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by Catherine Yronwode

Can women be Freemasons?

The answer is YES.

To understand the role of women in Freemasonry, it is necessary to go back into the history of the fraternity. It has been said that exclusion of women from the craft forms one of the "ancient landmarks" of the order. Is this true?

The question is answered in five parts:

Proof that women were made Masons in ancient operative lodges

Let us begin with the historical record. The following was sent to me by Brother Bill Edwards in 1995. It consists of a short excerpt from a long talk that the Very Worshipful and Reverend Neville B. Cryer, Past Provincial Grand Master of Surrey, Past Grand Chaplain of the Grand Lodge of England, Chairman of the Heritage Committee of York, and member of the Quator Coronati Lodge of Research, gave to the Finger Lakes Chapter of the Philalethes Society in March, 1995.

BY V:. W.: and Rev. NEVILLE B. CRYER
MASONIC TIMES, May, 1995, Rochester, New York

In 1693 we have the York Manuscript No. 4, belonging to the Grand Lodge of York, which relates how when an Apprentice is admitted the 'elders taking the Booke, he or _shee_ [sic] that is to be made Mason shall lay their hands thereon, and the charge shall be given.' Now I have to tell you, that my predecessors in Masonic Research in England from Hughen and Vibert and from all the rest onward, have all tried to pretend that the 'shee' is merely a misprint for 'they.' I now am the Chairman of the Heritage Committee of York. I know these documents; I've examined them, and I'm telling you, they say 'she,' without any question.

Of course, we have a problem, haven't we; to try to explain that. My predecessors would not try to explain this; they were too male oriented. The fact remains that, there it is, in an ancient document of a 17th century date. That this could have been the case seems all the more likely as that in 1696 two widows are named as members in the Operative masons Court. Away in the South of England, we read in 1714 -- that's before the Grand Lodge of England -- of Mary Bannister, the daughter of a barber in the town of Barking, being apprenticed as a Mason for 7 years with a fee of 5/- which she paid to the Company.

Women Freemasons prior to the formation of the Grand Lodge of England

Turning next to the subject of actual cases of women who were made Masons in speculative rather than operative lodges, there is quite a bit of evidence to support the contention that this was at one time permitted. The most famous (and best-documented) of these women Masons was Mrs. Aldworth, made a Mason in the 1700s. Here is a brief account of her Masonic career, as written in 1920 by Dudley Wright and posted to the internet in 1994 by William Maddox.

THE BUILDER, August 1920

Although the Antient Charges forbid the admission or initiation of women into the Order of Free and Accepted Masons, there are known instances where as the result of accident or sometimes design the rule has been broken and women have been duly initiated. The most prominent instance is that of the Hon. Elizabeth St. Leger, or, as she afterwards became, on marriage, the Hon. Mrs. Aldworth, who is referred to sometimes, though erroneously, as the "only woman who over obtained the honour of initiation into the sublime mysteries of Freemasonry."

The Hon. Elizabeth St. Leger was a daughter of the first Viscount Doneraile, a resident of Cork. Her father was a very zealous Freemason and, as was the custom in his time -- the early part of the eighteenth century - held an occasional lodge in his own house, when he was assisted by members of his own family and any brethren in the immediate neighbourhood and visitors to Doneraile House. This lodge was duly warranted and held the number 150 on the Register of the Grand Lodge of Ireland.

The story runs that one evening previous to the initiation of a gentleman named Coppinger, Miss St. Leger hid herself in the room adjoining the one used as a lodgeroom. This room was at that time undergoing some alterations and Miss St. Leger is said to have removed a brick from the partition with her scissors and through the aperture thus created witnessed the ceremony of initiation. What she saw appears to have disturbed her so thoroughly that she at once determined upon making her escape, but failed to elude the vigilance of the tyler, who, armed with a sword stood barring her exit. Her shrieks alarmed the members of the lodge, who came rushing to the spot, when they learned that she had witnessed the whole of the ceremony which had just been enacted. After a considerable discussion and yielding to the entreaties of her brother it was decided to admit her into the Order and she was duly initiated, and, in course of time, became the Master of the lodge.

