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WOMEN IN FREEMASONRY: TIME FOR CHANGE AND TIME FOR CHOICE Jonathan Tod
History ‘Speculative’ Freemasonry was predominantly male, having arguably grown out of the Masonic guilds. However, there is considerable evidence that historically there were women Freemasons, and well before the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1717. There were many more women Freemasons in mainland Europe especially France and Germany - than in the UK. The Corpus Christi Guild at York recorded in 1408 that an apprentice had to swear to obey ‘the Master, or Dame, or any other Freemason’. There are examples such as Mary Bannister, who became a member of the operative Masons court in 1696 and was apprenticed as a Mason for seven years with a fee of five shillings, which she paid to the company. Also, in 1711, when the Honourable Elizabeth St Leger - daughter of the first Viscount Doneraile secretly witnessed a Masonic ceremony at her father’s home and was caught. She was initiated into the Lodge so that she would be bound by its rules rather than killed, as some in the Lodge thought appropriate, including her father. Fortunately her brother and others stepped in to save her. Thereafter she was fully involved in the Lodge, rising to be Worshipful Master some years later and enjoying the honour of a Masonic burial. Further, in 1693 the York Manuscript No. 4 belonging to the Grand Lodge of York refers to the ‘Apprentice Charge’ and instructs that ‘one of the elders taking the Booke [Bible] and hee or shee that is to be made a mason, shall lay their hands thereon, and the charge shall be given’. Some Masonic historians suggest that ‘shee’ is a mistranslation of the word ‘they’. But how can this be? Just how many people can crowd round the Bible together to take their Obligation? Surely the Obligation is something that each candidate would, by necessity, have to undertake individually? Why are some so eager to deny women their historical involvement in Speculative Freemasonry?
that include crucially a belief in the Supreme Being and its revealed wisdom; a prohibition on discussion of religion or politics within the Lodge; and a sacred Obligation to be made by every Mason on or in clear view of the Bible or other sacred text. Paragraph 4, however, states: ‘that the membership of the Grand Lodge and individual lodges shall be composed exclusively of men; and that each Grand Lodge shall have no Masonic intercourse of any kind with mixed Lodges or bodies which admit women to membership’. The second dictate is set out in the Report of General Purposes and adopted on 10 March 1999, stating:
‘There exist in England and Wales at least two Grand Lodges solely for women. Except that these bodies admit women, they are, so far as can be ascertained, otherwise regular in their practice. There is also one which admits both men and women to membership. They are not recognised by this Grand Lodge and intervisitation may not take place… The Board is aware that there exist other bodies not directly imitative of pure antient Masonry, but which by implication introduce Freemasonry, such as the Order of the Eastern Star. Membership of such bodies, attendance at their meetings or participation in their ceremonies is incompatible with membership of this Grand Lodge’. This is the present framework under which the United Grand Lodge of England regulates its members in their dealings with women Freemasons, mixed Freemasons and similar organisations. The 1929 rules (known as guidelines) are said to be a restatement of the basic tenets that have been in place ‘throughout its history’. A number of points arise: Why did the United Grand Lodge of England exclude women in 1723? Why does it exclude them now? If the reason is simply based in history, is this good reason not to review or change?
In 1723, when the Reverend James Anderson drafted the Masonic Constitution, with one stroke of his pen he prohibited women from becoming Freemasons under the Grand Lodge of England. Now, nearly three centuries on, is it time for our constitution to change?
The Current Rules The United Grand Lodge of England’s (UGLE’s) approach to women in Freemasonry and to mixed lodges follows two dictates. The first is set out in a section of a handbook published by Grand Lodge entitled ‘The Basic Principles for Grand Lodge Recognition’. These basic principles were last reviewed by Grand Lodge in 1929. In order for the United Grand Lodge of England to recognise another Grand Lodge, eight basic principles or ‘landmarks’ must be complied with. The majority of these ‘landmarks’ are simple, pure principles
How can it be incompatible to be a member of one organisation and to visit or join another? Can we, in all conscience, exclude men who are members of mixed gender lodges from visiting or joining our lodges? Does this feel right or appropriate in this day and age? How can it be incompatible to be a Freemason in UGLE and to visit or join a Co-Masonic or women’s lodge? Has the time come, some eighty years since it was last openly considered, for this ‘man-made rule’ to be looked at again?
If not discriminatory in law, doesn’t it feel discriminatory in principle to exclude women from men’s lodges and men from women’s lodges? Are we ‘institutionally’ misogynist or do we choose to enjoy the company of men only? If both are true for some Masons, could we devise a new system in which some lodges choose to initiate women and some not; without recrimination either way?
June 2012 The Square 15