Listen to

About five years ago I stumbled across this book due to, of all things, a random comment made in an Amazon review of a completely different book. Having been raised on classical science fiction, and having never heard of Tepper or The Gate to Women’s Country before, I one-click ordered it on a whim. Now there is not a week that goes by that I do not think about this book, though until the occasion for this review I refused to re-read it, preferring to savor the memory of my first contact with it.

I admit to knowing next to nothing about the author; apparently she did not write her first novel until her mid-50s and is known primarily for her science fiction revolving around environmental topics. Born in 1929, Tepper passed away in 2016. Unlike other sci-fi authors, such as Alice Bradley Sheldon (a.k.a. James Tiptree, Jr.), whose other works I binge-read while under their spell, I sense that this particular book is a one-off, and that its mysteries cannot be plumbed through acquainting myself with the rest of Tepper’s corpus, so I have refrained from reading more of Tepper’s work. I may change my mind at some future point.

But for this review, I feel to be a bit postmodernist, asking not what Tepper purposed by her story, but what Tepper’s story means to me and why I think of it every few days.

So let me stop here and say, there’s spoilers ahead. You should stop right here, go buy the book and read it first, and then let’s discuss.

As with many earth-based sci-fi fiction plots, the novel is set post-apocalypse. The “convulsion” apparently resulted in nuclear war, for there are patches of “desolation” where nothing lives, nor can live. Some beasts have been preserved, such as sheep, but others, such as reindeer and cats, appear to have been lost forever or are in areas where humans have not ventured since the great destruction.

While we are given to understand that there are diverse and divergent settlements of humans scattered across the non-desolate lands, human numbers are profoundly reduced from pre-convulsion days. In the area in which the events of the book primarily take place, the very largest settlements are each about 20,000 persons. Though it has been about 300 years since the convulsion, we sense that humanity is still struggling to come back from utter devastation; farming, herding, and fishing are the main endeavors of human beings, and when food is in short supply, it must be rationed.

Our author places her story in Women’s Country. Women’s Country is a land comprised of a dozen or so towns, each about two days’ ride from the next. Originally there was only one town, but as the population grows, a daughter-camp will be set up several days’ journey away, and eventually that camp, too, develops into a town. We know of Marthatown, Abbyville, Susantown, Tabithatown, Melissaville, Annville, Peggytown, Emmaburg, Mollyburg, and others. Each of these is a walled town, all built around the same pattern and all sharing the same laws and ordinances.

Outside each walled town in Women’s Country is a defensive garrison whose purpose is to defend the town from roving bandits as well as from the soldiers of other garrisons. The lives of those who live in the garrison and those who live in the town are almost completely separate, with important exceptions. In the garrison lives every male aged 5 to 15, and approximately 80% or more of males older than 15. Women are not allowed in the garrison. In the walled town, on the other hand, live all females, young or old, all males under 5, and a class of male servitors to the women. Each town is ruled by a Council of wise women, and each garrison is ruled by a male commander and sub-commanders over the garrison’s centuries. In sum, most men live apart from most women.

Within each town wall are four special gates: the Defenders’ Gate through which the bodies of soldiers killed in battle are brought back to their mothers, the Battle Gate through which news of battle is given and honors from the town to the soldiers are presented, the Gate of Warriors’ Sons, and the Gate to Women’s Country. The last two need further explanation. At age 5, each male child is brought by his mother to the Gate of Warriors’ Sons, and there he is handed over to his warrior father and taken to the garrison to be raised by the men. From ages 5 to 15, boys can return home twice a year to briefly visit their relatives in town. Between ages 15 and 24, each young man has the right to choose whether to remain in the garrison with the men, or return to the town through the Gate to Women’s Country to live. That gate is “a simple sheet of polished wood, with a bronze plaque upon it depicting Iphigenia holding a child before the walls of Troy” (5), who we later understand to be Astyanax, son of Hector. If a young man decides to return from the garrison, he is no longer a soldier, but becomes a servitor who serves in the households of the women (though usually in another town, not his hometown).

Few young men from the garrison return; no more than 20%. Of course, the garrison soldiers look with contempt on those who return, for the soldiers’ lives revolve around honor and pride and martial prowess. Those who return are sent back naked, just as they emerged from their mother’s womb. While the soldiers are fixated on “duty, discipline, and danger,” (152) at the same time, the soldiers are relieved of having to toil for their food; the towns produce the food, trading with other towns for specialty items, and each town supplies its own garrison. In times when there is no war, the soldiers of the garrison spend their times in drills, maintaining their equipment, drinking, and participating in sports.

