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Literature / The Gate to Women's Country

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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.
  • After the End: The book takes place many, many generations after what is strongly hinted to be a nuclear apocalypse. It's so far After The End, in fact, that human society has completely reorganized itself and forgotten why it originally did so.
  • Author Tract: The book gets a little uncomfortably preachy in explaining why things like forced eugenics and periodic purges (such as orchestrating fake wars for the sole purpose of culling the male population) are not only good but necessary for society at large.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Joshua,and the servitors in general. At first, they're presented as willing servants to the women and described as "calm and judicious men", but as the story goes along, we find out that not only are many of the servitors gifted with psychic abilities that cause those in the garrisons to hate and fear them, but the servitors are also trained in martial arts and will ruthlessly kill any threat to Women's Country.
  • Bittersweet Ending: While we know Stavia survives the story from the very first page and that the rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, the success comes with a high cost: Stavia is raped by Chernon and nearly dies at the hands of the Holylanders, and the entire Marthatown garrison is slaughtered due to the attempted coup that Chernon helped to forment.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: The men in the garrison come off as misogynistic jerks who will gladly rape and kill if given the chance, and the Holyland makes the Taliban look 'reasonable', but the Councilwomen send their warrior men off to die in pointless wars in order to keep their population down and use contraceptive implants on the women without consent to prevent the warriors from breeding. They may be the least-bad group, as their goal is to breed war and violence out of the human race, but their means are still questionable.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Myra, Stavia's older sister. She's presented as a female example of what the leaders of Women's Country are trying to breed out of humanity: mindlessly parroting beliefs without thinking, willing to hurt others just because they're different, antisocial, quick to fight and cause drama, and never accepting responsibility for her actions. Myra hates Joshua, Corrig, and other servitors just because her warrior-boyfriend does, and eventually leaves home because of it.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The book about reindeer breeding. It's introduced as an inconsequential, simplistic schoolbook belonging to Stavia's friend, Beneda, that describes life and cultures before the apocalypse. Chernon then steals the book and reads from it daily as his personal act of contempt against Women's Country. However, as things are starting to come to a head towards the end, we find out that the book actually has the information that Chernon and the warriors were seeking all along: the Laplanders' bred violence and aggression out of their reindeer to ensure their survival, just as Women's Country is doing with the human race.
  • Days of Future Past: Some of the social structure of Women's Country borrows heavily from Ancient Greece and Rome. The Warrior garrisons are structured like Roman legions, and there is a huge amount of emphasis placed on the book's in-universe play, "Iphigenia at Ilium", which mirrors the unfolding plot and themes of the book.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Stavia's daughter Susannah is named for the Holyland woman who died while trying to help Stavia.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Corrig is shown as having prophetic dreams. He not only warns Stavia against what she's planning on the exploration trip by claiming he had a dream of it, he also predicts her future children.
  • Driven to Suicide: Susannah Brome, who's supposedly descended from a captured Women's Country citizen and is not only horribly abused by the Holyland men, but has to deal with her young daughters married off and raped by much older men. When she sees her one hope of rescue assaulted and nearly killed — and is beaten for trying to protest — she hangs herself in the barn.
  • Fantasy Gun Control: Women's Country purposely keeps its weapons technology at the "swords and spears" level, out of fear that if the warriors had better weapons, it could start an arms race that would lead to another nuclear war.
  • Feminist Fantasy: Women are presented as the wise, nurturing leaders of all human knowledge and civilization and are in charge of the entire society.
  • 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: Subverted. All children are conceived during the carnival season, and the boys are sent to live with their warrior fathers when they turn five. Warriors are shown take pride in fathering sons, welcoming the little boys into the garrison and formally disowning their sons if they become servitors. The warriors are also shown to become violent over it; their philosophy is that women are useless unless they bear sons for the warriors, and that daughters are useless. Meanwhile, girls trace their lineage solely through their mother (for example, Stavia Morgotsdaughter), and aren't even supposed to ask who their fathers are. Ultimately subverted when we find out the warriors don't father any children at all. All children are sired by the servitors, and Women's Country deliberately lies to the warriors about it as part of their program to breed warlike traits out of humanity.
  • Heteronormative Crusader: Women's Country is run by these (oddly enough, as they're contrasted with religious fundamentalists), removing genetic traits for homosexuality in utero.
  • House Husband: The basic function of the servitors. They do many of the household chores and help to raise the children and in general are assumed to be subservient to the women. Fitting the trope, they 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, and have many more abilities and responsibilities that the warriors aren't aware of.
  • How We Got Here: The book begins in the present, with Stavia's son returning to the titular Gate to denounce his mother. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn how her son was conceived and how he came to despise her.
  • 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.
  • Lady Land: "Women's Country" of the title. Boys are exiled at age five to the male Warriors outside. Starting at age fifteen and up to twenty-five, young men may return to Women's Country as Servitors.
  • 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.
  • Mirroring Factions: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus 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.