Wednesday, April 17, 2013

When Women Rule the World: Sherri S. Tepper's "The Gate to Women's Country"

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From the onset, it's hard to tell The Gate to Women's Country apart from The Shore of Women. Both are stories featuring post-apocalyptic settings in which women preside over great, peaceful cities, whereas men are left out to be warriors amongst each other. The differences between the stories are minor: instead of women not caring about giving up their sons (like in Shore), Tepper brings the reader through an emotional process that is very real. Instead of procreating with the aids of science (like in Shore), women and men meet twice a year at carnivals. In Tepper's world, men may return to the female cities at age fifteen if they choose.
Tepper creates a dual-natured gender society, one in which the balance of power appears to be equal between men and women, with perhaps a bit more power going to the men. By the end of the book, the big reveal shows the true balance of power to be entirely in favor of the women. After a nuclear war three-hundred years before, women decided to take over and establish new cities. Like Shore, they wanted to keep men out, but they also wanted to create an illusion to keep them happy. Part of the illusion is letting the men in the garrisons believe that they father children from women inside of Women’s Country. Really, all babies are born from artificial insemination. Sperm is carefully selected from those men who live within Women’s Country, as they have no desire for violence. Violence is a trait the women are set on breeding out of the men, even if it takes centuries to do so. Every fifteen-year-old male who chooses to return to Women’s Country then becomes part of the breeding pool.
The entire set-up of Women’s Country is a large breeding program, which the men are completely unaware of. The women allow the garrisons from different towns to go to war with one another, and they allow it to control the male population, or to get rid of undesirables quickly. The reader comes to understand how the men are puppets, much like the men in Shore. However, unlike Shore, the women in Women’s Country hope to reconcile with men eventually, by breeding out their violent natures.
The entire novel is themed around power. In the beginning, women appear weak, deferring to the men, loving men, giving into them. The men seem strong, protecting the women. One might argue Tepper set up a conventional dual-natured society, with proper male/female gender roles. Later, the women are seen to hold all of the power, and the men (the ones in the garrisons at least) are seen as pathetic, almost like children playing their little war games, unaware of the secrets and power the women hold over them.
For a good part of the novel, the men in the garrisons are convinced the women have secrets, but they don’t know what they are. Some of the men plot to get at the secrets, to control the women. The novel got me thinking about life, how men may believe women have secrets, or believe childbirth to be a sort of secret (or power). Considering all the anti-abortion measures state legislatures have taken, it’s possible the men of these states are uncomfortable at the thought of women controlling their own secrets, their own power. Even if their ideas about abortion are steeped in their religion, their religion is steeped in male-powered rhetoric.
At times during the novel, the comparisons between Shore and The Handmaid’s Tale would prompt the reader to believe Tepper wrote it as a further exploration of the elements in both of those feminist utopian/dystopic novels. Unlike Shore or The Handmaid’s Tale, Women’s Country is trying to change, trying to become better than the status quo, and as H.G. Wells tells it, the mark of a modern utopia is one that is ever-changing (9).
Tepper implies that a male-dominated world revolves around violence and competition, and the only end-game to such a cycle is destruction through war. According to Tepper, in history, those who suffer most in war (without any real say) are women and children.
In Women’s Country, women and children are spared from senseless death. Tepper describes Women’s Country as a world in which women have complete control, and the results are for better, or as good as they can be in a post-nuclear age.
Even as Tepper creates a sort of utopia, there are several dystopic elements to her story, such as the war games the women allow the men to play out. It is viewed as an activity the men need to do, to channel their aggression and keep their illusion of power intact, but when the men are dying on the fields, they are not allowed help for their wounds. The smallest wound can fester, turn to blood poisoning, and kill the man weeks later, a horrific death Tepper describes of one of the men. Also, the men in the garrisons are not allowed to have or create any technological advances, not just in weaponry, but everyday items that might create a better life for them are also barred. Because of the way the men are bred, most of them don’t care about advancing anyway (only a few do), but the females in the city, the perceptive ones, feel it’s wrong to intentionally hold the men back. It’s comparable to holding a dog in a cage.
The major dystopic element of Tepper’s world is the fact that from five years of age on, little boys get sent out of the cities and into the garrisons. They are separated from their families, and it can sometimes be a traumatic separation. Just like in Shore, the position of the women are elevated (and if it were the other way around, it would be just as wrong), and men (no, little children) are made to suffer for the power-swap.
A side-note: The Gate to Women's Country is a good book, nearly as good or even better than A Handmaid's Tale in my view. It's written with the same weird displaced timeline as The Dispossessed, and the writing in it feels more like poetry (at times). While The Shore of Women is great, too, I found the writing style to be a bit too romanticized. With The Gate to Women's Country, Tepper tackles the male/female romantic dynamic, but with a more objective eye than Sargent. Then again, I've also considered Sargent's over-use of romantic language and phrasing may have been on purpose, as a parody of the way women and men view one another.

Tepper, Stewart, Sheri. The Gate to Women’s Country. New York: Bantam Spectra, 1989. Print.

Wells, George, Herbert. A Modern Utopia. London: Chapman & Hall, 1905. Print.

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