In town, the women are expected to learn an art, a craft, and a science, and they take educational courses all their lives. In contrast, while soldiers teach each other reading, writing, and a little arithmetic, soldiers are not allowed to have books. The books belong to the women. The soldiers are also not allowed to have doctors treat any wounds they suffer in battle, though doctors may treat soldiers for non-battle-related illnesses; more on that in a moment.

In addition, twice a year there is a two-week carnival, where the soldiers are welcomed to town to stay in the taverns (they are not allowed in the residential section of the town) and where sexual liaisons between soldiers and women may take place. At the beginning of each carnival, before the soldiers arrive, the women put on a play—the same play every year-- “Iphigenia at Ilium” (Ilium is another name for Troy). No, not “Iphigenia in Aulis,” but Iphigenia at Ilium, after the destruction of Troy. Of course, Iphigenia has been dead for over ten years by the time Troy has fallen; she appears as a ghost to the women who have survived Troy’s downfall.

Tepper deftly weaves three distinct threads within her story: the story of her main character Stavia as a young woman, the story of Stavia as a middle-aged mother of three, and the recitation of this play. Through this weaving we are guided to understand why the progenitors of Women’s Country structured their society in this way and what secrets are hidden beneath the surface appearances. There are important secrets, and I will not reveal them all in this review.

The world of the soldiers is, in a sense, the key to understanding the whys and wherefores of Women’s Country. The garrison is the world of what is known in the early 21st century as toxic masculinity. As a little 5 year old boy is given over to his “warrior father,” the man will give him a honeyed drink, telling him, “I offer you the sweetness of honor,” then hoisting the child on his shoulders will cry out, “Warriors! Behold my son!” The warriors chant “Telemachus, Telemachus,” while the child is brought into the garrison and made to kneel before a statue of Odysseus and Telemachus, the honorable father and his honorable son. There is quite another monument for the time when the young adult soldiers return from their first battle; an immense erect phallus, “the symbol of shared manhood,” (79) on which they spill their blood in sacred oaths.

The boy will be taught to see women (and men who have left the garrison) as inferior and contemptible. He will be taught to lie to women and manipulate them, and to never harbor any sentimental feelings or shed tears. Relationships with women are to be purely transactional; protection in exchange for childbearing:

It was honorable to protect women because warriors needed them to breed sons and they were incapable of protecting themselves. [W]omen weren’t strong enough to trust with power or weapons and [if] it turned out they had any such thing, it would be perfectly honorable to conquer them and take the power away from them . . . Women knew the warriors protected them only because women bore them sons, so it was in the women’s interest to see that sons were produced and brought to [their] father . . . Sons were the single most important thing in life to a warrior, and the women knew that. ‘In bearing a son for a warrior, a woman earns her life.’ (142-3).

Relationships between men, on the other hand, must be based on honor: a soldier would never lie to a member of his garrison, for example. Orders from superiors are to be obeyed precisely, even if a soldier has doubts about their wisdom or even sanity. Not surprisingly, the wars that occur in Women’s County are between the garrisons for reasons of honor: one garrison will feel insulted by another, or a garrison will ambush members of another garrison, thereby humiliating them. (Noteworthy is that the towns of warring garrisons still trade and communicate with each other, for the war does not really affect the towns at all.) There are some special rules of combat, however: “only an equal match between equal warriors at arm’s length could decide things fairly” (84). This is one of the reasons that the soldiers are not to be educated; if they learned a science such as metallurgy, they could make weapons that would upset the balance of power between the garrisons.

The women (who are the only ones trained to be doctors in this society) are not allowed to treat those wounded in battle. Stavia’s mother Morgot explains (128),

Morgot: “Warriors can’t have doctors. And they must fight at close range, not at a distance. And they must see their own blood and the blood of their fellows, and they must care for their own dying and see their pain. It’s part of the choice they have to make. You know all that.”

Stavia: “Chernon . . . “

Morgot: “I know. You see him in your mind, suffering, maimed. You see him dying. You feel his pain as though it were your own. I know, Stavia, for the sake of the Lady, you think I don’t know! Every mother of sons knows. Every lover knows!”

Stavia: “Why!”

Morgot: “So that they know what they choose and know what they risk when they choose. It’s their choice. They can return through the Gate to Women’s Country or they can stay there, but they have to know what staying there means! They can’t be asked to choose without knowing what they’re doing! It can’t be covered up or gilded or glossed over!”

This speaks to a great truth. Those men raised in toxic masculinity suffer from something that researchers call “normal male alexithymia,” which is the inability to understand or articulate one’s own deeply felt emotions, which inability also precludes empathy for others, especially those not like oneself. The Council of women is attempting to cure men of NMA by insisting they see and touch and hear the suffering of their own kind—the men of their own garrison—suffering that they themselves have created. The Council is also trying to ensure that the soldiers cannot create advanced weaponry that would prevent them from having to kill, in close quarters and at arm’s length, an equally matched opponent. The death-dealing, the destruction, and the suffering must all be up close and very personal for the soldiers who perpetrate it. They must receive in visceral kind their perpetration of harm and death if these men are to be awakened and healed. Indeed, one of the servitors in the story expresses that he finally chose to return because one of his friends died in a completely meaningless battle.

