Where is the Female Sacred Space?

Two months ago I had a once in a lifetime experience: I was invited to an Emirati wedding. In a vast, glittering ballroom, chandeliers festooned and arches bedecked with streaming garlands of real flowers, I sat with nearly six hundred Emirati women eating an eight-course gourmet meal, waited on by servants robed in white with gold sashes. As is common in the UAE, the wedding guests were dressed to the nines – full professional makeup, elaborate waist-length hair extensions, and high-end sequined designer gowns with plunging necklines paired with improbably spindly six-inch heels. Arab pop blasted from the speakers, and the female members of the bride’s and groom’s families stood in turn. They danced traditional dances together in front of the seated crowd, ululating and graceful in their glamorous gowns, wending their way up and down the center of the room in a processional toward the bridal bower. No photography was allowed – no cameras whatsoever were permitted in that room. I sat, my brain rapidly stultified by the rich food and blaring music, trying to create a mental video of the glamour and the dancing, trying to make sure I did not miss too many details of this extraordinary night.

And then, at the stroke of midnight, the groom came (looking pale and nervous), escorted by the broadly grinning male members of the bride’s family. And all of the sequins, all of the elaborately coiffed hair of the numerous guests, disappeared in moments under long frothy black abayas and headscarves, leaving only portions of the women’s faces, their henna tattooed hands, and their designer heels showing.** Only the bride, in that room filled with hundreds and hundreds of women, could be seen in her gorgeous gown by her husband-to-be. Only the bride’s immediate male relatives could even enter into the ballroom where the bride was seated, uncovered, surrounded by her vast network of family and friends. (Even the groom’s male relatives were forbidden entrance, and this despite the fact that all of the women other than the bride had covered themselves before any of the select few male relatives had entered.) They had entered into a sacred, private female space.

I paused to think about that female space later as I described the wedding to some male friends and colleagues who also study the Middle East. They confessed both fascination and pangs of jealousy that they had never and would never be able to attend such an event; at most they could only imagine all of the women and children and grandmothers singing and dancing. They would never see the bridal party, never take part in the bridal festivities. This was barred to them because, to put it bluntly, they have penises.

Spaces to which only one sex is allowed admission are often called “homosocial spaces” in academic literature, and they are historically far more prevalent in the Middle East than they have ever been in Europe or the United States. Yet the concept of a homosocial space – of a space that everyone knows is women’s or men’s exclusively – is not at all alien to American history or culture. Such spaces were part of everyday life during the time of Joseph Smith, Jr., and we can see vestiges of these culturally protected domains of men and women in early church history. (I’ve seen quite a few women in various blogs and social media sites chuckle delightedly at the quaint, Austen-ian propriety that comes through in the early Relief Society minutes where Joseph Smith and other men “withdraw from the room” for the ladies to do their business.)

This wasn’t just the early church leaders being excessively formal. The concept of separate spheres for men and women; of spaces and clubs or societies in which women did work that was considered uniquely their own  – and which men would be uncouth, indecorous, and impolitic to barge in upon –  was a common one. Both in and out of the church, women’s clubs wielded strong political power in the United States even before the Nineteenth Amendment, and the LDS Relief Society was one of a broader network of such clubs, many of which combined religion, societal improvement, and political lobbying, that worked all throughout the East and the South. I won’t take the time here to go through a history of the Relief Society in the nineteenth century, but its work independently fundraising and sending women to medical school, founding a hospital in Salt Lake, and far more indicate that it was a powerful force in early LDS life — a force that actively affected change in local communities, ensuring access to education and healthcare for men and women, and contributing materially and substantially to the local economy and local welfare programs. And, as is often cited, it had its own agenda, its own budget and its own fundraising up until correlation. In many respects it was a female-only sacred space, operating in tandem with, rather than at the behest of, male-only church spaces.

Yet today we have come to guard our male-only spaces – spaces like the priesthood session of General Conference that Ordain Women plans to request admittance to – in a way that we do not guard our female-only sacred spaces. In fact, I would argue that we no longer really have female-only sacred spaces; men no longer withdraw from rooms for the ladies to go about their business. Instead, women are required to have a priesthood holder at the church for activities, get priesthood approval for planned activities or callings, and go through priesthood channels to set even a minor agenda. As members of Ordain Women have noted, men are allowed to attend the General Relief Society meetings (indicating that it is not a female-only space), but women are not allowed to attend priesthood meetings.

