubled, but Cute: Chernon plays on this trope to woo Stavia.
  • Twin Telepathy: Kostia and Tonia share this, as well as general Psychic Powers, which come in handy in their family's magician act. Morgot is pleased when she finds out, since such powers are hardly ever seen in women.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Inverted. It's actually the good guys who want to create a better world through a secret eugenics program.