The Rites and Lodges of Feminine Freemasonry

Michael Segall MPS

As you well know, dear Brethren, and to the great distress of men, women were soon attracted to Freemasonry. I'm not sure of the sources of this early infatuation, for which we can imagine multiple reasons. Already in the time of King Louis XIV — and Molière did not miss the occasion to turn it into a play — learned women got together in their salons to debate, like men and most often with men, the fashionable intellectual topics of their time.

When dawning Speculative Freemasonry, at the beginning of the 18th century, began bringing Brethren together in Lodges, neither Rome nor women could stand men speaking behind closed doors of things about which they wouldn't know everything. Rome, as far as it was concerned, excommunicated. Women, distinctly cleverer, exerted enough pressure for feminine Masonry and co-Masonry to be born.

Let's define what we are talking about. Throughout the history of Freemasonry women's Lodges or Grand Lodges admitted men at least as visitors. Not doing so would have evidently gone against the very purpose I just mentioned. For this reason, it is not easy to distinguish between women's Masonry and co-Masonry.

Would a Lodge of the Feminine Grand Lodge of France, admitting sometimes more Brethren visitors than the Sisters present, be less co-Masonic than a Lodge created to be co-Masonic? And that one of the Lodges of the Grand Orient which admit women? I think that the difference among the various levels of "mixedness", if there is a difference, lies in the area of the membership of the Officers' Line and in the area of initiations. Let us define three major types:

Type A co-Masonry would be a Lodge or a Grand Lodge having, indifferently, male or female Officers or Grand Officers and that would initiate applicants of both sexes.

Type B co-Masonry would admit visitors of both sexes to its stated meetings, but would have Officers and Grand Officers of one sex only, and would not initiate candidates of the opposite sex.

Type C co-Masonry would have Officers and Grand Officers of both sexes, admit visitors of both sexes, but would initiate applicants of one sex only.

Quite vague and uncertain distinctions, after all, further complicated by the mix of masculine and feminine rites and rituals and by the fact that women sometimes work masculine rites and men, feminine ones (when visiting the OES, for instance). What really matters is that in all cases we find men and women working together in the same Lodge, definitive criterion of co-Masonry. The conclusion is evident and must be drawn. In the present state of Masonic rites and rituals, there are only two kinds of Lodges or Grand Lodges: men's and co-Masonic.

This having been said, let us have a look at this Freemasonry that calls itself and considers itself feminine, in its three historic avatars. It must be realized that it appears very early, 17th century in its primitive form, and takes as early as the 18th century, after having spawned a multitude of short-lived splinter Lodges and rites, the form of the Adoption rite, ancestor of the OES. This rite will be nearly wholly replaced in Europe, in the 20th century, by a feminized version of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite and in the Anglo-Saxon Masonic world by the Order of the Eastern Star. A single women's Lodge in France, Cosmos #76 of the Feminine Grand Lodge, still works the Rite of Adoption. It's a great pity since Adoption is, of the two main feminine rites, the only really ancient one and the only one that is not a late and pallid copy of a masculine rite. The rite of Adoption is of pure traditional origin and few other rites have its initiatic and symbolic richness, often borrowed from the Operatives, and maybe also from a certain knighthood. This rite is also more ancient than most current masculine rites because, according to rituals and documents in the archives of the GL of France, the rite of Adoption was born in France in 1744. Its development was slow, and it always had fewer members than male Masonry. Only three Lodges were created until 1777, all three in Paris. Become very active as the 18th century was drawing to its end, and until the beginning of the 20th century, the rite of Adoption has long played in France and continental Europe the same role as the OES in the USA. It is now disappearing over here but still very strong in the USA, in its OES form. The OES borrows about half of its rite and rituals from the rite of Adoption, a quarter from Emulation and another quarter from its inventor, Bro. Rob Morris.

Within our classification as defined earlier, the rite of Adoption is of course a co-Masonic rite of the type we have called "type C". Let's see why. Originally, Lodges of Adoption were created by regular male Lodges of the local Grand Lodge, and their lady Officers were seconded by male Masons, members of the male founding Lodge. At the time, the only female members were the wives, widows, sisters, mothers and daughters of Freemasons, but very rapidly other women were admitted who had no particular kinship with male Mason members. Adoption Masonry numbered, at the end of the 19th century, about 150 Lodges and 5,000 members. After WW1 the rite of Adoption, while declining, emancipated itself from male supervision. Brethren only kept coming as visitors. This presently nearly vanished rite existed in at least three forms: the four-degree Primitive Rite (Apprentice, Companion, Mistress and Perfect Mistress) the French Rite with five degrees (adding to the former degrees that of Elect Sublime Scottish Lady (Écossaise) or Sovereign Illustrious Scottish Lady) and the "Ten Degree" rite, seldom worked and copying in part the SR degrees. The second of these rites is the only one still worked and, as I said, by a single Lodge.

