Freemasonry has long been a fraternity for men only. As we know, the pre-requisites for an initiate to be accepted as an Entered Apprentice are as follows:
- You must believe in a Supreme Being.
- You must be joining the fraternity of your own free will.
- You must be free-born.
- You must be of lawful age (18-25, depending on the jurisdiction).
- You must be recommended by at least two Masons from the lodge you’re joining.
- You must be a man.
The last requirement clearly states the fraternity is for men only. But how are the changing times requiring us to think more about the role of gender within Freemasonry?
It would be fair to say that Freemasonry has long been criticized by those outside the fraternity for its seemingly backward (or at least traditional) stance towards the role of women in society.
Gender itself as a construct is undergoing a drastic re-examination in cultures across the world, as people are beginning to associate as ‘gender-neutral’ and are challenging the very biological facts of our species.
This article is not concerned with contributing to this debate, but it does acknowledge its existence.
Considering the fact that attitudes towards gender are changing rapidly, then, what is the role of gender within Freemasonry? We know lodges are attended by men only, but what role do women play in the furtherance of Masonic values? Let’s take a look now.
Freemasonry: a fraternity for men
Since its inception in 1717, Freemasonry has been an exclusively masculine organization. It is not born out of any ill-feeling towards women, but rather because of the historical context in which Freemasonry was formed.
In the early eighteenth century, the role of women in society was viewed very differently from today. That’s certainly not saying it was right, but we must realize that at the time, women were very much tied to the home and were solely responsible for raising their families.
It was the role of the men, therefore, to earn a living and develop relationships across the community that would advance opportunities for like-minded individuals. Freemasonry became a popular civil society organization that stood independent of the church and allowed men to meet and continue the heritage of the stonemasons of the middle ages.
Does Freemasonry have a responsibility to change with the times?
The short answer to this question is yes. We’ve seen examples across society where organizations have evolved to bridge the gap of gender inequality. Golf clubs that were traditionally men-only clubs have started permitting women members, and there are many other instances we can refer to.
As such, Freemasonry has a responsibility to evolve and adapt to changing societal expectations and beliefs. In recent times, Universal Co-Masonry has emerged, which allows women as equals within the craft.
The primary objective of Universal Co-Masonry is to “combat ignorance in all forms” and invites people to become members regardless of class, creed, or gender. The very existence of the organization espouses the idea that all human beings are equal, regardless of race, gender, or any other characteristic that often divides us.
Some traditionalists, however, will point to the fact that Freemasonry should be allowed to continue as a male-only fraternity. Gender equality is an extremely important cause in the present day, and we should be doing all we can to ensure women and men are treated equally across society.
But many will question whether this should extend to Freemasonry. Is there merit in redefining a centuries-old, male-only fraternity to permit women to join? It’s undeniably an important question that should be given the floor for considered debate.
The contribution of the Eastern Star
When the topic of gender inequality crops up within Freemasonry, many people point to the existence of the Eastern Star, an appendant body of Freemasonry that permits women to join. It should be noted that women are not provided with full knowledge of the craft and their practices are overseen by men.
The Order of the Eastern Star was established in 1850 by lawyer and educator Rob Morris, but it wasn’t until 1873 that it was adopted and approved as an official appendant body of Freemasonry.
While considered progressive by some because it permits women to be members, men who seek to join the Eastern Star must be Master Masons, and women must have specific relationships with Masons. Traditionally, women would have to be the daughter, wife, sister, or mother of a Master Mason, but this has been somewhat relaxed in recent times.
Although the Eastern Star is a step in the right direction towards gender equity within Freemasonry, the role that women have within the craft is still limited and does not permit them the same access as men.
What should we expect in the future?
The world is currently experiencing a shift towards equality in many aspects of life. Thanks to the advent and astronomical rise in popularity of social media platforms, people from all over the world are able to call out inequality and gather people together to exact change.
In recent times, great strides have been made in the strive for equality across the world, and movements are born regularly to tackle historical injustices and provide a more equitable footing for underprivileged people to participate in day-to-day life.
Within this context, equality between men and women has made significant strides in the past century, but there is undoubtedly a long way to go before true equality can be enjoyed.
As for Freemasonry, I would argue that there is undoubtedly scope for further evolution and inclusivity. The successes of the Eastern Star prove that women are interested in learning the craft and seek to act as custodians of Masonry for future generations.
As conversations about gender equality continue to gather momentum in the not so distant future, I believe that Freemasonry owes it to society to at least be courageous with the conversations facilitated within the fraternity.
Evolution and adaptation are critical to the perseverance of any group or culture, and Freemasonry is no different. If Masonry is to thrive for generations to come, there is no doubt that the role of women within the fraternity must be discussed, and gender equality sits at the forefront of the Masonic agenda.