With these laws and ordinances, the Council of women tries to prevent another apocalypse. As Morgot, one of the council women expresses it, “Three hundred years ago almost everyone in the world had died in a great devastation brought about by men. It was men who made the weapons and men who were the diplomats and men who made the speeches about national pride and defense. And in the end it was men who did whatever they had to do, pushed the buttons or pulled the string to set the terrible things off. And we died. Almost all of us. Women. Children” (301). To men suffering from NMA, none of that suffering or death matters. What matters only is male honor—the rest of us are simply chopped liver.

And, of course, that was what Iphigenia was. And what Astyanax was. They were chopped liver, as were Polyxena and Cassandra and Andromache and Hecuba. Who cared what happened to them, when manly deeds of immortal renown could be undertaken? One soldier, having seen death in the face of one close to him, observes,

In all his dreams of heroic quests, he had not seen such faces, and yet there must have been many faces like that when Odysseus was finished with his quest. He had killed and ravished everywhere he went. It sounded well in the sagas. They did not talk about the women’s faces. Why was it that the sagas never spoke of the women’s faces? Odysseus said, ‘The wind took me first to Ismarus, which is in the city of the Cicons. There I sacked the town and put the people to the sword. We took their wives . . .’
‘Put the people to the sword.’ That meant they’d killed the men, killed the children, too, likely. And then they took the women, but Odysseus didn’t say anything about their faces. Nothing.
Why? Why didn’t Odysseus say how the women felt? How they looked? Why didn’t any of the sagas talk about that? (306)

The Council of women knows that a certain percentage of men—apparently 80% in Tepper’s view—would never understand the value of life or of love. They would never see the faces of those they hurt, even if they were looking right at them. And so the Council created a system where such men could live their lives, and go to war, and could vie for honor and glory among men, and could treat women with contempt—as much as they wanted! But there would be no domestic violence, for these men would never live with women. There would be no rape, no unintended pregnancy. And if war came, no women would die. No children would die. Only the men who lived for honor would die. Only the men who could not live in peace and respect with women would die.

And if there were among their sons those who woke up, they could come back and live with women by walking through the gate with the plaque of Iphigenia holding baby Astyanax—the Gate to Women’s Country.

Of course, there’s much more to the plot, with many a twist I will not reveal here. [1] The novel would make a fantastic Angelina Jolie movie. For example, one of the main concerns of the women is whether they can remain dispassionate enough to allow the self-sifting among men to occur without buffering the experience for beloved men. How difficult it is to let the boys go! How difficult when they repudiate your love in favor of the prize of male in-group honor! How difficult to see them die for that same honor, which is, as one female character explains to her son, “only a label they use for what they want you to do” (149). The path of letting a beloved man wake for himself, heal for himself, is not for the faint-hearted among women. As one male character puts it,

Septemius: Misplaced nurturing [is] the biggest chink in your female armor. The largest hole in your defenses. The one thing you cannot and dare not absolutely guard against, for your nature must remain as it is for all your planning to come to fruition. You dare not change it. Still, it is hard when your own female nature betrays you into believing the ones who abuse you need you or love you or have some natural right to do what they do.
Morgot: There is also misplaced passion. When we fix ourselves upon objects unworthy of us.
Septemius: Maybe you ought to be weeding some of the women out, [too]. (290)

It was good to read The Gate to Women’s Country a second time for this review; I saw hints and moments of foreshadowing and details that I had missed the first time. I hope this short review helps explain why this book remains on my mind years after I first read it, and I hope you will choose to read it, too.

As someone who studies violence against women throughout the world, I believe it is not just “a” problem of humanity, but “the” problem of humanity. The subjection, abuse, and even killing of women—the half of the population which brings all new human beings into existence—is literally a global problem, and poisons a society at its very roots. Unless the men in a society “awake and arise” to the divine worth of the women around them, a society sickens and eventually dies off or kills itself. So much heartache, so much sorrow at the hands of men who cannot see the faces of the women around them! Those who reign with blood and horror on this earth are, in the first place, men. And while we are at it, let’s not forget that Satan, our greatest adversary, is a man.