The most prevalent of the three Adoption rites was the French Rite in five degrees, currently nearly extinct, and I will describe its First Degree Lodge in slightly more detail. The Lodge, lighted by five Luminaries, represented the Terrestrial Globe and, just as our Lodges possess four Cardinal Points, the Lodge of Adoption was divided in four regions called "Climates". The East was the Climate of Asia; the West, the climate of Europe; the North, the Climate of America and the South, the Climate of Africa. In the East, in the Climate of Asia and under a red canopy, sat the Grand Mistress, flanked by the Worshipful Master. In front of her was an Altar bearing a Bible and a Gavel. To her left sat the Sister Orator seconded by the Brother Preparator, to her left the Sister and Brother Secretaries. In the West, in the Climate of Europe sat, to the northern side (left when entering the Lodge) the Sister Inspector seconded by the Brother First Supervisor (or Warden) and to the southern side (right when entering the Lodge) the Sister Trustee, seconded by the Brother Second Supervisor (or Warden). The other offices were that of the Almoner, the Treasurer, the Expert, the Master of Ceremonies and the Inner Guard and were occupied by both a Brother and a Sister. All but the Expert, the Master of Ceremonies and the Inner Guard sat behind small, pentagon-shaped tables.

Along the sides of the Lodge were, on each side, four statues or paintings. They represented, allegorically, Wisdom, Strength, Justice, Truth, Prudence, Temperance, Charity and Honor. Curiously, Beauty is not represented. Along the two sides of the Lodge were two rows of chairs. Sisters sat in the front rows, North and South, Brethren on the rear rows. On the floor, in the center of the Lodge, was placed a painting allegorically representing the four Climates, subdivisions of the Terrestrial Globe. The Lodges were usually called Ladders.

A few words now about the origins of women's Masonry. As everyone knows, whenever we have to study the history of Masonry before the 18th century, written documents are cruelly lacking. Hardly more than a score were found. The situation is worse concerning women's Lodges, because there is NO contemporary document left and we must advance very carefully. There are nevertheless some documents and particularly coincidences allowing us to reasonably assume a lineage which, if maybe not initiation or Operative, is at least corporative.

We have evidence of female or mixed corporations during the Middle Ages and later. We know that the daughter of Erwin von Steinbach, the architect of Strasbourg cathedral, was said to belong to the Stonecutters Guild. We know, from Operative documents, that at least insofar as the Carpenters' Guilds are concerned, widows could take over the work of their deceased husbands without having to transmit it to another Companion. Curiously, the third degree of Adoption has a carpentry symbolism and tradition rather then a stonecutters' tradition, as we have. We also know about lace-makers' and candle-makers' guilds, mentioned by Wirth. Women could also be members of the suede tanners' guild, together with men.

Documents belonging to the archives of the S.C. of France mention some interesting and heretofore unpublished examples, particularly on the corporations of the town of Rouen, listed in the "History of Ancient Corporations of Arts and Trades and Ancient Religious Confraternities of the Capital of Normandy", published in 1860 by abbot Quin-Lacroix. Still extant are the statutes of the corporation of candle-makers, dated 1360; those of the thread-makers, dated 1394; that of the linen makers and merchants, dated 1700 and those of the embroiderers, dated 1709. In 1616 a female Knighthood was created by Ann of Austria, Queen of France, under the name "Order of the Celestial Necklace of the Holy Rosary". Although it only lasted about 50 years, it had some influence on the women's organizations soon to be born. A Mixed Egyptian Order is created in 1634, probably Masonic, but about which we know very little. In 1637 appears the Society of the Palladium or of the Companions of Penelope, a kind of women's Freemasonry created to exalt virtue and wisdom. Rituals of this Society still exist, including rituals of initiation to the degrees of EA and FC.

Some have asserted that post-1717 women's Masonry was fabricated by men just to "amuse the ladies". It is nevertheless certain that it was not possible for recent speculative Masons who remained anonymous (why?), to have entirely fabricated, in a few years of the 1730's, such a rich and complex symbolism just to "amuse the ladies". In my personal opinion, there has been a determined will to suppress, discredit or at least put women's Masonry under male control throughout its long history.

Having dealt quite a bit with the Lodges of Adoption, their birth, their ancestry and their rite, I will not detail the Eastern Star, familiar to most USA Masons if quite unknown elsewhere, but go directly to the Grand Lodges of the Human Right, Droit Humain or DH in French.

