Women's Mysteries are stories, rituals, secrets, etc. which, for reasons of either magic or tradition, only women are permitted to know. Often, they are said to be passed down from mother to daughter, and may be associated with some sort of puberty initiation rite.
Prevalent in literature that has a mystical or mythological theme, as well as in mythology itself. This trope is thouroughly Older Than Dirt.
Very rarely gender reversed - or, rather, male versions (involving hunting, circumcision, warfare, initiation etc.) are treated very differently. The most notable difference is that Women's Mysteries almost always remain mysterious to the audience. This Double Standard probably results from their being mysterious to the author as well since Most Writers Are Male. Related to the idea (apparently held by many men) that women are somehow inherently mysterious. Also, secret societies with exclusively male initiates tend to be treated as a Brotherhood of Funny Hats, while the female version is much, much less likely to receive this treatment.
In Real Life cultures, this sort of thing is mostly just details about female biology (pregnancy, childbirth, birth control, menstruation, etc.) that men simply don't need to know and women don't care to discuss in mixed company. But it's a rare work of epic fantasy that's willing to admit its "Women's Mysteries" are little more than a Fantasy Counterpart Culture equivalent of that special sixth grade health class for girls.
If you want to look at a humorous modern descendant, peek into the Wondrous Ladies Room. See also Men Are Generic, Women Are Special.
open/close all folders
The "Tales in the Sand" plot arc in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman in which the character Nada is introduced is framed as an oral tradition passed down from father to son as part of a puberty rite. We hear the male version, which has a downer ending, but it is hinted that the women of the tribe tell it differently when they pass the tale down to their daughters. The womens' version is never revealed.
The Sandman also has "A Game Of You," where the women who are being tormented by the Cuckoo are the only ones allowed to go on the journey into the Dreaming. Apparently, moon magic specifically cares about whether you have two X chromosomes - which pisses off Wanda, a transwoman, to no end. It's turned on its ear at the end of the story, when Death remarks that a) the moon really does not have an opinion either way, and b) Wanda is a woman, chromosomes be damned. The only roadblock had been Thessaly's prejudice. Further subverted when the Hecate SistersBig Damn Heroes approach fails to accomplish very much. Wanda actually contributes more towards saving the day.
In Alan Moore's Tom Strong, the young Tom does manage to see the women's mysteries, and so does the reader. Then he's caught, and since he saw the woman's mysteries, he's declared a honorary woman until the next moon. Hilarity Ensues. (Presumably, the author of Promethea reckons there's nothing mysterious about women being inherently mysterious.)
The Invisibles has Lord Fanny, a transvestite shaman in the Aztec tradition. Her back story reveals that she was the only son in a line where only women learned the secrets of shamanism; after a failed attempt at a daughter resulted in a miscarriage, her mother and grandmother raised her as a girl.
Atalanta, a French comic, has the eponymous heroine raised by her grandfather in the middle of nowhere. Then one day he notices she's bleeding, even though she hasn't been wounded. So he takes her to an old woman in a cave to learn of Women's Mysteries, the old woman lampshading the fact that the men of the tribe get rid of these incomprehensible-to-them matters as soon as they arrive.
Parodied in The Cartoon History Of The Universe. In a sequence depicting the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution (which women are widely thought to have initiated), an exhausted woman farmer tells a man the women could use some help and asks if he'd like a job. He covers his ears and says, "Silence! These mysteries are not for the ears of men."
One Bloom County strip features a conversation between Hodgepodge saying, "I tell ya, there's a conspiratorial air about females! Like those suspciously vague commercials that never say just what they're about. What exactly is 'feminine protection' anyway? A chartreuse flamethrower?"
Film — Live Action
Inverted with the secret book of sex tips from American Pie, passed down from brother to brother.
