Many know that as Freemasonry evolved it was a men only Fraternity, and there are a few stories regarding the first woman Freemason, one being Elizabeth Aldworth (nee St Ledger), who after falling asleep in room adjoining a private Lodge in Ireland, witness a Masonic ceremony and was caught fleeing the scene by the Lodge Tyler. Various dates account form this occurrence, but after being caught it was decided to initiate and pass Elizabeth to the degree of a Fellowcraft in 1710, there was no third degree at this time. Another was Mts Catherine Babington, reported to be the first woman initiated into Freemasonry in America, here a book has been written claiming her to be the first woman Mason in the world, this lady was born almost 100 years after our previous “lady Mason.”
And,,,, there’s more,,, “first woman Freemason!” Mlle Maria Deraismes was initiated—on January 14, 1882—into Lodge “Les Libres Penseurs” of Pecq, a small village to the west of Paris,,,, I can find more, I’m sure, but more of this French lady later.
However, there were no official women Freemasons (apart from all the above, but these were “unofficial”) until the mid 18th century in France. As no woman could at this time be made a Freemason, it fell upon our gallant French Brothers to correct this anomaly. According to Albert Mackey1 our French Brothers formed a society that had a faint resemblance to Freemasonry “to enable females to unite themselves in some sought of Masonic Institution, and thus to enlist the sympathies and friendship of the gentler sex on behalf of the fraternity.” (His words published in 1869).
This was named “Macceronie d’adoption,” and the Loges called “loges d’adoption” or Adoptive Lodges. This was because every lodge of females under the Grand Orient of France were obliged to be adopted by, and under the guardianship of, a regular French (male) Masonic Lodge.
According to Mackey, in the beginning of the 18th century several secret associations appeared in France which attempted to imitate Freemasonry, but differed from and rivalling the Grand Orient of France for public favour, as they accepted women into the societies; the ladies extolling the gallantry of these new associations and showed increased hostility against the exclusiveness of Freemasonry.
Therefore, in order to placate these ladies and woo them away from these new secret societies, the Grand Orient of France established the new Rite in 1774 and called it the “Rite of Adoption,” and placed this under their control. The rules created for the governing of these Lodges of Adoption, one such rule being that no men could be admitted other than regular Freemasons, and each of these lodges placed under the charge of a regular Freemason’s lodge. The Master of each Freemason’s Lodge “adopting” one of these Lodges of Adoption, or his deputy, must be in attendance as the presiding officer, assisted by a woman President or Mistress. The first Lodge of Adoption was opened in Paris in 1775, under the patronage of the Lodge of St Anthony. This was presided over by the Duchess of Bourbon who was later installed as Grand Mistress of the Adoptive Rite.
At the time the Rite of Adoption consisted of four degrees:
- Perfect Mistress
In the first degree the candidate is simply introduced and prepared for the emblematic lessons contained in the remaining degrees.
The second degree, Companion, is where the scene of temptation in Eden is emblematically represented, where the candidate is reminded of the first sin of women.
In the Mistress degree the building of the Tower of Babel and the dispersion of the human race. Jacob’s Ladder is introduced and the candidate is informed of the virtues which a Freemason should possess, with the Tower of Babel emblematically represents a badly regulated lodge, in which disorder and confusion are substituted by the concord and obedience that should always exist in a lodge.
Finally, in the Perfect Mistress degree the officers represent Moses, Aaron, their wives and the sons of Aaron and the ceremony refers to the passage through the wilderness symbolically to represent the passage of man and woman to another and better world.
It may be pertinent to add at this stage that many addendum Rites were also introduced in France during this period, with rival Grand Lodges, or more specific Supreme Councils overseeing these new Rites, for example the Rite of Strict Observance.
The officers of a Lodge of Adoption comprise a Grand Master and Grand Mistress, an Orator, an Inspector and Inspectress (Mackey’s words) – Senior Warden, a Depositor and Depositrix (Mackey) – Junior Warden, a Conductor and Conductress – Deacons. The Grand Master uses a mallet to control the lodge, the Wardens the same. Every member wears a white apron and gloves. The business of the lodge is conducted by the “sisterhood” with the brethren acting as assistants.
