Three important things in novel “The Gate to Women’s Country”


To describe any one of the three – ethics, culture or socialization – in isolation, might not only be impossible, but will also sound quite ludicrous. To describe what ethics are all about in a particular culture, the socialization process of the individual needs to be studied. Socialization involves a process wherein individuals learn the culture of the society in which they live, trying in many ways to understand and be integrated into this society. This process includes the educational system, the occupational group and the peer group as well. These societies and cultures work on specific ethical grounding.

We will consider the three types of ethics in the current analysis of the Sheri Tepper novel. The relativism which says that what is right to one may not be right to the other, the utilitarianism which promotes ethics common good. If the majorities are happy then it is good for the world. Minorities can be ignored! The end can justify the means. On the other hand the Deontological theories that stem from Isaac Kant’s concepts look at respecting the minorities too. The means need to be good for any ethical performance. Even the world can be sacrificed for the good of every individual.

Every culture that has been formed over the ages contains a set of guidelines that serve as directions in particular situations. One could refer to these set of guidelines as norms. If norms are guidelines then what are values or ethics for that matter? The norms of one particular society need not necessarily be the same in another. This is not the case with ethics. By and large, ethical considerations and values seem broadly uniform all over the world.

Honesty, for instance, is both a value and an ethic all over the world, crossing barriers of creed, color and gender; whether or not it is the norm, is a matter of speculation. Fitment of ethical theories has also been considered and the same are related to the ethics propagated by the author in her book in addition to culture and sociological study.

The Setting

In her book The Gate to Women’s Country, Sheri Tepper describes in great detail the mental makeup of all her characters that seem to belong to distinct groups, yet linked by a common but ephemeral thread. It is with this thread of ethics and values that Tepper weaves her novel that has a futuristic backdrop. The whole novel is set at a time when the world is trying to come to terms with a war of apocalyptic proportions. What was hitherto considered the norm in a society has now undergone a change – it is still a matter of opinion whether these changes are in the right direction or not.

There are very few norms that are now in force in the area, in which the book is set, which are relics of those that have been followed in any part of the world before the occurrence of the great catastrophe. There are changes and upheavals not just in the way people have now begun to live, but also a lot of modifications of basic ideas and views that have given rise to new ways of life. These new norms have given rise to new values. It is well known that without shared values, member of society would be unlikely to cooperate and work together, let alone live together.

A brief description of the basic plot of the book

The book focuses on a group of women and children who live on their own without the company of men, except for one day in the year. The women learn trades and educate themselves so as to be capable of taking care of their offspring, the male members of whom are sent to live with the male group living in a garrison outside the ‘women’s country’. Men who would like to come back into the area where the women reside need to forego all their individual opinions and remain as servitors.

The men on their part occupy their time honing their skills as hunters and sportsmen, constantly involved in some kind of physical activity or the other. The third front is represented by groups of marauding Christians whose sole aim it is to infiltrate and destroy the ‘women’s country’.

The men living in the garrison are called upon to protect the women against the attackers. In the fights that ensue, women and children are protected albeit at the cost of the lives of quite a few men who have fought with the enemy with their own free will. The book finally speaks about the increase in the population which leads to yet another microcosm of ‘women’s country’ being formed in another location. Here again there is the pattern, with the women and children (under five) in an enclosure and the men in a garrison, keeping guard from outside.

Culture and its various connotations

Sociology in general and social anthropology in particular covers the components of culture in minute detail. It is indeed a term that sounds terribly clichéd and over used; nevertheless, it still is relevant to the study of various groups of people, their values and ethics and the rules by which they live. E.B. Tylor used it to describe ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, customs and any other capabilities acquired by man as a member of society’ (Tylor, 1871).

Society in itself represents a collection of various social institutions and activities; with this background, culture defines the values and beliefs that underlie those institutions, activities and the form that they take, whether they are the family, education, religion, or anything else that can be quite mundane (like eating habits). Therefore the focus here is on shared meanings and views. Using this culturalist view, it would be fairly easy to interpret and understand the three different cultures that are spoken of in the book by Tepper.

To facilitate the study of the cultural values and ethics present in the three distinct but interlinked factions, described by Tepper in her book, a brief description and their values and ethics and norms of living are given herein.

The core group

Where there is a group of women who live in isolation, save for few of the opposite sex who are more slaves than companions, it is difficult to believe that the ethics that are valued by these women as a group can be the same as that in a heterosexual society. The women believe that it is necessary to wipe out the dependence on the male sex for any purpose, sexual or otherwise. The only exception is the occasion when procrastination is permitted (when a carnival takes place). These women believe that it is ethically right to live in this way and go one step more in ensuring that all women (irrespective of age) are trained in some kind of trade or skill or the other.

With the use of eugenics they try to wipe out all traces of homosexuality from the entire race. This is due to the fact that they view this particular kind of sexual orientation as a genetic disorder. The stress is more on the fact that in order to remove violence from the human kind, women rear a group of men and women who are not exposed to violence and do not take to violence. Also when men want to fight they will do so at their own free will and will not involve the women and children. They had to follow certain norms in the war or skirmishes as well. Men are not encouraged to develop weaponry of any form.

