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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.
Women have played an important role in Freemasonry since its earliest days. One of the most well-known stories is that of Elizabeth Aldworth, the first female Freemason who was initiated into a Masonic lodge in Dublin, Ireland, in 1755. She went on to create the Female Freemasons’ Association, which exists to this day.
Freemasonry has long been about equality, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that women are given equal opportunities within the organization. Women can be members of any Masonic organization, which means they can work their way up through the ranks just like men.
They also have access to all of the same education and training materials that men have access to. With all these opportunities available, what is the role of women in Masonry?
This writing does not reflect the official views of Freemasons Community, but is merely the views of one Mason.
The History of the Order of Women Freemasons
In 1908 the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons 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.
What Is the Role of Women Freemasons?
Women also serve an important role in Freemasonry by providing education and training materials for other women to use. All Masonic organizations provide educational materials for their members, but they can be accessed by men or women. Women are also responsible for teaching these materials to other women who might not have access to them otherwise.
This means that even if a woman can’t join a lodge because of location or gender, she can still receive training materials from her local Masonic organization. This goes back to the idea of equality within Freemasonry: men and women both have access to the same knowledge and opportunities.
Women’s Equality in Freemasonry
Women have always played an active role in Freemasonry. The first women’s organization, the Daughters of Mokanna, was created in 1881. Elizabeth Aldworth, who is considered the first woman to be inducted into a Masonic lodge, joined the Dublin Lodge of Irish Freemasons in 1755.
Women can be members of any Masonic organization at their own leisure. They have access to all the same education and training materials as men do. What’s more, they can participate equally with men on committees and decision-making processes. One example of this is that they are able to serve as Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland (the highest position in Freemasonry).
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 Female Freemasons’ Association
The Female Freemasons’ Association is a charitable organization founded by Elizabeth Aldworth in 1775. The purpose of this association is to provide support and networking opportunities for Freemasons who are women. Members enjoy the same benefits as male members, including education on Masonic rituals and occasions, but also the opportunity to meet other female Masons.
The first Lodge meeting of the Society took place at Wrexham County Lunatic Asylum in Wales on September 28th, 1877. It was presided over by Lady Rose Lees, the daughter-in-law of Lord Vernon of Shipbrook Hall. The first president of the organization was Baroness Neville de Vere Beauclerk, daughter of Lord de Vere (a mason).
Membership for women is open to all females who are Freemasons or who are interested in becoming Freemasons.
The emergence of 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.
What Is the Future of women’s Freemasonry?
Becoming a Freemason is difficult work that requires dedication, perseverance, and patience. It takes more than just attending one meeting or taking one course to become a Freemason. In order to become a Freemason, you must commit your life to this organization.
It is not unheard of for women to reach the highest levels of Mason leadership at their own lodges or even internationally. For example, Sister Mary Elizabeth Phillips was the Most Wise Master of the Order of Eastern Star from 2009-2010.
Women have been members of Freemasonry since the dawn of its existence and will continue to be well represented for years to come. But women’s roles in Freemasonry are changing, but the female presence isn’t going anywhere.
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.