Yet we women also seem to be placed in a position by the Great Plan where the self-sifting ineluctably takes place over our (battered and sometimes dead) bodies. It is almost as if we have been given a call by God to try and awaken every last one of Their sons here on earth, which means (using Tepper’s percentage) that 80% of us are doomed not only to failure but to failure potentially dangerous not only to ourselves but also to our children. My own calculated percentage is much less pessimistic than Tepper’s at 30% (in this other SquareTwo essay, I call it the 30M problem). Whether 80 percent or 30 percent, that is a huge sacrifice by women and a huge sacrifice of women for the purpose of sifting the hearts of men. And in the case where nations have weapons such as WMD, a very few men who do not or cannot see our faces could engineer the destruction of most all human life on the planet.

I feel to cry out to heaven, “Is this really necessary? Why must women put up with this lopsided arrangement so to their detriment? How can this be something that was purposefully woven into the Plan?” Or as my dearest daughter Ariel put it so long ago, “Mommy, why did God make men stronger than women?” [2]

This point is brought home in an ironic way through the novel’s play, “Iphigenia in Ilium.” In one scene, dead Achilles wants to force dead Polyxena to do his will:

Achilles: How can I force obedience on [Polyxena]? In other times I’ve used the fear of death to make a woman bow herself to me. If not the fear of her own death, then fear for someone else, a husband or a child. How can I bend this woman to my will?
Polyxena: I think I will not bend.
Iphigenia: You see, it’s as we’ve tried to tell you, Great Achilles. Women are no good to you dead.” (236)

We laugh, but there’s a troubling bit of clarity here. Will it ever stop, can it ever stop, or must every last woman be dead for women to finally be free? Are we not all potentially Shanann Watts, Bella Watts, Celeste Watts? When I consider that any woman can easily be them or any of the thousands upon thousands slain by the men living with them in their very homes or even by men casually passing them in the street as happened to Euridyce Dixon, my heart cries out that there must be a better way.

Couldn’t men self-sift on some other planet, for example?

Or is this that other planet?

Did we women make it worth the loss here so that there might be a place of eternal sanctuary for women in the universe, a refuge where no man can enter who does not love, respect, and honor women? Where the keyword for a man’s entry is actually a woman’s name?

My sisters, are the pearly gates in reality the Gate to Women’s Country?

You can see how this book could haunt one’s thoughts for years . . . as it has mine


[1] For example, there’s a great secret about the servitors, and the most horrifying episode in the entire book takes place in a remote non-Women’s Country community that appears to have been closely modeled on the FLDS. [Back to manuscript].

[2] I’m intending to review The Power for the next issue, which asks what would happen in human society if women were physically stronger than men.
[Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Cassler, V.H. (2019) "GET THIS: The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper (1988)," SquareTwo, Vol. 12 No. 2 (Summer 2019), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerGetThisTepper.html, accessed <give access date>.

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COMMENTS: 2 Comments

I. Christy M.

I just completed this book. The sad overwhelming feeling of the ending upon me. It felt abrupt, I wasn’t ready for it to end. You are right that this will be a book that will stay with me for a long time. It will cause me to wish for things to be different. I would love for woman to have some sense of control over their own “world". I know what you speak of when you say there is a detachment to the horror that a man can inflict upon a woman and children. I loved the authors idea of breeding this out. Though I hope that in our world education is our weapon for breeding this out of our society. There is so much to say about this book, and the brilliant ideas and messages within. I sure wish the author was alive for an interview. I would love to know what was behind her coming up with this story.

Thanks for the recommendation!


II. Kathy B.

Thanks, Valerie, for this review and for leading me to this book, which overall I liked, with one exception. I liked the book because this fictional novel backed up the reality of your work—including your research through Womenstats.com, and your understanding of “the” problem of humanity. I was struck by your summary of the nightmare this book illustrates:

As someone who studies violence against women throughout the world, I believe it is not just “a” problem of humanity, but “the” problem of humanity. The subjection, abuse, and even killing of women—the half of the population which brings all new human beings into existence—is literally a global problem, and poisons a society at its very roots. Unless the men in a society “awake and arise” to the divine worth of the women around them, a society sickens and eventually dies off or kills itself. So much heartache, so much sorrow at the hands of men who cannot see the faces of the women around them!

Tepper’s novel got this important message across through her story, but my complaint is the predictable way she portrays religion, which is the same way nearly all media does today. The characters who do the most evil are religious, whereas those who do good have no input from religion. The religious characters in the book are part of the Holy Land group, who might be patterned after FLDS. The Holy Land characters are cruel and ignorant, showing the least respect for women and yet using their faith as an excuse or the cause of their evil. I listened to the audio version and the reader even speaks with a dialect that reinforces their stupidity. On the other hand, the women, without any religious influence, have superior insights, intelligence and ethics.

Of course, in the author’s defense, there are religious people who do great evil in God’s name, but I would have liked to see a balance. We know people exist who love god and therefore do good! Either way, it reinforces the importance of not taking God’s name in vain, the 3rd commandment, by doing evil in His name because it turns others, perhaps like Tepper, away from Him.