Some teenage males, upon seeing Flashdance back in the 80s, were astounded by the fact that the heroine could take off her bra while still wearing a baggy sleeveless sweatshirt. Yes, guys, it's doable, although it's not recommended as it weakens the shoulder straps' elastic.
In fact it can be done while wearing a fitted, long sleeved shirt - but that is really bad for the elastic.
The book and film Harvest Home (a variant where by the end EVERYONE knows what the mysteries are, though they are things man is not meant to SEE. Or talk about). This is an example where they are revealed to the audience.
Mean Girls: The principal attempts to get the girls talking about about any "ladies' problems" they might have (referring to disagreements with each other. When the first one he singles out predictably starts going into Too Much Information territory he swiftly subs in Miss Norbury, saying "OK, I can't do this."
In parts of Scotland there are stories of women sharing cooking utensils with The Fair Folk and told to keep it silent from their husbands. In these stories the husband always ends up finding out and ruining the deal.
Inverted in Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear, when the heroine secretly follows some male shamans into a deep cave and witnesses their secret rituals.
Women do have some secrets in the Clan of the Cave Bear series - the most notable being a form of birth control that only medicine women may know about and which, it is said, men would forbid if they knew of it.
Also played straight in Clan of the Cave Bear with the women staying within their family hearth during their moon time.
In the sequels, the various Cro-Magnon tribes have shamans of both genders, but there are rites that are sacred to women.
Nanny Ogg's grandmother (in Discworld) spied upon "secret male rituals what no woman ever saw." Turns out they just got drunk and danced around with horns on. She thought it was a bit sissy.
Nanny herself, along with Granny Weatherwax and Magrat, may have originated a Women's Mystery in Witches Abroad, when they disrupted the hypermacho running of the bulls Thing With The Bulls. It's stated that in the years to follow, nobody ever talked about how the witches' unwitting actions had humiliated all the competitors ... or at least, they didn't talk about it in front of the men.
In Monstrous Regiment, one of the girls mentions to the invading officers that she's going to have a baby. Instantly the men look panicked and ask "What, here?" and then "retreat to the masculine safety of the corridor".
Discworld males in general tend to get very uncomfortable and leave the room when the merest suggestion of childbirth is in progress. Vimes, who normally investigates and questions everything, can barely bring himself to discuss it when Sybil reveals she is pregnant.
Inversion: Jorge Luis Borges' story The Sect of the Phoenix involves a secret known only to men, and told only by older men to younger, in every culture and society in history. In typical Borges fashion, the piece is an elaborate literary joke: it's clear that the secret is sexual intercourse, confirmed by Word of God.
In Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy books, D'Angeline women can only become pregnant if they pray to their goddess of healing, Eisheth. (See No Periods, Period .) The second trilogy of books are narrated from a man's perspective, and he mentions that men are not allowed to watch these rites, although earlier hints in the book implied that it's as simple as lighting a candle and saying/thinking a few words. There is a similar occurrence when Phedre visits a shrine of Naamah, the goddess of love, which Joscelin and Imriel are not allowed to enter; however, in this case it's because only Servants of Naamah (ie, courtesans, which can include men) are permitted.
And, yes, the Bene Gesserit harbor tons of mysteries. Some of which are tantamount to secret superpowers.
The point behind the breeding program is that the Kwisatz Haderach can do what the Bene Gesserits can't: access all of his Genetic Memory. Reverend Mothers only have access to the maternal line.
Justified in-universe, as all males trained by the Sisterhood who went through the Spice trial died. It was not by choice, but biological limitation.
Exists in full mystical wonder in P.C. Hodgell's Chronicles of the Kencyrath where the "Women's World" is a deliberate mystery that the Highborn women have constructed in part to prevent themselves from being used as brood mares by the males and in part so that they can secretly guide the genetic lines by deciding who will marry who and whether there will be children.
