The setting of the novel is 300 hundred years in the future, following some sort of cataclysmic war known as the convulsions. The US is now a matriarchy, wherein human settlements exist in small, low-tech communities known as Women's Country. Within the walls of Women's Country, live most women and a few men, known as servitors, all of whom have rejected participation in war.
At the age of 5, boys are taken out of Women's Country to live with the warrior men, who have settlements outside of Women's Country. When boys turn 15, they can choose to return to Women's Country, or they can continue living with the men in the warriors' society. Boys who choose to return to Women's Country are those who reject the violence of the warrior's life.
While it is not presented as a utopia, life in Women's Country does contrast with life in the warriors' garrisons. The people within Women's Country are educated, safe, and able to live stable, relatively well-rounded lives. Life in the garrisons is meaninglessly competitive, hierarchical, and dangerous. Whereas in Women's Country men and women live together in partnership, men in the warriors' garrisons live together in hierarchical relationships wherein everything feminine is devalued and ridiculed.
Thus, few boys return to live in Women's Country. In one of Tepper's great metaphors, boys choosing to return to live in Women's Country must pass through the Women's Gate, which the warriors consider to be incredibly shameful. When a boy chooses to walk through the Women's Gate, the warriors insult him, beat him, and throw rocks at him. In this way, we see how the dominator model of human relations exists and perpetuates itself in a society that devalues the traits that are considered feminine. Even if men would like to live in equal partnership with women and to display characteristics that are thought of as "feminine," they do not do so out of fear of the consequences of walking through the "Women's Gate."
Indeed, just as it is in our society, this form of gender policing is socially reinforced in boys immediately upon their entry into the warrior camps. When the son of the main character, Stavia, visits her shortly before he decides to remain with the warriors, the two have the following exchange:
"During my last homecoming"- he gave the word an aversive twist she had believed only a mature warrior could give it, "homecoming" as though it were something dirty; well, perhaps it was- "you made a suggestion to me which was unworthy of my honor."
"Did I, indeed?" The actor Stavia was properly puzzled. "I cannot remember any such."
"You said," his voice quavered. "You said I would be welcome to return to my mother's house through the Gate to Women's Country."
In this way, the warriors teach the boys that returning to the non-violent Women's Country is dishonorable, because it is womanly. In another portion of the book, Stavia's sister, who is infatuated with a warrior, explains that men who return to Women's Country are "cowards and tit-suckers and impotent, too." The garrison, indeed, is a metaphor for patriarchal society. Men and women are very, very different and to be a man, most importantly, is to be Not A Woman.
What makes Tepper's futuristic society different from our own is that Tepper's has, as a survival mechanism, adapted by effectively castrating the capacity that violent, nihilistic hyper-masculinity has to destroy the world. First, the sole occupation allowable to men who choose to remain in the warrior camps is that of warrior. They are not allowed to read and they are not allowed to pursue an education or any other endeavor. Using their degradation of femininity against warrior men, women have framed education and non-warrior life as "womanly" endeavors, one in which Real Warriors do not pursue.
As Stavia explains it, "A man who chose the warrior's lot chose to fight for his garrison and his city. A warrior needed all his powers of concentration. Having other, irrelevant thoughts in his head could be risky." If men wanted to have any other vocation, they could choose to reject violence, come back through the Gate to Women's Country, and live peaceful lives with the women.
Along these lines, one of the purposes of not allowing warriors to learn was so they could not build weapons. All fighting was done at arm's length, between equals, without imperiling others. As one of the servitors, Joshua, explains:
"...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.... [T]hey choose battle. They have to live with consequences of battle."
Keeping warriors ignorant and unable to develop devastating weapons, was a reaction to "preconvulsion" times wherein most who died in war were women, children, and old people. Thus, in addition to limiting warriors' knowledge, the ordinances mandated that warriors were only allowed to kill other warriors. The warriors followed this ordinance because it was conditioned in them that it would have been dishonorable to kill anyone other than a warrior.
Third, and most interestingly, the Women's Country council was secretly breeding violent hyper-masculinity out of the human population. Twice a year, warriors entered Women's Country for the festivals for purposes of "reproducing" with the women. In exchange for the women bearing sons, the warriors "protected" Women's Country.
In reality, the women- possessing more knowledge and weapons than the warriors- did not require their protection. The wars that various warrior garrisons started with one another were often pointless and, sometimes, the leaders of Women's Country intentionally led the men into war with the aim of having the violent men kill each other off. This is incredibly harsh, but remembering the servitor Joshua's observation that violence was the path warriors chose for themselves, it nicely illustrates the nihilism of violent hyper-masculinity.
Whenever I hear MRA-types bemoan the fact that most combat deaths are men and how this is so very unfair to men, it's important to remember that- aside from a draft situation- men can opt out of "masculinity" if they are courageous enough to walk through that shameful women's gate.
Furthermore, in an interesting twist, unbeknownst to the warriors and most women of Women's Country, women were implanted with birth control devices before each festival so as to be rendered incapable of reproducing with the warriors. In reality, the male servitors fathered every child via artificial insemination so as to select for non-violence. Incidentally, the Women's Council also sterilized some women, indicating that it was not only men who possessed undesirable traits.
In addition to presenting an imagined society that has adapted to violent hyper-masculinity, Tepper presents an archaic patriarchal society that, actually, looks much like FLDS culture wherein men hold virtually all power, have multiple wives, and view women solely as reproductive vessels. The main character, Stavia, gets kidnapped by a group of these men, who live outside of Women's Country. She, having been raised as a human being, is appalled at their ignorance, the way they abuse women, and the way they treat women as a sort of non-human breeding animal. Where as a young girl she questioned some of the Women's Country ordinances, her experiences within this "archaic" patriarchal culture and the horrific institution of marriage as presented within it led her to better understand the reasons behind the ordinances.
This book, like many feminist science fiction novels, had an interesting way of highlighting how patriarchy maintains and perpetuates itself. Aside from presenting the capacity for violence as a gendered phenomenon- as opposed to a human one- my main criticism of the book was how it handled homosexuality, which Tepper erases from her society by calling it the "gay syndrome" that is detected and fixed while a fetus is in the womb. While part of the plot turns on showing how "sleeping with the enemy" can lead both men and women to betray their own patriarchal or matriachal societies, I think this effect could have been achieved without taking the drastic measure of completely erasing homosexuality.