The place of Ordain Women in the news right now has led me to think more broadly about the question of female sacred spaces in the LDS church, and why we no longer have them. I believe that, in addition to the significant and important question of female ordination itself, Ordain Women has tapped into a deeper pulse; that their actions touch upon a broader topic that brings many earnest Mormon women a great deal of disquiet and anxiety: Why are there spaces for men only and not for women only? Especially if we justify male-only priesthood and godliness itself in gendered terms, shouldn’t there be an explicable female equivalent, some sort of coherent corollary? Shouldn’t women have culturally acknowledged spaces of authority or privilege or sanctity in which men do not enter – or in which they can only enter at some symbolic midnight, surrounded by the trappings of tradition? And if there are no places that someone should not enter because he is a man, can someone explain why the same is not true for women?




**I was one of two Western women there that night, and I had asked (and asked and asked – this was something I absolutely did not want to get wrong) if I should cover my hair. The answer was no. As long as I covered the rest of myself when the men came – and this meant basically only showing my hands, neck, and head – I could leave my hair uncovered. I was a foreigner; they did not expect me to dress like one of them.


  1. This is such an interesting question, Galdralag. I think the difference between today’s Mormonism and that of Joseph Smith’s time is particularly interesting, since it seems like we still kind of use the separate spheres rhetoric now, but we men just can’t stand to let women be in a single sex group. Because women are just going to bust out and start praying to HM at the drop of a hat, and we can’t have *that*! 🙂

    I guess at least women perform initiatories in the temple; does that qualify (maybe using a loose criterion) as a female sacred space?

  2. Honest questions: Women have a monthly RS meeting in my ward. Men are not required to my knowledge, and children are put in childcare in a separate room. RS meeting every Sunday has no “male” involvement to my knowledge. As far as I know, these are run autonomously. Am I mistaken? Is the issue that the women are called and authorized by men? What disqualifies this as sacred space?

  3. Ziff –

    I was thinking about initiatories. I want to explore that further, so let me get back to you. (I’m also thinking about how to explore it in a way that is respectful, which can be tricky.)

    Matt W. –

    The main differences are those that I sketched out in the OP: women are no longer autonomous in Relief Society (they no longer fundraise independently or have control over their own agenda or budget, all of which they had before correlation); and, though it is a women’s meeting, men are allowed to attend it but not vice versa (this is one of the issues OW is highlighting). Finally, all-female meetings, like RS activities, YW activities, etc., incuding Girl’s Camp, now require the presence of a priesthood holder at all times. Small institutional changes like this make RS and other women’s orgs in the church less of a female-only sacred space, I would argue. At the very least, they are now spaces that must always cede final control to men rather than being an autonomous female sacred equivalent of a man’s space.

    Although one could argue – and social media sites are full of this argument right now – that ceding final control to men is just the way it’s supposed to be, I’m more interested in thinking about the reasons for the historical changes (why wasn’t it this way in the past?) and the underlying theological justification (why strip women of more and more autonomy?). (I’ve wondered if it was even intentional. Could it be an unfortunate byproduct of correlation?)

    [Edited to include]: Exponent recently published a powerful piece in which a woman describes the ways that Relief Society has lost autonomy in her lifetime: http://www.exponentii.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Exponent-II-Magazine_Winter-2014-Edition-4-website.pdf

  4. I really found this post interesting. I’m currently researching Iraqi women in the 1960s and the wedding makes me uncomfortable. I just hate that so much of my understanding of women’s spaces are ones where women then loose power. While the wedding is beautiful I have a hard time with the analogy. I have a hard time with the bridal chamber that follows.

    I feel like female sacred spaces have been used to keep male sacred spaces or to keep men from seeing women. I’m still trying to work on the idea. But I love the idea of ritual not based on gender not based on hiding from men. Not based on a lot of stuff. I feel like we have RS to keep PH just male. I feel that is what they did with the new women’s meeting.

    I just cannot shake the wedding analogy. It does not make me ever want female sacred space.

  5. Beautiful post! Many years ago I attended a baby shower for a friend who is Muslim, and was shocked to see her and our coworkers dressed in western style clothes. I had never really considered that when no men were around, these women dressed how they pleased. It was so fun to see what felt like a secret club meeting.

    I was thinking about initiatories, too, as a possible final sacred female space. In fact, during the time I worked in the temple, just being with other workers on the women’s side – collecting laundry, running little errands, etc. – that was the part I loved the most, and what I miss about temple service.