The novel Conjure Wife (originally appeared in Unknown Worlds, April 1943) by Fritz Leiber relates a college professor's discovery that his wife (and all other women) are regularly using magic against one another and their husbands. Interesting story as it is set in the real world around the idea that women practice magic but not only keep it secret from all men but almost from themselves, as they just act as if it really isn't anything important but just superstitious meaningless acts, like not walking under a ladder. It was filmed three times:
Weird Woman (1944)
Burn, Witch, Burn! (aka Night of the Eagle) (1962)
Witches' Brew (aka Which Witch is Which?) (1980)
In Dream Park, the gamers visit a New Guinea native village in their Show Within a Show adventure. The male and female gamers are separated, and each group attends a meeting of tribal elders of their own gender. Only the male meeting is shown on camera, but the idea that each gathering is strictly forbidden to the other gender's eyes is implicit.
In Chuck Palahniuk's Rant, the title character gets outraged that girls can excuse themselves from class by claiming to have "cramps". He later fights for boys to get a similar treatment by having a "situation" (=boners!).
In The High King this trope is invoked a couple of times on Eilonwy's behalf, notably at the end when Eilonwy must lose her magic powers so that she can stay in Prydain with Taran. When she wishes them away, Dallben comments that she "will have that mystery and magic all women share, and that Taran, like all men, shall often be baffled by it."
Played with in Stickfigure. When the narrator is with her mom getting dressed for her brother's graduation, her mother, very seriously, says to her that there's something she needs to tell and it's very important and because she loves her. The narrator listens carefully, expecting some coming-of-age advice, but instead is told that she looks like a stick figure in the dress she wants to wear and should use a different one.
In Terry Pratchett's Nation, the Women's Place is a giant mystery (and taboo) for men, who aren't allowed in under any circumstances. And the women in there have the secret... of beer. The Men's Place is equally taboo for women, and mostly revolves around their rituals of ancestor worship.
In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, the main character Lily, her friend Snow Flower, and several other female characters communicate through nu shu, a special type of women's writing written on fans and handkerchiefs.
In the Falco novels (set in 1st century Rome), the protagonist's mother-in-law is involved with the cult of the Bona Dea. Falco notes that Roman men do wonder what these respectable matrons get up to during their meetings, but concludes that they're probably better off not knowing.
There's a semi-example the Doctor WhoEighth Doctor Adventures novel The Adventuress of Henrietta Street: our intrepid heroes are staying in a brothel, where there's a lot of general tantric-sex feminine-mysteries type stuff going on. Business at the brothel shuts down once a month because somehow all the women and girls who live there are on the exact same menstrual cycle, so they take that week off to drink hot cocoa and avoid staining the sheets. The Doctor's companion Anji (female) somehow hops onto the same cycle they're all on with biologically improbable alacrity, but prefers not to socialize as much; fellow companion Fitz (male) hangs out while they're doing ghost stories around the fire. Well, he's a pretty chill dudenote thirteen-year-old prostitute-in-training Juliette describes him as "very sweet" in her diary; you'd probably invite him to your period party too, if you felt like doing a thing like that.
Ciaphas Cain: when talking to a female techpriest, Cain learns she has several cybernetic augments that allow her to think of several different things at the same time, which she refers to as "multitasking". Amberley's comment is that this is an ability shared by women since time began, to the utter befuddlement of the average male.
Live Action TV
Played with in Strangers with Candy, in that the mystery is only a mystery to gay history teacher Chuck Noblet (played by Stephen Colbert). When he is asked to teach a phys ed class while the regular teacher is absent, he discovers that the class topic is 'the vagina'. He asks a girl to draw a diagram on the board for the class, is disgusted, erases it and picks another girl, saying she looks cleaner.
On CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Hodges is trying to determine how much alcohol a tampon can absorb. He's stumped, as each time he sinks the absorbent cotton part in a beaker of booze, it expands too much to be used afterward. Wendy comes to his rescue and demonstrates the cardboard applicators' mechanics. Hodges remarks that he'd always wondered how that worked, and she smugly replies: "Every man does".
