• Deborah Siegel
  • MY FAVORITE BOOK YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF: The Gate to Women's Country
Written by
Deborah Siegel
August 2009
Written by
Deborah Siegel
August 2009
The following post is penned by SheWrites member Linda Lowen. If Margaret Atwood hadn't published The Handmaid's Tale in 1985 and sucked all the air out of the room for other women writers exploring contemporary gender issues under the guise of a feminist dystopian novel, Sherri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country (1988) might have been more widely read. Back then I came across the novel serendipitously. On display at my local library, the dust jacket caught my eye. A rainbow reaching across a vast chasm. Tiny human figures dwarfed by distance. The phrase 'women's country' caught my imagination. It had been six years since I'd read my first feminist utopian novel, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman The premise of a society of women living separate from men continued to captivate me, probably more than was good for me. I was soon to be married, leaving women's country behind for the land of cohabitation and cooperation. The Gate to Women's Country takes place in a future hundreds of years after 'the convulsions' of nuclear war have poisoned large areas of land. Despite the devastation, small feudal -type communities have sprung up. All bearing the names of women. All protected by armies of men. The novel's title describes a point of access between these two separate and distinct societies: a female-centric town enclosed by a high wall and the garrison outside where the majority of men live, work, and train as warriors. The women oversee the infrastructure and hold positions at every level -- from ruling Council members to farmers and laborers. In contrast the men are relatively idle, spending their days in drills, marches, games, and contests, all in preparation for battles mostly anticipated but rarely fought, while their food, clothing, and material goods are provided by the women. The two sides come together for carnival, a biannual holiday of drinking, dancing, and assignations between warriors and women. Pregnant women who bear daughters keep the girls. If they bear sons, each must surrender her boy at age 5 to his warrior father for the next 10 years. At age 15 a male can stay in the garrison permanently and train to be a full-fledged warrior, or return to Women's Country where a small percentage of men live and work as servitors to the women. It is through the Gate to Women's Country that the young men must return -- a gate mothers look to with hope and longing and warrior fathers regard with scorn and shame. A young man can still opt for Women's Country until he reaches warrior age at 25. In choosing a warrior's life, he disowns his mother and family and pledges fealty to his garrison The Gate to Women's Country works on multiple levels as a science fiction story, a post-apocalyptic novel, an inventive study of the gender roles men and women seem fated to assume, a fast-paced page-turner, and a feminist tale. It has adventure, romance, plot twists, and a protagonist facing three critical junctures during her childhood, young adulthood, and mature motherhood. Long after I returned the book to the library, the tale stayed with me. Over the years I told friends about this intriguing book with the wistful title. Instead of a room of one's own, the author had envisioned a country of one's own. Yet it felt as if I had been its only visitor. Nobody had ever read it. Nobody had even heard of it. In 2008 at a library book sale, that same hardbound copy of that book with that cover serendipitously came into my hands once again. Out of print for 20 years, I held it in awe, a time machine to a past that was now water under that vividly-remembered rainbow bridge. Married with two teenage daughters, I was immersed in writing about women's issues for a highly trafficked website. Tepper's book had led me in that direction. The time machine that I had picked up for one dollar morphed into a Pandora's box as it sat on my bookshelf, challenging me to crack it open. I waited a year, then broke a cardinal rule. I reread The Gate to Women's Country. That's not to say that I don't reread books. But I prefer to buy instead of borrow. The good ones move into my home permanently. The bad ones, like unwanted house guests, are eased out and coaxed into the homes of unsuspecting friends. And that was my dilemma. I'd read the newly-published novel as an emotional, liberated, childless, twentysomething single. Days away from giving up my own life in Women's Country for a permanent assignation with a warrior from the other side, I had been acting out. Not by getting drunk and indecent with a male stripper at a bachelorette party. Not by having one last fling with a nameless hookup. I had been acting out by reading feminist utopian literature. Borrowed from the library. That woman was dead and gone. I was a subjugated wife and mother now. I was the chattel I'd feared becoming. Going back to a book that had excited me as a single woman was fruitless. That's the rule I broke. Don't look back. Memories never fail to please, but reality disappoints. Even fictional reality. I'd been kicked in the cerebral cortex too many times when a beloved novel from my youth failed the test of time. (The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. 'Nuff said.) But rereading The Gate to Women's Country did not disappoint. It re-energized me with its timely relevance to contemporary women's issues and world concerns. The war in Iraq, the 2008 elections, the sexism experienced by Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, the Texas polygamist ranch and its underage brides, the Rihanna and Chris Brown assault case, the threat to women's reproductive rights --all touch upon themes in the book. Like a wise woman, the novel has aged well and presaged many a hot button issue in the 21 years since its publication. I too have developed a deeper understanding of the author's intent. With two daughters 15 and 18, I feel the story's pain more poignantly. Scenes I once cheered now leave me uneasy. Sections previously insignificant now resonate. My own dark moments have taught me that even in a world ruled by women, hard decisions remain. There is no utopian ideal. Only a series of sacrifices we weigh, balance, and are ultimately required to make. This provocative novel makes many male readers uncomfortable. Depending on your gender and personal experiences, The Gate to Women's Country may appear quietly pro-women or viciously misandrous. But we don't grow unless we face discomfort. In the next 21 years, if we want to see a woman reach the White House without enduring the intense gender bias experienced by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor from nomination to confirmation, we need to confront gender issues candidly, willingly, and immediately. Media is failing us in that regard. That's why we need literature. Using a speculative fiction book as a starting point could be the first step across that chasm on a rainbow bridge of possibility. The Gate to Women's Country is wide open for anyone willing to take that step. -Linda Lowen

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  • Caitlin Constantine

    I have always meant to read this book. I've read The Handmaid's Tale, Woman At the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy and the Lilith trilogy by Octavia E. Butler, and loved all of them, so clearly I should have read this years ago.

    Feminist speculative literature is something I can never get enough of. It might be one of my favorite literary subgenres.

  • GloriaFeldt

    Historical note: Sheri Tepper was the long-time, legendary executive director of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. A good bit of that time was contemporaneous with my years running the Arizona Planned Parenthood affiliate, so we were colleagues and friends. Her connection to the most profoundly personal aspects of womanity comes through in the deep feminism of Sheri's books, even those I've read that aren't especially political in nature.

    Sheri is currently running her bed and breakfast in New Mexico and continues to write.

  • Claudia M. Stanek

    Along with The Gate to Women's Country and The Handmaid's Tale and written around the same time is Pamela Sargent's The Shore of Women. Examining these three books in a Women's Studies Course would be quite interesting.

  • Wendy Babiak

    I'm going to have to hunt down a copy!