The Masonic Trowel

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by Philip A. Carter
Edited by John G. Priede

"Most modern, mainstream freemasons believe 'men only' is an essential and unchangeable characteristics of freemasonry, i.e., an Ancient Landmark (A.L.) They are told that women were excluded from medieval building trades. And as it is commonly supposed freemasonry is derived from these trades (especially stonemasonry) and is bound by their practices, many freemasons believe they are therefore incapable of admitting women as members, (disregarding the selective introduction of other, arguably more significant, 'innovations'). I acknowledge there are other arguments against such membership. However, I have not encountered one which presents a sound and compelling case. Due to limitations of space, this paper simply refutes the alleged absence of women from the building trades.

Medieval illustrations depict women involved in the building trades.

  • At Wurzburg building sites, women formed a consistent majority of the low skilled workers between 1428 and 1524, (the over all ratio exceeded three to one).
  • Other records show women joining masons' guilds at Basel and Strasbough, (e.g., Sabina).
  • In England, around 1389, over 99 % of more than 500 surviving returns from 'brotherhoods', show both women and men as members (the guilds of priests and those of scholars presumably accounting for the remaining 1%).
  • Every clause in the 1389 Certificate of the Guild of Masons at Lincoln referred to both brothers and sisters. Carpenters admitted women, and stonemasons often combined with them the other artisans. The 'Old Charges' referred to 'brothers and sisters', 'Masters and Dames' and to "...he or she that is to bee made a mason..."

Throughout the paper, arguments against the relevance or authenticity of the evidence will be addressed. Certain 'masculine' terms used in the Old Charges will be shown to have been use by guilds to encompass both men and women. Further, certain regulations inapplicable to women, were also used in guilds which also admitted women as members. Only in late medieval times, with the establishment of journeymen's lodges, did agitation result in the general exclusion of women from many trades. However, the exclusion of women was not a policy favoured by the masters' lodges; it would not satisfy the time-immemorial criterion of being an A.L.; nor was it an absolute exclusion, e.g.:-

  • With the Reformation and its Disendowment of the Religion of the Mysteries, the 'brethren and sisters' of St. Mary,s Guild at Lincoln consented to giving the guild property to the city;
  • As late as 1683, a woman presided over the Lodge of St. Mary's Chapel at Edinburgh.
  • Even in 1713, the London Company of Masons recorded the apprenticeship of Mary Banister and the membership of widows.

Thus, the exclusion of women from freemasonry cannot be justified by ancient trade practices. Freemasons will therefore have to look elsewhere to legitimise this infringement of the truth, equality and universalism they espouse. Otherwise, they will need to address homosocial misogyny within their ranks and admit women to membership, in accordance with the international Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

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Last modified: March 22, 2014