Feminist tale, post-apocalyptic ecotopia, and… cautionary tale? Mab Morris looks back at the impact of Gate to Women’s Country by Sherri Tepper.
Years ago I watched a movie, Satin Rouge, by Raja Amari. Two friends and I saw the movie as a wonderful feminist film. And then I read an interview with Raja Amari. (The link is closest to what I remember from reading it. Another interview echo other parts.) While the fact that Lilia does embrace a new life, and a richer life, it exists within an environment laden with cultural hypocrisy. She does become liberated from her prudish, and almost colorless life.
What we missed in the two hour ride home, discussing the movie, was what happened after she touched the red satin and saw what the life could bring her. The interview changed the seeming celebratory final scene. She’s dancing, she’s clearly happy, and she’s also clearly flaunting her new life. Cheers for the liberated woman! What we missed from our non-western view point was that it was not all freedom to dance. Raja Amari says, “She strays from the rigid code of conduct she had set for herself. Her idea of losing oneself verges possibly on perversion.”
I remember reading that, and other lines (I wish I could find that original article) and realized that I had prided myself with what felt like a mere celebration. I remember a line from a book, “Your liberation is not our liberation.” (I regret, I cannot find that book either, but I keep looking.) It’s a gorgeous movie that I still love, but it taught me that I might not understand the vision of the writer and director. That sometimes we have to dig deeper, or pay attention to what is obviously being shared.
What does this movie have to do with Sheri Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country? A feminist novel written in the late 1980s, by an avowed eco-humanist, who did a lot of writing for Planned Parenthood, where she worked for 24 years starting in 1962. The novel has an ecotopia that at first blush seems almost ideal.
Ideal women seem to be in charge after many years post some nuclear disaster. They let warring men outside the walls, keeping women safe from violence. They carefully plan out agriculture, trade with other cities, and so on. Since reading it, I have often tried to adopt their idea of having both a science and an art—education is incredibly valued, because so much was lost. There are hints throughout the book of choice, and choicelessness.
The book opens up when Stavia’s son Dawid summons her to inform her that he’s insulted by her wishing he’d come back through the Gate to Women’s Country. It offends his honor. He is a warrior. Stavia has expected it, had known the summons would come that he would do this oft-neglected ritual sneer. She thinks to herself, sadly, that her son is now, “Fit for love. Fit for slaughter.”
The garrison that is supposed to guard Marthatown is planning a revolt. Though they get food, and when it is scarce the women go without, they still somehow want to dominate. They attempt to woo girls to go outside the gate. These women are tested weekly for STDs, because they could spread it to the women during one of the many festivals they have, where lovers get together, finally, and the romance of warriors and women are consummated, and enjoyed. Some in long term relationships, many without.
As the story goes on, there are some pretty uncomfortable notes. A clear homophobia, which of course is distasteful. There are more. When Stavia and her lover Chernon finally get together, she discounts their encounter as “If it had not been precisely rape, it had been close to it.” She had planned this part of their adventure—to have him meet her—but he gave her no time to speak. She also knew self-defense, but did not use it then, or other times it might have helped her. Or rather, not effectively. Still, rather awful, but part of the distinctly uncomfortable themes in this book.
When I first began to write, and then rejected this review (or article) it was because of these themes, but I think my hesitation detracts from some of the slowly revealed darkness underlaying this idealized feminist ecotopia. Without knowing how she felt about these things, I can’t suggest Sheri Tepper actually felt these things, or had these views.
Interviews with Raja Amari shifted my view of her film, made it harder, better, and illuminated her main character’s descent. By getting her daughter to marry her boyfriend, Lilia gets to keep him nearby as he also happens to be her lover. Lilia does get liberated, but that liberation went, perhaps, a bit too far. Celebratory, of course, but also cautionary. Remembering this movie, I began to wonder if Gate to Women’s Country might be doing the same, and without hesitation. It was using uncomfortable themes, as readily as the women in charge leave hints all around Women’s Country as to what is really happening behind the scenes.
Using a leitmotif of a reworked play by Euripides, The Trojan Women, Sheri Tepper has Stavia and her mother’s servitor Joshua—a man who went through the Gate to Women’s Country—practicing and then performing the play Iphigenia. Joshua raised Stavia, and even protected her. It is a play where women are warned by Cassandra of upcoming violence, and the main setting is Cassandra, Polyxena, Andromache all waiting to get distributed to various men or sacrifice, and Iphigenia’s ghost coming in and talking with them and Achilles’ ghost. This play is apparently played every year. In it are hints as to what is going on in the background. Stavia, however, missed it.
She falls in love with the wrong boy, a neighbor’s son. The leaders of the garrison get Chernon to woo her. The books she smuggles to him include discussions about reindeer—which she weeps over, not knowing if they’re still out there or not—also discuss natural selection. Clearly hints are distributed liberally throughout life in Women’s Country, from entertainment to education. The women have medical science, regular checkups include speculums, implants for birth control or vitamins, and sometimes what is clearly artificial insemination. Most of the men, and most of the women believe it is the romance with the warriors which fathers all their children.
The ideas of choice slowly unfold. It becomes clear that while there’s a lot of choosing going on by the unknowing, in the background—hints laid out to both the reader and Stavia—there’s far more to this utopia than women ruling that surviving part of the world. Stavia’s choices has it all come crashing down on her head. She learns what is happening rather painfully.
The choice to run Women’s Country the way it is run is clearly given adequate, and ever present reason to be done so: Men want to dominate, and the garrisons clearly show that misogyny is still present (and to be fair, while this was probably far more dramatic when it was first written, it’s still pretty valid now). The ruling keeps warriors from one garrison battling other garrisons—women and children aren’t slaughtered and counted as acceptable costs of war. Unreasoning violence is being bred out, as is misogyny, if slowly.
Morgot tells one of the characters that the council of women (who run things, leave hints everywhere for the intelligent to figure out, and run the play every year) call themselves “The Damned Few.” In the last lines of the play Iphigenia answers Achilles’ question, “What is Hades?”
“Hades is Women’s Country.”
That, perhaps, is a very interesting thing for a feminist writer to say in a book often touted as a feminist novel. Unsettling the reader is, apparently, and had been all along, part of the plan. It is both a good book, but also clearly an uncomfortable book. It is a book that shakes a warning finger at the idea of removing choice and states that any utopia comes at a chilling price, which might, disturbing as it seems, be part of its brilliance.
“Stavia leaned over Joshua, putting her cheek against his own, her eyes fixed on the half-empty garrison ground, seeing in her mind the thousands who had marched away. Gone away, oh, gone away. Wetness ran between her face and his as he—servitor, warrior, citizen of Women’s Country, father—as he wept.
Wept for them all.”