The warrior group

As is the case with worker bees in a hive, this group of male warriors exists for only one purpose and that is the protection of the women who live within the ‘country’. It is not too difficult to imagine that the morals and ethics of this entire group are largely impacted and defined by the views of this group of women; this is despite the fact that they live away from them 364 days of the year. There is only day when they meet to interact.

Their values centre around the skill and knowledge that they need to possess to be one up on the groups of people who might attack and vandalize the country. They believe that they are created for this very purpose and have to qualms about doing the duty that is expected of them.

Though there is this constant subjugation to the wishes of another group, there is a certain amount of power that stems from their physical skill in the sports that they so ardently practice. Most countries today are used to a social milieu where male-dominance is taken for granted. Tepper tries to put forth her feminist ideas in this new definition of power, when she describes the ways in which the actions of the group of warriors are dependent on that of the women.

As Max Weber put it, power can be defined as ‘the chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action’. (Weber, 1958). It was this power demonstrated by the women with whom they were closely linked that shaped the lives of the men living in the garrison outside the gates of ‘women’s country’.

The third front

With traces of similarity with the Mormons, the third group proves to be the catalyst, which changes things for both the other groups. These invaders with strong fundamentalist views on Christianity do not give much credibility to the fact that the women in ‘women’s country’ live on their own and can fend for themselves, albeit with the help of the warrior group stationed at their boundaries. What is ethically right for this group of people seems to be totally out of sync with the way of life for both the other groups.

For instance, polygamy is a practice that is fairly common in this group of people. They have no illusions that women are the ‘weaker’ sex and hence have to be treated with as much disdain as possible. This ethical variance between this group and the core group finally culminates in an attack where they are pitted against the sports and physical fitness freaks that live in the garrisons outside. What ensues only serves to demonstrate that physical power is seemingly the only power that counts, at least, temporarily.

Ethical analysis

The entire book is based on the concept that the good of the world is important. The individual thought promotion comes up when the heroine walks out of the country and the story commences. But she and her man go through the pangs of living outside the women’s country and return back to the same ethical structure. Here the thoughts of the male are ignored or they play the role of the servitors.

Based on the types of the ethical theory, we could say there is a utilitarian approach in the novel. But in the behavior of the heroine, the author makes a passing justification of the relativism. That opinions and ethics could vary from person to person. So is the case when the man walks out of the ‘garrison’ and elopes with the lady. The book does not really provide much for the thoughts of the minorities in the society. For instance, the homosexuals, who are obviously a minority, are not given the right treatment. Again the author justifies utilitarianism rather than the thoughts of Kant or Deontological theories.

In the systems of the garrison too, the ethics that is being perpetrated is the good of the world and not the good of the people in the garrison. Of course, they eat, exercise and fight. But that would be more for their own good and what they want to do but would not under any circumstances develop weapons of destruction. While this might be utilitarian, the ego centric nature of their culture and ethics cannot be ignored. The same is the case with the people who live away from women’s country. There is more of egoism in the ethics adopted by them too.


Over the years it has been the practice with various groups of people to write and rewrite the code of ethics that are universally accepted. If one takes a simplistic view of things, it is easy to say: what is sauce for the goose may not be sauce for the gander. In other words, strange though it may seem, ethics do undergo changes (minor, most of the time) from culture to culture and from country to country.

If one were to look at what is the norm today in any walk of life, there might be very little scope for ethics of any kind. For instance, corruption is so prevalent today, it can be said that it is a norm; the question here is: is it ethically right to give or take a bribe? There are societies and countries where bribery has taken on such an infamous importance that one can barely exist without falling prey to it. On the other hand, there are countries, where bribery and crime are so low that it is difficult to even imagine that such an offensive social evil can gain such a stature.

Though there are ethical variations in the three cultures defined and described in the novel by Tepper, it is intriguing to note that the bottom line here is more or less the same in all three groups. The efforts made to gain the power to dominate and control, takes precedence over ethical issues of eugenics and forced labor and much more. This book might sound utopian to most feminists, but it is true that some of the ethically right stands taken by the characters in the book seem more homophobic than anything else.

The issue of there being finer feelings that concern the betterment of society as a whole is virtually non-existent. On the other hand, there is only a brutal level of selfishness in all the three cultures, as depicted by Tepper.

The fact that this is the best model to be adopted is further cemented in the final pages of the book when similar townships come up at a different location. There is no doubt that in spite of differences of opinion concerning ethical issues, they continue to exist in not-too-close proximity, wary of the increasing power with which one can gain control over the other.


Freud, S. (1951). A letter from Freud. American Journal of Psychiatry,107, 786-787.

Tylor, E., (1924) ( original 1871) Primitive Culture, 2 vols. 7th ed. New York: Brentano’s.

Weber, M. (1958) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.