Star Trek: Voyager: Why the hell does Kathryn Janeway have a vision quest? A ritual for teenage boys entering manhood? And why is Chakotay doing this when he's canonically Mayincatec and vision quests are associated with plains tribes and (even outside the plains) Algonquian speakers? Man, and you thought V'ger's physics was inaccurate.
Shirley: Abed, this is so personal. And so accurate.
An inversion in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "You Are Cordially Invited" where we are introduced to Klingon Men's mysteries. Which include a Vision Quest by Worf and three groomsmen just before he marries Jadzia. As this is a Klingon ritual, it of course includes lots of Macho Masochism.
Stand Up Comedy
Eddie Izzard has a bit about boys in the playground regarding Hopscotch as the age group's equivalent of Women's Mysteries. "What, what do they do??"
Table Top Games
The Black Furies from Werewolf: The Apocalypse have several gifts and rites that are exclusive to them, although there are technically some male Metis (offspring of two werewolves) in the tribe. The trope is fully invoked with Maiden and Mother gifts/rites, which can only be used by Furies who have yet to give birth and those that have (neither of which any Metis could do, being sterile). Also played straight with a camp of Get of Fenris who are exclusively female.
In Traveller the Kenningsboken is a partial example. It is a book few Sword Worlder males read all the way through and while it contains lore on child care and farm management it is rumored to be a psionic exercise manual.
Euripides' play Bacchae hinges on a depiction of a women's cult in mythological Greece. Of course in Classical Greece there were many religious activities that were sex segregated; the Olympics for example were forbidden to women (although unmarried maidens could watch) and women participated in their own religious rites, but the way they are depicted in the play is basically just made up. It involves absolute craziness women nursing lion and wolf cubs from their teats; women chasing, catching and ripping apart a live deer and then eating it raw; women scratching the ground causing milk and blood to flow from the earth... etc.
in The List Eric gets drawn into the twisted consipiracies of girls' afterschool list-making committees, it involves shoes.
This is where the myth of the Maenads came from. Women in the cult of Dionysus would go off to perform their sacred rites, and since the men didn't know what they were doing, they made up stories about mad women having wild orgies in the woods. "Orgy" here refers to any sort of excessive activity; it could be sexual, but it could just as easily be a frenzy of eating, violence, or just religious fervor.
In the Nordic tradition, only women could learn seidr, the prophetic magic. Odin got around this through obvious means. The reason for this was because it was considered unmanly. A real man would confront his enemy face to face, using his own strength to succeed. There were plenty of instances of Sithmathr, men practicing Sithr, though they were practically reviled by society. This didn't stop people from using their services though. By contrast, rune-magic was largely seen as the province of men.
Inversion: In a museum display for native Australian items, a portion of the display was covered by shutters, concealing the contents from sight. They were there to ensure that these contents (tools for male subcision, an ancient puberty-rite) are kept out of view from any aboriginal woman who might drop by the exhibit and not wish to see these Men's Mystery items.
Some rituals performed by females in Aborigines cultures are rumored to strike men dead if they see them. One such ritual requires a male singer, so he is blindfolded as a safety precaution.
Inversion: In the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece, marriedwomenwere not allowed to be in the audience, much less participate in any way. May have had something to do with the fact that male athletes competed naked. There was an actual law stating that the penalty for any woman attending was the death sentence, though they never had to enforce it because it deterred the women from coming. However, one year a woman snuck in by cross-dressing and passed herself off as one of the athlete's coaches. When the ruse was revealed, there was a great commotion about what to do, given that they'd never actually killed a woman just for coming to the Olympics before and were uneasy about making this the first (especially given her highborn status). The solution they ultimately settled upon was to give the woman who had snuck in a one-time pardon, since she was also the young champion's mother...while at the same time declaring a new law, that from now on all coaches, as well as athletes, would have to enter the arena naked...