  6. Jessica, for what it’s worth, the Muslim women I referred to in my previous comment *felt* very empowered by their female spaces. To hear them speak of it, it was never about retiring from men’s spaces, it was actively taking their own. I never felt that type of empowerment as a Mormon woman in RS or YW, and it was inspiring to see it done in another often very patriarchal religion.

  7. I realized based on some of the comments that I didn’t explain one of my underlying presuppositions: I’m operating under the assumption that female sacred spaces are by definition also spaces in which women are in some real way in charge. This is how they have functioned in many cultures (I named one example in the OP) at different times throughout history; not as a threat or detraction to male spaces, but as a complement or analog to them. Both spaces typically act to reinforce and uphold the other.

  8. I don’t think the Mormon church has much male sacred space left either. Priesthood meeting at conference is a vestige, and although it may have symbolic meaning, and OW gets a lot of press for their action at the conference center, it’s really not relevant to the lived Mormon male experience. Women attend priesthood sessions at stake centers all the time. Ward councils and PECs contain women. Priesthood quorums don’t typically do anything together outside of the Sunday meeting (our budgets are typically about 10% the size of the RS budget, since we don’t do anything.)
    The closest thing we have left to a male sacred space is at camping trips or doing initiatories in the temple.

  9. I was thinking about initiatories as well. As a temple worker I felt like this truly was a purely female space. I was trained completely by women, under the direction of the temple matron, and no men would ever be there to correct me (or the matron) in how we did things.

    However, that being said, I imagine that the temple language and actions are dictated by a general temple board. Thus, men do get to dictate what should happen in those spaces, but from a bit of a distance. This raises an interesting question, though. It is my understanding that temple board members visit temples periodically to make sure that the rituals are performed in a uniform way worldwide. We had such a visit while I worked on the temple, and afterwards the temple president informed us of things that the board members said that we needed to do differently. However, I have a hard time imagining them witnessing the female initiators. I suppose they would have to take the matron’s word for it about what was happening in those spaces.

  10. “I’m operating under the assumption that female sacred spaces are by definition also spaces in which women are in some real way in charge.”

    You radical! 🙂

  11. I love this post. It has elucidated something I have been thinking about for a while now. I have been serving in the YW presidency in my ward for about six months and I have been struck by the fact that each week at least one, but usually two, members of the bishopric will slip into sit in on our meetings. I truly think it is meant benevolently and viewed as a way to give the girls access to the priesthood, get to know the bishopric, etc but it has bothered me nonetheless as I cannot envision a situation where one or two members of the Relief Society presidency were able to sit in on a Young Men’s meeting, let alone an Elder’sQuorum meeting.

    I have come to think that what is implicitly implied by the church mandated policy of all meetings for women and children requiring priesthood oversight is that there cannot be a sacred space or a sacred meeting without the literal presence of priesthood authority, aka a priesthood holder, aka a man. Although I doubt (hope) that no man -or woman- would say as much, that is the message that is sent and re-enforced every time I go to a meeting for women that is presided over by men, even righteous and well intentioned men.

    In our modern society we tend to eschew gender segregated spaces. It is interesting to see the impact this has on the church, which currently espouses gender essentialism as divinely inspired and eternal. I am torn between wanting men and women to share an equal, non-gendered priesthood and nostalgia for the independent, uncorrelated Relief Society of old. I find our current paradigm damaging in so many ways, and while I love the idea of both sexes having their own sacred spaces, rituals, etc, I worry that they can be used to simply re-enforce the historically unequal division of men and women, which seems to me to fly in the face of loving one another and making it impossible to be of “one hearty and one mind”.

  12. I think it is possible to feel empowered while actually being disempowered and stripped of real power. It is like how some people find cancer transcendent, I however think it is worth fighting.

  13. There are no sacred spaces that women have created themselves- even in Islamic culture those spaces exist for the separation of women by the power of men.

  14. First of all, thank you for writing about your experience and thoughts. This post took my breath away.

    Second, ” . . .in Islamic culture those spaces exist for the separation of women by the power of men.” This is why I had trouble initially reading this provocative post. I am not a scholar, but my gut tells me this is true.

    Third, and most important, having said that, it’s obvious you are using the bridal gathering as a reference for what many women long for, and what many women had in the past. .. “Such spaces were part of everyday life during the time of Joseph Smith, Jr., and we can see vestiges of these culturally protected domains of men and women in early church history.”