The Lodge room is decorated with emblems that naturally change with each degree, for example, in the first degree the lodge is divided into four segments, each representing the “four quarters” of the world; Europe at the Entrance, Africa on the right, America on the left with Asia in the East, with two grand thrones for the Grand master and Grand Mistress. An alter is before them and to the left and right are eight statues, representing Wisdom, Prudence, Strength, Temperance, Honour, Charity, Justice and Truth.
In the USA, a similar or imitation to the Rite of Adoption was attempted to be introduced in 1855 under the name of the American Adoptive Rite. Like the French version this consisted of a ceremony of initiation intended as a preparatory degree followed by five others:
- Jephthah’s Daughter (or the Daughter’s degree)
- Ruth (or the Widows Degree)
- Esther (or the Wife’s Degree)
- Martha (or Sister’s Degree)
- Electa (or the Christian Martyr’s Degree)
The whole system was called the Eastern Star
Leading Mason’s of the day expressed much dissatisfaction so its founder had to go further west to establish this Rite, it was slow in winning popularity, but under the name of Eastern Star it gained in popularity.
During this time several other similar orders were founded, most have now disappeared (curtesy of Stichting Argus2 (Argus Foundation)). They were:
- 1° Adoptive Apprentice
- 2° Companion
- 3° Mistress
- 4° Perfect Mistress
- 5° Sublime Elect
- 6° Dame Ecossais
- 7° Grand Elect, or French Dame
- 8° Lady of the Dove
- 9° Lady of the Rose Cross
- 10° Adonaite Mistress
- 11° Perfect Venerable Adonaite Mistress
- 12° Crowned Princess, or Sovereign Mistress.
It was in Grande Loge Symbolique de France in 1879 that Mlle Maria Deraismes (another of our “first woman Freemasons”), a staunch worker and lecturer for the welfare of humanity in general and women’s rights in particular, was initiated into masculine Freemasonry in the ‘Loge Libre Penseurs’ in Pecq, a small town outside Paris. Thus started the important events that led up to the forming of the order known as International Co-Freemasonry — Le Droit Humain.3
Under the influence of Dr Georges Martin a number of prominent women were initiated and a new mixed Lodge was founded in Paris in 1893 with Dr Georges Martin becoming its founder. A Constitution was drawn up, under the title Grande Loge Symbolique Ecossaise Mixte de France, with its first lodge called Le Droit Humain, its activities restricted to Craft Masonry at this time.
In 1902 a Co-Freemason’s Lodge was opened in London called Lodge Human Duty No 6; this began to snowball. Unfortunately, a few years on, they became uneasy with the course taken by the French governing body.4 They felt that their ancient forms were in jeopardy and a departure from their traditional style was taking place; history was being repeated, for it was a similar state that had arisen in regular Freemasonry in the mid-18th century. So, apparently, various members resigned and formed themselves into a society that was to emerge eventually as the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons. This was the beginning of Freemasonry for Women in England still with membership of men and women. It was in June 1908 that a Grand Lodge was formed, the first Grand Master being the M. W. Brother, the Reverend W.F. Geikie Cobb.
The Reverend served for four years, after which he was succeeded by a woman, who served for 10 years, and about that time they decided to make their order for women only, but allowed the exiting men members to remain, but no new men were admitted (not even as visitors).
Now, the narrative from my research becomes confusing, as, according to the Order of Women’s Freemasons,5 a group broke away in 1913 from the original society and formed the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons; the same name as the society they left. I have additional information from the first speech made by Grand Master Cobb, which was entitled “A Statement made by the first Grand Master of the Order of Women’s Freemasonry,,,, etc.
But I can for certain state that today the two separate orders exist along side each other in the names of the “Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons” and the “Order of Women’s Freemasons.” Maybe, one day they will reconcile their differences and unite; may I cheekily suggest they call themselves “The United Honourable and Ancient Fraternity of Women Freemasons.”
1 A Lexicon of Freemasonry – Albert G Mackey 1869
These articles are written by W Bro Steve Froggatt PPJGD, current Chaplain of Neptune Lodge No 5150 EC. Steve was initiated into Freemasonry in 1986.They do not represent the view of any Grand/Provincial Grand Lodge.
© Copyright 2019 Al-Khabar/Stephen Froggatt all rights reserved