WWhen you mention Freemasons, people usually react in a similar way: Do the members have a secret handshake? Do they roll up their pant legs? Does corruption exist? The only thing they don’t think about is women.
The roots of women’s Freemasonry can be traced back to France in 1882, when Maria Deraismes was the first woman to be initiated into the Lodge of Freethinkers. Co-Masonry (Freemasonry admitting both men and women) was founded in 1902 by Dr. Annie Besant, who became their leader, was brought to Britain from France. Besant was a feminist activist, social reformer, and one of the organizers of the Matchgirls strike of 1888.
In 1908 the British fellow Masons broke free from French control and formed three lodges under a new Grand Lodge. In 1913 the Grand Lodge split after a dispute over degrees (the levels of Freemasonry), resulting in the formation of two separate organizations that would become the Order of Women Freemasons and Freemasonry for Women, both of which continue to operate. Since 1935 they are only women.
They are headed by two Grand Masters (women’s lodges use the same language, traditions and rites as men’s). The Order of Women Freemasons has several thousand members, while Freemasonry for Women has around 700 members. There are Craft Lodges (local lodges) of Women Freemasons throughout the UK and abroad including the USA, India, Gibraltar, Spain and Romania.
Freemasonry originated among guilds of stonemasons and their symbols are objects used in construction. There are three basic degrees of Freemasonry: The first is initiation when one joins; the second is Passing to Fellowcraft; and the third is Master Mason, also known as the Resurrection Ceremony.
“When I joined 1976 it was very much “them and us” and you needed to be held in your place: it was rank oriented. But it’s much friendlier now… the men have relaxed their attitude towards us. At the beginning, They are hostile & wouldn’t recognize us. things have changed a lot“, says Christine Chapman.
“It’s the most beautiful women’s club… The camaraderie. That your life situation is changing – nobody White what’s coming – but that is something constant. You can go inside and there is always a friendly face and a warm-hearted welcome … If you have been with a partner before but you’re not there one later you still have a place to go and feel good. The lodge is always there for you,” he says Suzanne Bentley.
“I joined because I was curious. I was engaged to a guy whose father was a Mason and they had all these nice parties … I moved to Brighton and eventually found one of the guys I was friends with. His mother was a Freemason and She introduced me to a London lodge and here I am. I never aspired to thatit was an accident … I never dreamed that I would reach this position,” he says Maxine Besser, Assistant Grandmaster, 74.
Historically, Freemasonry was a secret affair whose members were not allowed to discuss it with outsiders. Today there is more openness.
I was invited to a meeting of Lodge Justice No 4, part of Freemasonry for Women, in the north London suburb of Southgate. A revival ceremony took place when Mathilde Mbouck, a doctor from south-west London, received her third degree and became a master mason.
While there is more openness, there are parts of the meeting that as a non-Mason I am not allowed to see. “I’d rather not use the word ‘secret’ and instead say that we like to keep a little mystery and an element of surprise,” says Flora Quintner, 84, a retired English and law lecturer.
“For example, you wouldn’t be impressed if you’d just told a friend you were going to the movies and that friend ended up blurting out what happened. It would take all the fun out of the event. Likewise, we keep the details of our ceremony secret for the same reasons.”
I also ask her about the handshake and the rolled up pant leg. “Yes, there is a secret handshake, but I won’t show you,” she laughs. And the trouser leg? “We wear skirts.”
The secret handshake is used to indicate the degree a mason has attained. It should only be used during ceremonies and not outside the lodges.
In the past, if someone wanted to become a Freemason, they almost always had to know someone who was a member, and the process could take several years. Now people can apply online.
Those who wish to become Freemasons must meet three requirements: they must be over 18, of good character (there is an interview to determine this), and while not affiliated with any particular religion, they must believe in a supreme belief Beings – during the ceremonies, people are required to swear an oath to a supreme being.
And what about the corruption allegations? “Personally, I have never heard of corruption in our organization or in the UGLE [United Grand Lodge of England, the male Freemasons]”Quintner says.
“Before joining, all Freemasons are told that there is no business or commercial advantage in Freemasonry and that one should not join if one wishes only to further one’s business. We do not subscribe to conspiracy theories, which fortunately are almost a thing of the past.”
And what does the future of female Freemasonry look like? “I really believe there is a way for Freemasonry in modern society because there are many members and there are still many initiations going on,” says Ndanga-Adjovi.
“The greatest challenge for Freemasonry is to send the right messages. The old traditions of keeping secrets, not communicating enough may need to change now.”