    I’ve attended “Rocky Mountain Retreat” (Mormon feminist women’s retreat) for the past three years. This is a sacred space created by women, for women, funded, organized and sustained by women. This gathering meets a need that I can’t even name, but which I feel is essential for my spiritual welfare.

    When men procured women’s sacred space during the “correlation period” of church history, I believe they inflicted a mortal wound on the women of the church. We are still bleeding.

    Ordain Women is a metaphorical puddle of blood. They are the most compelling evidence of the wound. I cannot speak for the women who are members of OW, but, I’m going to go out on a limb anyway. . . I’d like to suggest that, more than wanting the current male-only priesthood, they want their own sacred space back – with all its inherent female power – they want to be healed from a deep spiritual wound. The men to whom they look for healing will not offer what OW seek.

    “Shouldn’t women have culturally acknowledged spaces of authority or privilege or sanctity in which men do not enter – or in which they can only enter at some symbolic midnight, surrounded by the trappings of tradition?” Yes, yes we should. The question I’m asking myself these days is, “How can I stop my own bleeding and the bleeding of those I love?” The answer for me, as always, is Jesus. But the process is painful and slow. This post feels very healing to me. I hope you will share additional ideas and thoughts on this topic as they come to you. Thanks again.

  15. I too have lived in the Middle East and experienced the sacred space for women. I love the analogy- we had a similar discussion about kitchens, actually. As a woman I was permitted to join with women who were covered and quiet in public and then realize how animated and beautiful they were in private. While I don’t think that it is necessary at all to maintain the strict propriety standards today, especially for women, there is something so lovely about women teaching women in a room and a way of their own.
    I can remember as a youth, listening to the broadcasts, wanting to get through the ladies’ talks as soon as possible to hear the prophet speak- this anticipation to hear the counsel of The Lord from his mouth piece was not misplaced, however, I might have discounted the worth of the counsel of my sisters. I don’t recall ever being struck by the content of a woman’s talk in conference until I was well into my college years, perhaps because I felt it was too limited in scope- women’s and children’s issues.
    I don’t know what the solution for developing a women’s sacred space is, but I imagine it involves acknowledging the power and authority of women in all spheres of life- perhaps further discussions and action on our ‘moral authority’. Perhaps the solution is instead of banishing women to a far corner and labeling it as such, rather we could acknowledge and bring women into the light of day- not by allowing a man simply to draw the curtains, but giving women the keys to open their own doors and drive their own cars (if I may join gospel rhetoric with recent news from the Middle East). Women’s spaces don’t need to be separate from the world! Women should be given the authority to define what and where it should exist for themselves. If we have as much moral insight as our church leadership tells us we do, isn’t it reasonable to think we will seek for the will of God in our constructive process?

  16. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I will have more time to respond to them in more depth later this evening, but I wanted to clarify that I really meant the wedding more as an example that is outside most LDS and American women’s experiences. Sometimes looking at things that are far afield from our own norms helps us to think about the ideas and customs that we take for granted as the norm. (Or, at the very least, doing so helps me to think about my own presuppositions.) I certainly wasn’t saying that we should adopt Muslim sacred traditions, or use them as a model – I don’t want to go there at all if I can help it.

  17. Once as I was in the temple I heard the speaker thank us for coming to the Lord’s house. It made me long to visit the house of our Lady. I went to find Her, but did not, because it was not Her house.

  18. I’m going to have to trickle in my responses, unfortunately.

    Jessica (4) (and, I think, 13 and 14): I wanted to respond specifically to your concerns, both your concern about using a Muslim wedding as an example of a female sacred space and your concern about the way that female sacred spaces – or sex-segregated spaces generally – have functioned in practical terms in different cultures.

    First, my intention was not to prop up Muslim traditions – or any non-LDS traditions per se – as examples or models. I wished to highlight the fact that there are no female spaces in the LDS church that a man wouldn’t dare infringe upon; everything on some level is men’s turf in the church (I’ll get to the initiatories in a sec), and everything is emphatically, repeatedly, unequivocally not women’s turf.