The history of the DH is quite interesting. A first "Mixed Scottish Symbolic Grand Lodge of the Human Right" was created on April 4 1893 by Maria Deraismes, age 64, Anne Feresse, 72, Georges Martin, 48, and his wife, Marie Martin, 45. Georges Martin was a long time mason already. Maria Deraismes was made a Mason in a men's Lodge some years before, under circumstances I will detail a little later. In 1899, the DH became the "International Mixed Masonic Order of the Human Right". Like many 19th century male Grand Lodges and like some contemporary (and recognized) Scandinavian and German Grand Lodges, the DH is governed by a Supreme Council 33rd of their particular brand of the A&ASR.

Its Constitution, revised in 1920 after many stormy episodes, gave it its main and most interesting characteristic, besides that of receiving both Brethren and Sisters in its Lodges. The DH is the first and still the only such body to be constituted on an international scale rather than on a state or national base. Controlled by an international Supreme Council headed by a Sovereign Grand Commander, alternatively a man or a woman, located in France, it is governed in each country by an autonomous, elected National Council headed by a Grand Commander. National federations and jurisdictions of the DH exist, to the best of my knowledge in France, of course, as well as in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Latin American countries, Greece, Indonesia, Lebanon, the USA, Australia, Belgium, England, Finland, Italy, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the Scandinavian countries. Still plagued by occasional schisms giving birth to additional, small co-Masonic groups, the DH is nevertheless doing well and has continuously increased its membership since WW2.

The story of Maria Deraismes is quite interesting. In 1867 and in the particular atmosphere of the times, twelve Lodges seceded from the Central Grand Lodge, an avatar of the Grand Lodge of France, mainly on the matter of admitting women, and formed the Scottish Symbolic Grand Lodge, with Georges Martin as its Grand Orator. Curiously, because of internal conflicts on how best to integrate women, none was initiated for the following 15 years. As the story goes, a woman who was to become a well-known feminist and suffragette, Maria Deraismes, spied a number of Masonic degree ceremonies from a window set into the second story of the Temple of a Lodge called "The Free Thinkers of Le Pecq". The Lodge jumped on the occasion and, saying that a non-Mason having witnessed Masonic ceremonies had to be initiated immediately so that he or she could take the obligations and preserve the secrets, initiated her on the 14 January 1882. But for ten years she remained the only one. Then in April 1893 Martin, his wife, Maria Deraismes and Anne Feresse took things in hand and created the DH. The rest is history.

The most important women's Grand Lodge in France is the Feminine Grand Lodge, originally made up of the old Lodges of Adoption dependent of the male Grand Lodge of France. Beginning with 1901, the GL of France created a number of Lodges of Adoption in view of allowing women to participate to the intellectual and spiritual life of Masonry. These Lodges had nothing in common with the Adoption Lodges of the preceding two centuries. Corresponding each to a male Lodge of the Grand Lodge of France, bearing the same name, they worked under the supervision of the Federal Council of the Grand Lodge of France. The work in Lodge was the same, only the rite, a modernized form of Adoption, was different. The Sisters could not visit male Lodges at work.

At its Convention of 1935 and in view of the evolution of the feminine condition, the Grand Lodge of France decided to give these Lodges their complete independence and to help them create their own Grand Lodge. In 1936, a first Convention of the Lodges of Adoption creates the core of the future GL and the initial structures. But WW2 soon starts, and nothing else happens until September 1945, when the Grand Lodge of France abrogates the parts of its Constitution of 1906 which governed the Lodges of Adoption. In October 1946, the newly created Feminine Masonic Union of France holds its first Convention, elects its first Federal Council, Grand Officers and Grand Mistress. In 1952, it changes its name to Feminine Grand Lodge of France and in 1959 it abandons the rite of Adoption for the A&ASR. Since, the Feminine GL has acquired a Scottish Rite from the English Feminine Supreme Council, has created its own Supreme Council, and works all the 33 degrees of the A&ASR. Currently, the Feminine Grand Lodge of France numbers about 8,000 members in some 200 Lodges.

Like French male Masonry, French women's and co-Masonry is preoccupied by quality rather than quantity. The selection is tough and many candidates are rejected. The average Lodge has around 40 members, attendance is usually in the 70 to 80% and at each of the 20 to 24 meetings per year a FC or MM of the Lodge is expected to present an original lecture, thereafter discussed by the members of the Lodge. Like for practically all European Masonry, meetings are in the 1st degree except for passings or raisings.

I hope this article has helped my non-continental Brethren to understand the history and workings of women's Masonry, about the existence of which many had never heard, and of co-Masonry which, long considered by some Brethren as some minor, clandestine and devilish contraption, might become far closer and more familiar with the increasing pressure, in the USA but also in other countries, for the admittance of women into erstwhile regular male Masonry. The time might come when we will have to consider whether women's Masonry and co-Masonry don't possess their own brand of regularity, different from ours but equivalent to it.