A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #22:-
THE GATE TO WOMEN’S COUNTRY
Sheri S. Tepper
Voyager pb, 315pp, £4.99
Originally published in 1989, Tepper’s novel depicts a pseudo-Greek culture in which the sexes are segregated. The women are, in the main, wise and sensible. They live in walled towns with names like Marthatown and Emmaburg, and are dedicated to intellectual pursuits. The men call themselves Warriors. They live in garrisons, spout a lot of nonsense about honour and go gallivanting round the countryside killing each other. The two sexes get together at carnival time to procreate. Boy children spend their first five years with the women, then go off to live with the Warriors for ten years, after which those who wish to do so can return through the gate of the title and live as servitors among the women. We see this world through the eyes of the young woman Stavia, and through her experiences discover the true nature of Women’s Country.
Tepper sets the book in a post-holocaust America of the future, and so presents herself with a credibility gap it’s virtually impossible to bridge. She makes a sterling attempt, describing how Women’s Country works in exhaustive detail, but ultimately fails to convince. There are too many elements that seem simply a matter of authorial convenience. Women’s Country has no racial or religious divides. Homosexuality, which would have been a real fly in the writer’s ointment, is dismissed in a few words. Concepts such as democracy and open government are unknown; the women are happy to be ruled by a council, meeting in secret and choosing its own members. Irrational violence and aggression are seen as exclusively Warrior traits. And, while they experience youthful infatuation, for the women mature love, with or without a physical dimension, takes place in secret, if at all.
In spite of all this there’s no denying that the book is a compelling and powerful piece of polemic. Tepper writes with real authority, involving us totally in the harrowing things that happen to her young heroine, so that it’s impossible to remain unmoved, or to not concede that the charges she levels against the male sex have a degree of justification. As an indictment of machismo and its excesses along broad Swiftian lines it works well, raising all sorts of problematic questions about sexual identity, nature versus nurture, and the limitations of power. Recommended, with reservations.