    About Islam – the intellectual history of Islam in the modern Arab world is my area of specialty, and one of my sub-specialties is gender in Islam. I am not speaking as a novice when I state that I am very hesitant to characterize gendered spaces in Islam in a universal way. Part of this is because, as a historian, I look for particularities, but it is also because “Islamic wedding traditions” can be generalized in much the same way “Christian wedding traditions” can – there’s just too much diversity in both practice and interpretation to derive extensive conclusions from such broad terms. So 1960s Iraq like you mention (my immediate questions as a scholar are: Sunni? Shia? rural? urban? what were the family and community dynamics like in the area you’re studying? etc.) is not a template that should necessarily be mapped onto a 2014 Emirati wedding. This is not to say that Muslim gender dynamics or Muslim (or Iraqi) traditions stand outside critique, but it is to say that I didn’t blog about the wedding either to promote it or to idealize it; I blogged about it because Emirati women’s spaces are strikingly dominated by women in ways that have absolutely no correlates in Mormon culture, and I found the differences to be unavoidably thought-provoking.

  19. .

    I was in a female space tonight (I don’t know that it was “sacred” but neither do I know that it was not) and I was the only male. I did bow out after a couple hours (largely because of having read parts of this post just before going) but I don’t really know how to judge the positives or negatives of that decision. Lynnette, Petra, and Melyngoch were all there though—you can ask them.

  20. .

    Finally, all-female meetings, like RS activities, YW activities, etc., incuding Girl’s Camp, now require the presence of a priesthood holder at all times.

    I can’t find anything in the handbook about this. (Though there is something about a woman not being left alone in the building.) Is this a local policy?

  21. Yesterday, during branch council, the branch president referenced what I believe he termed a correlating meeting. Something that happens every 3-4 years, where HQ does a broadcast meeting with the leaders in a given area (generally equated with a mission). The branch president stated that the attendees included stake presidencies, ward and branch presidencies, and EQ presidencies. Why not HP groups, I don’t know. Maybe they are invited as well. I wanted to ask if stake or ward/branch RS presidencies were also invited, but decided against it because I feel like I’ve used up a bunch of social capital lately. My thought was, isn’t it a shame that they are creating another leadership space, and excluding women.

    Spatty, I can concur on not being interested at all in RS as a young woman. However, that changed with the Elaine Jack presidency. Suddenly, Chieko Okazaki was talking about discipleship, making connections between her professional work and the gospel, talking about the work she and her husband did in the mission field. It was invigorating and fascinating. She wasn’t limiting, she was expanding.

  22. .

    A couple years ago SLC did a leadership broadcast which was basically a slapdown for not getting more female voices in councils. This is getting a bit off topic, but if the men aren’t inviting the women to these things, they’re doing it wrong.

  23. I don’t disagree that they’re doing it wrong, but I think it’s exactly the dynamic of men “inviting” women to participate that enables them to do it wrong. If there’s no policy in place stating that women should be involved (and, you know, a huge hierarchy above you with no women in it), then I’m hardly surprised that leaving it up to the invitational whims of the local men isn’t solving the problem.

  24. RE #20, Th., it was a delight to have you there as long as you stayed. But the conversation did go places it may or may not have gone after you left if you had still been there. Thanks for being attentive to the existence of female space, sacred or not. 🙂

  25. Also, I’m trying to find in the CHI2 where it says that you have to have a priesthood holder at all activities, and you may be right, Th., I can’t find it. But this has been my experience in every ward, American or Swedish, that I’ve ever been in! Either it’s in CHI1, or it’s really carved deep in the unwritten order of things, because I’ve believed, and experienced, this my whole life.

    [Edit: Can’t find it in CHI1 either, though I’m skimming a kind of fuzzy scan of it online, so I may have missed it.]

  26. .

    I have a copy of handbook one and it’s not covered at all—much more closely in H2.

    You’re right that the problem is, ultimately, a man has the final say-so in who comes (npi). I do feel this is a cultural failing of the Church though and not doctrinal, though it’s been The Way Things Are forever so it’s one of the many things that have grown together that we’re not sure how to separate them without killing both.

  27. Finally, all-female meetings, like RS activities, YW activities, etc., incuding Girl’s Camp, now require the presence of a priesthood holder at all times.

    I can’t find anything in the handbook about this. (Though there is something about a woman not being left alone in the building.) Is this a local policy?

    From CHI 13.6.12: “A sufficient number of adult priesthood leaders must be present at all times during overnight activities to provide support and protection. In the case of Young Women activities, priesthood leaders must stay in facilities separate from the young women.”

    I think that policy along with the policy that women can’t be alone in the church building effectively means that there can rarely (if ever) be a meeting for women without a man present.


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