According to Milliken, the Irish Masonic historian, she was initiated in Lodge No. 95, which still meets at Cork, but there is no record extant of her reception into the Order. It is, however, on record that she was a subscriber to the Irish Book of Constitutions, which appeared in 1744 and that she frequently attended, wearing her Masonic regalia, entertainments that were given under Masonic auspices for the benefit of the poor and distressed. She afterwards married Mr. Richard Aldworth of Newmarket and when she died she was accorded the honour of a Masonic burial. She was cousin to General Antony St. Leger, of Park Hill, near Doncaster, who, in 1776, instituted the celebrated Doncaster St. Leger races and stakes.

This picture of Elizabeth Aldworth dressed in her Masonic regalia was published in Robert Freke Gould's "Concise History of Freemasonry." The original from which the engraving was made is said to be a portrait painting in the possession of her descendents. The image was scanned and sent to me by Sandra Hesse.

In his talk to the chapter of the Philalethes Society, cited above, Neville B. Cryer described the well-known particulars of the initiation of Elizabeth St. Ledger (later Elizabeth Aldworth) as a Speculative Mason -- and he noted that this occurred in 1712, before the Grand Lodge of England was formed -- and thus before it was declared that the exclusion of women was an "ancient landmark," and a stop was put to female participation in the Craft.

Numerous other examples of females joining Masonic lodges could be given here (Cryer and Wright cite several each), but lack of space forbids. The pattern set by Elizabeth Aldworth -- of rare and exceptional cases of women being made Masons -- was the norm from the time of the establishment of the GLoE until the 19th century advent of Co-Masonry, a mixed-gender order of the Craft.

A brief history of mixed-gender orders of Freemasonry

Here is a history of the Co-Masonic fraternity as supplied by Brother Wright and posted to the internet by Brother Maddox:

THE BUILDER, November 1920

In 1879 several Chapters owning allegiance to the Supreme Council of France of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, at the instigation of the Grand Orient, seceded from that allegience and reconstituted themselves as La Grande Loge Symbolique de France. One of these Chapters, bearing the name of Les Libres Penseurs, meeting at Pecq, a village of Seine et Oise, in November 1881, proposed to initiate into Freemasonry, Mlle. Maria Desraimes, a well-known writer on Humanitarian and women suffrage questions, which they did on 14th January, 1882, for which act the Lodge or Chapter was suspended. Mlle. Desraimes was instrumental in bringing into the ranks of Freemasonry several other well-known women in France, with the result that an Androgynous Masonic body, known as La Grande Loge Symbolique Ecossaise was formed on 4th April, 1893 although its jurisdiction at that time extended over only one lodge, that known as Le Droit Humain, which came into being on the same day, and which, in 1900, adopted the thirty degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite.

One of the principal workers in the formation of this new Grand lodge was Dr. Georges Martin, at one time a member of the Lodge Les Libres Penseurs. The schismatic movement spread to Paris and Benares and afterwards to London, at which last-named place, in September, 1902, the Lodge "Human Duty," now No. 6 on the Co- Masonry Register, was consecrated. The title "Co-Masonry" in lieu of the earlier term "Joint Masonry" was adopted in 1905.

Mixed-gender and all-female Masonry around the world

In 1903, Co-Masonry came to the United States. In 1918, according to Neville Cryer, Elizabeth St. Leger Aldworth's direct descendent, Alicia St. Leger Aldworth, joined the mixed-gender order. By 1922, there were more than 450 Co-Masonic lodges around the world, according to Masonic historian Arthur Edward Waite, writing in "The New Enclyclopedia of Freemasonry."

Here are some 20th century female Masons in full regalia. These photos were printed in the Regina (Canada) Leader-Post newspaper on January 6, 1939. Thanks to Ray Salmon of Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Canada, for the scan.

The original newspaper caption was as follows [with my comments in brackets]:

With old appropriate ritual and formality, Mrs. Seton Challen (left) was recently enthroned for life as the most worshipful, the Grand Master of the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons, at the Masonic temple in London. [It is unclear from context whether this is London, England, or London, Ontario, Canada.] This 25-year-old organization [founded in 1914] works from the first to the 33rd degree, and claims to give women Masonry in its pure form and in its entirety.

Mrs. Challen is a daughter of the organizer of the lodge, and is herself the last of the founders. At the right is the lodge's grand sword bearer [i.e. Tyler], Mrs. Phylis Sutton Vane, during the installation ceremony, which lasted three hours.

