History of Women's Freemasonry
 

 

 

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Freemasonry as we know it today was officially born in June of 1717, when four Lodges gathered in London to form a Grand Lodge. From England where it spread quickly, it was introduced in France after 1735. There, as in England, because a woman's legal status was that of a minor with no civil rights, women were refused membership in the Lodges. This did not sit well with women belonging to the nobility and even with some men, who noted the injustices in the arguments used to keep women away from the Craft.

France

Around 1740, the " Maçonnerie d'Adoption", or "Adopted Masonry" was created to "allow the fair sex to take part in charity and philosophy".

In 1774. the newly created "Grand Orient de France" recognized these adopted Lodges, but demanded that they be subordinate to men's Lodges and remain under their management and direction. The members were mason's Wives and their main activity was the organization of balls and charitable events. They recruited in the nobility and the Haute Bourgeoisie. For instance, the "Contrat Social" Lodge was presided over by the Princess de Lamballe.

  

During the French Revolution, Freemasonry became dormant, and so did the Adoptive Lodges. They were reopened under the Napoleonic Empire and the Empress Joséphine, wife of Napoléon I, was Grand Master of one of them. Although they were specifically designed for women, they were always presided by a man. The rituals were allegorical rather than symbolic. They evoked qualities such as modesty, candor, faithfulness and chastity.

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon.  The Empress Josephine, 1805

Their main activities were social and philanthropic.

At the end of the 19th Century, men and women alike increasingly felt the need for an organization that went beyond balls and charitable receptions. Participation in the Lodges helped to develop a feminist consciousness and a taste for democracy. In 1892, the Lodge Les Libres-Penseurs in Le Pecq initiated Maria Deraismes, a well-known feminist writer and activist. This was against the rules of the Grand Orient which closed the Lodge. Maria Deraisme remained a close friend of Georges Martin who persuaded her to create a Lodge where both men and women could work in full equality. She gathered a small number of women and a few Freemasons, and in 1893, created the Droit Humain (DH), a Masonic organization open to both men and women, which eventually spread to all continents, including in the United States where it is known as Co-Masonry.

In 1901, an Adoptive Lodge was reactivated, but this time under the auspices of the Grande Loge de France. By the time of World War I, more and more women had joined the work force, replacing the men gone to the battlefield in offices and factories. Soon after the war, women obtained their voting rights. The emancipation of women was closely followed by the emancipation of women's Freemasonry.

Between 1911 and 1935, several adoptive Lodges were created, but they had nothing in common with those of the 18th and 19th centuries. They met regularly to discuss the same type of subjects as in the men's Lodges, although they still used Adoptive Masonry rituals. The Grand Master, a woman, worked with complete freedom, without the supervision of a Brother.

 


 

In 1935, the Grande Loge de France decided to grant complete autonomy to its adoptive Lodges. But the French Sisters did not feel ready and asked to be given some time to form a Secretariat and prepare a congress of all adoptive Lodges. Meanwhile, World War II started and all Masonic activities were suspended until 1944. On September 17, 1945, a new Masonic body was created, with the help of the Grande Loge de France. This Grand Lodge was independent and its membership was exclusively female. it was called the Union Maçonnique Féminine de France (The Women's Masonic Union of France), which in 1952 became the Grande Loge Féminine de France or G.L.F.F. (Women's Grand Lodge of France). The rituals in use in the adoptive Lodges were abandoned in 1959 and replaced with the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. The French Rite and French Traditional Rite were introduced in 1973.

Since then, the G.L.F.F. has been instrumental in the creation of other national Grand Lodges. Women's Freemasonry has spread to Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Luxemburg, Denmark, Turkey, Germany, Canada, England, Africa and the Americas.

 

Belgium

1911 saw the creation of the first Belgian Lodge of the Droit Humain, in Brussels. The first women's Lodge, Irini, was created in April 1974 under the auspices of the G.L.F.F. The Grande Loge féminine de Belgique-Women's Grand Lodge of Belgium (W.G.L.B.) was founded in 1981 and celebrated its twentieth Anniversary in 2001. By that time, 35 Lodges with more than 1500 members had received their Charter from the W.G.L.B. Three of these Lodges are located in the United States: Universalis, created in 1992 in New York, Aletheia,in Los Angeles, and Emounah, in Washington, D.C.

 

England

There probably were a few androgynous operative and speculative lodges in the English Isles in the 17th Century and the beginning of the 18th Century. Indeed, the first known female speculative Mason was Elizabeth St-Leger, later Mrs. Aldworth, of Cork Ireland, who is said to have been initiated by her father in 1712, after she was caught spying on the Lodge's proceedings. She even received a Masonic funeral at the time of her death.

