Every dystopian or science fiction book, as it has been said before on this blog, it is usually and above all a window to its author’s personal or intellectual curiosities or concerns. This being the case, the fact that feminism has found a way of expression into this kind of literature should not be as surprising as the plot twist this book has close to its end: The Gate to Women’s Country.
Ecofeminism and literature
Sheri S. Tepper, today a venerable old woman, was born in 1929 in Colorado. Married at twenty, divorced without having reached yet her thirties, she spent the next decade moving from one job to another as she thrived to feed her two sons, which undoubtedly shaped and reinforced her strong feminist convictions.
Although some of her previous work had already been written before, her most fruitful period started from the eighties, a moment in which she had been two decades remarried and working in the Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood. So it was in 1988 when she published The Gate to Women’s Country, work that was preceded and also followed by many others, both essays and novels, those individual and series, many of which came in the form of trilogies.
Her vitality during those years was certainly fruitful, whether it was signing with her own name or under pseudonym, touching horror, science fiction and mystery, fields in which she poured her firm ecofeminist ideas. Her career, however, seems to have stopped at the beginning of the new millennium, not having published any new title since 2009.
The disunited city-states of America
The proposed world in this story is clearly post-apocalyptic. In the midst of an uncertain future, the only thing we surely know is that the action takes place 300 years after a nuclear cataclysm, which has destroyed civilization, as we currently know it.
It is an enigma the book does not bother to resolve what happens across the planet, but in the northwest of the Pacific coast of what formerly were the United States, where this story takes place, it is clear at least that surviving humans live in small and independent communities scattered here and there, having regressed socially and technologically, at least apparently, quite remarkably, it could be said even to the level of Middle Age. At least apparently, as we will see.
These communities, in the fashion of ancient Greek city-states, rise like small independent walled cities which control a certain portion of their surrounding lands from which they get the food and the resources they need to support a limited and generally constant population. All cities are regularly in touch with their neighbours, but given technological regression their general knowledge of the global affairs is limited so that, given certain geographical limits, no one knows for sure what happens beyond.
Among those who are in touch with other cities their diplomatic relations are, in principle, varied, ranging from friendship and cordiality to suspicion and mistrust. However, and beyond each particular case, the fact is that there seems to be, above all, some sort of widely accepted coexistence, a kind of tacit balance between different communities according to which no one ever tries to impose on any other nor any major alliance or coalition which potentially could threaten to break the status quo is ever forged.
It is striking, however, that such coexistence or balance does not seem to break even by a dramatic event that regularly occurs among them, as it is, neither more nor less, than war. These conflicts, however, are always essentially futile, even absurd, since their duration and objectives are always so limited, and the contending forces are often so similar in numbers, tactics and weapons, that victories, when given, are always pyrrhic or just minor, being almost all the merit just a matter of honour.
These city-states settle down on the most liveable and resource-rich areas, while the most rugged, forested or cut off are inhabited by bands of nomadic settlements of various kinds generally much given to violence and looting, or also itinerant companies of showmen, actors and puppeteers, prostitutes, gypsies, criminals, beggars, wanderers and any kind of out-of-law people who, very often, serve as informers for the cities in exchange of food and settler.
Beyond all this there are the “desolations”, vast barren wastelands, non other than those areas contaminated by the nuclear war and which have become, since then, untamed wildernesses that usually mark the limits of the known world for many human settlements.
Walls to separate two different universes
The most surprising thing about this world, however, happens within these cities, because their walls not only separate their communities from any possible dangers from the outside, but also, and even more importantly, separate men from women.
Certainly, law forbids men accessing inside those cities, reason of why they live outside, nearby, while women live more comfortably in their homes, inside, in what is popularly known as “women’s country”. This physical barrier materializes the rigid social barrier existing between both sexes, because in this new world men are raised and educated to become warriors in order to defend their city from any enemy or rival, while women are raised to work on productive professions and take care of the family. So while sons join the garrison at the tender age of five, they start to train solely for war, staying away from books, while women staying at home get a more solid, varied and refined education.
Men living outside city walls are organized hierarchically, in a militia style, juniors and youngsters down and older and most experienced officers above. Life is Spartan, full of hardships and constant training, and everything is tied together by a strict code of honour that forces them to fight the enemy face to face, in close range, with small arms, and to disdain any other kind of knowledge or profession not related to combat. Conspiracies, rivalries, abuse and tangles are not uncommon, however, which sometimes degenerates into murders, while others sometimes choose to defect and become wanderers and out-of-law people.
Women, meanwhile, are organized in a matriarchal structure, forming a council made up by the most prepared, wise and capable citizens who are basically responsible for all matters that go beyond war, including education, economy or diplomacy with neighbouring cities. Among them there is peace and welfare, and inside every home gathers families of women from different generations, sharing their space with children of both sexes until men join the garrison.
Perhaps the secret that brings some stability to this rigid system lies on the “carnivals”, a biannual festival during which soldiers can go inside the city to celebrate, go to taverns, visit their families and go to bed with those women they have been previously courting, usually through messages, fleeting encounters through the walls or previous visits during other festivals. During these events, which only last two weeks, many women have sex with men, usually in “dating houses”, and many become pregnant and eventually gave birth to both citizens or future warriors. Thus, men claim to be the parents of those babies born inside the city walls, and so they willingly accept their mission to protect their community against possible attacks.
Once a year, women represent Euripides’ play Iphigenia in Aulis, where Iphigenia and other Greek and Trojan women relate Achilles the horrors of a senseless war and the world of Hades. This is a recurring leitmotif in the book, whose real significance will be known as the plot moves on.
The door that is crossed once and in only one direction
There is, however, a third social group that is key in this story: that of those men who renounce militia life and return inside the city to live with women.
Every boy enlisted in the army has the opportunity, from fifteen to twenty-five, to visit his old home during the “carnivals” and also to resign at any time and go back into the city walls with his family. While once within the walls these men take the name of “servants” and also have to keep a low profile in the community, they have no right to sleep with any woman or parenting (this is a right exclusively reserved to soldiers), it is also true they are respected and they live in harmony with the other neighbours, even sharing their homes.
However, this choice is subjected to a great dishonour among the warriors, who spend their entire life educated on the importance of masculinity and violence, disdaining all that is feminine or has nothing to do with war. When a member of the garrison decides to return to the city he, therefore, suffers great dishonour, mockery and derision, so there are actually just a few who take such a decision.
Moreover, at the time a soldier decides to resign and go into the city must ritually go through the “gate to women’s country” which gives this book its title. This door, reserved for such an occasion, has nothing special, but during the time of crossing the no-longer-soldier is publicly disgraced, humiliated, stripped of honours, jeered, insulted, spat upon, considered powerless and effeminate and even stoned by his former colleagues. One can cross this gate only once, for there is no turning back, as a “servant” cannot reapply to become a soldier again… nor that any of them ever asks for it, though.
(Read the second part of this article here)
(Lee este artículo en español aquí)