There are at present Co-Masonic lodges in at least 50 nations, including the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, Greece, Holland, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Belgium, and Venezuela. Androgynous jurisdictions worldwide include Le Droit Humain, based in France, and the American Federation of Human Rights, based in the U.S.A. All-female jurisdictions include the Grand Loge Feminine de France and the Lady Masons of Great Britain.

Although official "recognition" does not exist between bodies such as the United Grand Lodge of England and The American Federation of Human Rights, there are cordial relationships and mutual respect between Masons and Co-Masons, particularly on the internet.

Neville Cryer ended his talk to the Finger Lakes Chapter of the Philalethes Society with a call for male Masonry to recognize female Masonry. "After all," he said, "if a woman is good enough to be the wife, mother, sister, or daughter of a Mason, she ought to be good enough to be his 'Brother.' The Men's order recognizes the coloured races, but refuses recognition to their own kith and kin." Until such recognition comes, women who wish to become Masons -- and men who wish to work "on the level" with women -- are encouraged to seek out a Co-Masonic lodge.

And where you may enquire with further questions

Here are the answers to the most frequently asked questions about Co-Freemasonry:

A) Do Co-Masons believe in a Supreme Being?/Do they have an open VSL in lodge?/Do they operate clandestine lodges?/Do they allow men to join?

The answers to these and similar questions are contained in the Principles of Co-Freemasonry, as listed by Brother Dudley Wright and posted to the internet in 1994 by William Maddox:

THE BUILDER, February 1921

1. Co-Freemasonry asserts, in accordance with the ancient declarations of Freemasonry, the existence of a Creative Principle, or Supreme Being, under the title of "The Great Architect of the Universe."

2. It maintains an open "Volume of the Sacred Law" in every lodge, when duly formed for Masonic purposes.

3. It maintains the ancient landmarks of Freemasonry.

4. It withholds recognition from all irregular and clandestine meetings, or lodges not holding proper charter.

5. It imposes no restrictions on the free search for Truth, and to secure that freedom exacts tolerance from all its members.

6. It is open to men and women, without distinction of race or religion, who are free, of good report, and abide by strict morals.

7. It pledges its members to obedience to the laws of the country, loyalty to their nation or national sovreign, silence with regard to Masonic secrets, a high standard of honour, and ceaseless endeavour to promote the welfare of humanity.

8. Every Freemason is bound faithfully to observe the decisions of the Supreme Council to which he or she owes allegiance.

B) Why was Co-Freemasonry started?

Those who do not fully appreciate the seriousness of purpose that links the origins of Co-Masonry to the Female Suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries may enjoy this quote from the August 7, 1907 Certificate of Incorporation of The American Federation of Human Rights in Washington, D.C. (and as such on file as a matter of public record):

"The particular business and objects of this society are to demand equal rights for both sexes before the law, to labor according to the Constitution and General By-Laws to be made and adopted by the society for the mutual improvement of its members by combating ignorance under all its forms, the building of human character, the pratice of solidarity, the upholding of high standards of honor and of social justice with a kindly feeling towards all, and a ceaseless endeavor to promote the moral and material welfare of the human race, and to that end, to organize and to conduct throughout the United States of America, branches or Lodges of Co-Masonry..."

(Similar language persists in modern AFHR articles of incorporation, all of them also on file as matters of public record.)

C) Are Co-Masonic rites the same as American male Masonic rites?

According to Masonic historian Arthur Edward Waite, writing in "The New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry" (1922), American and British male Masons would recognize and follow Co-Masonic work with ease, for the allegories and symbols are universal throughout Freemasonry. However, in keeping with its European origin, Co-Masonry makes use of a European-style Chamber of Reflection prior to initiaiton -- which the majority of British and American male Masonic lodges do not.

D) I am interested in joining. How can i locate the Co-Masonic lodge nearest to me?

For more information on Co-Freemasonry in the United States and around the world, go to the google search engine and enter key phrases such as Co-Masonry, Co-Freemasonry, Freemasonry Women, Women Masons, and so forth.

And, finally, as suggested by a dear friend in male-Masonry, here is one last tongue-in-cheek question:

E) So...what about the preparation of the candidates, huh?

Sorry, my obligation forbids me to reveal that!

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