However, with the creation of the Grand Lodge of London and the publication of Anderson's Constitutions in 1723, women were barred from what became known as regular Free-Masonry. Mention is made of a Mrs. Bell, in 1790 in London, and a Mrs. Harvard, in Hereford, in 1770, but these are isolated cases and do not prove the presence of women in Masonic lodges. Usually, the story goes that these ladies were caught spying on a Lodge meeting and since they had learned the secrets of the Craft, the only way to prevent them from divulging them was to initiate them right then and there and make them take the oath of silence of a Free-Mason.

In 1902, Annie Besant, who had been initiated in a Droit Humain Lodge in Paris created the Human Duty Lodge in London. This was the beginning of co-masonry in England. In 1908, a dissident group created the Honourable Fraternity of Antient Masonry, whose membership was exclusively female and who adopted the Emulation Rite. In 1958, it changed its name to the Order of Women's Free-Masons. In 1913, a second Women's Grand Lodge was founded under the name The Honourable Fraternity of Antient Free-Masons. 1925 saw the creation of the Order of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons for Men and Women.

Today, the two female English Masonic bodies count as many as 60 000 members. In March 1999, the Grand Lodge of England finally acknowledged their existence, recognizing that "Freemasonry is not confined to men" and stating that except for the fact that the Lodges consist of women, they are otherwise "regular".

 

United States

The most widely circulated story of a woman Mason in the U.S. is that of Catherine Babington, who lived in Kentucky in the 1800's. Near her house was a two-story building used by Masons as a Lodge room. Catherine is said to have concealed herself in the hollow pulpit at every meeting of the Lodge for more than a year, seeing all the degrees and learning all the work. She was finally discovered and on being closely questioned, she showed a remarkably proficient knowledge of the ritual. She was kept in custody for more than a month, while the Lodge decided what to do with her. She was eventually obligated but not admitted into the order. If the story is true, it is again an isolated case and is not indicative of the acceptance of women in Masonic Lodges.

It seems, however, that a Women's Lodge did exist briefly in Boston in the 1790's. Its Worshipful Master, Hannah Mather Crocker (1763-1829) has penned a series of letters on Free-Masonry which were published in Boston in 1815. She claims she had knowledge of the craft because "… in the younger part of life, [she] did investigate some of the principles of Free-Masonry" to assuage the fears of her friends whose husbands were Masons. And she goes on: "I had the honour, some years ago, to preside as Mistress of a similar institution, consisting of females only; we held a regular lodge, founded on the original principles of true ancient freemasonry, so far as was consistent for the female character." Another document mentions "A short address by the Mistress of St-Ann's Lodge".

It is believed that the first American Lodge of Adoption was formed in Philadelphia in 1778 by French officers in the Continental Army. In the 19th Century, Albert Pike, Supreme Commander of Scottish Rite Freemasonry, created a Rite of Adoption based on the French ritual. One of the first women to be initiated in his Lodge of Adoption was the sculptor Vinnie Ream Hoxie, who created the statue of Abraham Lincoln displayed in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

Adoptive Masonry in the United States owes more to Rob Morris of Kentucky, however. In 1850, he published an Adoption ritual under the name "The Rosary of the Eastern Star", which would lead to the creation of the Order of the Eastern Star (OES), a para-masonic body open to Free-Masons and their female relatives. The Eastern Star was based partly on the French Adoptive Rite and partly on several 19th century Orders in America which, in turn, were likely based on the French Order. Some of these early groups were Mason's Daughter, Mason's Wife, Heroine of Jericho, True Kindred, and others. Rob Morris first conceived and arranged the Star Degrees in 1850, simplifying the ritual in 1860. From 1865-1868, Robert Macoy recast the ritual and organized the Chapter system. The Macoy ritual is the foundation of the OES as we know it today. The OES claims a membership of more than one million members worldwide.

The first co-masonic Lodge was founded in the United States in 1903. In 1907, the American Federation of the Human Rights was incorporated in Washington D.C. It has several Lodges in the U.S. There are other co-masonic bodies, among them George-Washington Union and the Grand Lodge Symbolic of Memphis-Misraïm. We should also mention the existence, now or in the past, of Women's Lodges or Grand Lodges working exclusively in Spanish, French or German.

The three Lodges created by the Women's Grand Lodge of Belgium since 1992 hope to one day form the Women's Grand Lodge of the United States.

 

Latin America

The first Chilean Lodge, Araucaria, was created in 1970 to "give Chilean women a space in which to develop intellectually and spiritually in a non-dogmatic framework free of religious prejudice." 1983 saw the creation of the Women's Grand Lodge of Chile which also seeded Lodges in Bolivia and Argentina thanks to its traveling Lodge, Cruz del Sur. Today, there are Women's Lodges or Grand Lodges in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela and Mexico.

 

 

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