What is the role of women in the history of Freemasonry?

In a seemingly men-only organization, you might be surprised to hear that women Freemasons have been meeting for more than 100 years and have conducted various ceremonies, rituals, and initiations in the same way as their male counterparts.

The Order of Women Freemasons is the larger of two Masonic organizations for women and has its headquarters in London in the UK. Are there any differences between the Masonic journey of men and women? And what is the history of women’s role within Freemasonry? Let’s find out now.

As always, this writing does not reflect the official views of Freemasons Community, but is merely the views of one Mason.

Women and Freemasonry

The History of the Order of Women Freemasons

In 1908 the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Masonry was established by a small group of men and women who seceded from the Co-Masonic movement. They disagreed with Co-Masonry’s governance and structure and wanted to return to the traditional workings of English Masonry.

In the beginning, both men and women were permitted into the Order. Still, after the United Grand Lodge of England announced sanctions against anyone associated with ‘irregular bodies’ of Freemasonry, there were few male candidates after 1910. The Order has been exclusively female since 1935.

In the present day, the Order comprises 358 working Craft Lodges based in the UK, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Spain and Zimbabwe, and there are more than 10,000 members. Although they had issues with the UGLE at their inception, their relationship has now improved, and the workings and constitution of the Order parallel those of the male body.

Why has Freemasonry historically been for men only?

Since its inception, Freemasonry has stated that to join, you must be a man. However, at the same time, UGLE recognizes that women have two separate Grand Lodges, namely the Order of Women Freemasons and Freemasonry for Women.

While this is contradictory, it’s evidence that women have historically not been welcomed into the Craft. If we look back at the history of Freemasonry, we know that it was established when the Middle-Aged stonemasons began accepting non-operative Masons into their lodges.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Masonry was a job for men, and the invitation to join their guilds was extended to men only. From these roots, Freemasonry became established as an organization for men only, and it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that the merit of admitting women was debated.

Some also point to the activities of men within lodges in the eighteenth century and indicate that, at the time, it wasn’t a place where women would have been welcome. Men would meet to smoke, drink liquor, and have a good time away from their families. Such was the construct of society at the time that it would have been preposterous to suggest that women could have attended Masonic lodges of the day.

The emergence of universal co-Masonry

Universal Co-Masonry

Universal co-Masonry emerged in France in the 1890s during a time of strong feminist and women’s suffrage campaigning. The first co-Masonic Order to be established was Le Droit Humain, which now has members from over sixty countries worldwide.

Although it has grown to become increasingly popular globally, most male-only Masonic lodges don’t recognize Co-Masonry and hold it to be an irregular appendant body of Freemasonry and therefore don’t necessarily recognize its existence.

In the twenty-first century, should women be permitted to join men-only Masonic lodges?

Within Masonic circles, it is often heard that Freemasonry needs to move with the times and become more inclusive. Nobody doubts that times have changed since the inception of the Craft in 1717, but many feel that an olive branch should be extended to invite women into the fraternity.

But is this necessary? Many believe that women not being permitted to join men-only lodges is a sign of backwardness and exclusivity, but it’s not as black and white as that. In reality, much progress has been made by women in the advancement of Masonic principles through their Order and co-Masonry.

Because Freemasonry teaches us principles of the highest morality and encourages us to be the best possible citizens we can, it seems counterintuitive to be exclusive when it comes to gender. I believe that Masonry is something that both sexes can enjoy, and the role of women in Freemasonry will continue to adapt to changing societal expectations.

In some ways, then, the parallel running of Freemasonry and the Order of Women Freemasons appears to be working, as both organizations thrive thanks to their dedicated and passionate members. Whether or not there needs to be an amalgamation of the two is still a contentious point and will continue to be debated by both men and women alike.

Closing remarks

Traditionally, Freemasonry has been for men only. This was likely because Masonic lodges at the time of its inception were places where stonemasons from the Middle Ages would meet, and it wasn’t an environment conducive to welcoming women. 

However, society has progressed and evolved beyond recognition since the eighteenth century, and the role of women in all aspects of our society has changed. This has led many to question the logic of continuing Freemasonry as a men-only fraternity, particularly when UGLE itself recognizes the existence of two appendant women bodies.  

It stands to reason, then, in the near future as society continues to evolve and become more inclusive, we may well see further changes to the way in which women are included in Freemasonry, and we may even see men and women Masons coming together as one.


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