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[JRFF 4.1/4.

2 (2013) 60–87] ISSN (print) 1757–2460


http://dx.doi.org/10.1558/JRFF.v4i1_2.60 ISSN (online) 1757–2479

Women in Eighteenth-Century English Freemasonry:


the First English Adoption Lodges and their Rituals

Róbert Péter1

University of Szeged, Hungary


Email: rpeter@lit.u-szeged.hu

Abstract

Drawing on several so-far neglected documents available in the Burney


Collection of the British Library as well as in the Library and Museum of
Freemasons’ Hall in London, this paper investigates the gender structures
and roles represented in English masonic constitutions, pamphlets, letters,
rituals as well as newspapers of the long eighteenth century. First, it
examines the origin and the public perception of the exclusion of women
from the fraternity in England and discuses how freemasons defended this
‘landmark’. Second, it analyses how and why English freemasons invited
ladies to participate in various masonic activities including balls, feasts
and public masonic ceremonies. Third, it highlights how some English
women, following the advice of some liberal-minded ‘brethren’, managed
to subvert this gender-exclusive principle by establishing all-female and/
or adoption lodges in the second half of the century. So far scholarship has
dated the emergence of such lodges to the twentieth century in England.
Finally, the paper will compare the gender constructions of traditional
male masonic rituals with the first English ceremonies of adoption lodges
admitting both sexes.

Keywords: Freemasonry, women, gender studies, rituals, press.

To trace the origin of Females being excluded from the rites of Masonry
will ultimately end in a mere conjecture, as the reason for their being so is
one of the valuable secrets in possession of the Fraternity.2

1. Róbert Péter is Senior Assistant Professor at the Institute of English and


American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary.
2. Anon., Free Masonry, for the Ladies, Dedicated by Permission to Her Royal Highness
the Duchess of York. To Which are Added, Anthems and Odes, Etc (Dublin and London:
[printed, and Dublin: re-printed] Thomas Wilkinson, 1791), 3.
I would like to thank Jan A.M. Snoek, Andrew Prescott, John Corrigan, Robert
Collis and Harriet Sandvall for their valuable comments on an earlier version of

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Péter Women in Eighteenth-Century English Freemasonry 61

In Enlightenment Europe the exclusion of women from apparently egali­


tarian sociabilities such as freemasonry generated fiery private and public
debates from the early eighteenth century.3 It is all the more natural that
masonic antiquarian research, especially in Britain, has ignored the study
of how enlightened minds of both sexes advocated the involvement of
women in masonic activities, culminating in the creation of adoption
and/or female lodges in Georgian England. The discussion of such
heretical ideas has been avoided in traditional English masonic research
lodges. But it is striking to observe that academic scholarship has yet to
fully examine the gender aspects of eighteenth-century British masonic
ideology, practice and iconography. However, this subject has been of
great relevance to the ongoing debate on the impact of Enlightenment
sociability on women in France. One discussion between Dena Goodman
on the one side, and Margaret Jacob and Janet Burke on the other, has
revolved around the relationship of freemasonry to gender perceptions.
Following a feminist line of scholarship, Dena Goodman accuses the
‘masculine’ lodges of repressing women and limiting their role in
building the Enlightenment project, while Margaret Jacob and Janet
Burke emphasize how the Enlightenment idea of equality was lived out
in the masonic ‘lodges of adoption’ first appearing in the 1740s.4 These
popular women’s lodges were recognized officially by the Grand Orient,
the governing body of French freemasonry, in 1774. It can be said that the
gender aspects of French freemasonry have been well documented and
properly examined5 but the same is not true for the lodges in the mother

this paper. I am grateful to the Hungarian State Eötvös Postdoctoral Fellowship


and the British Academy Visiting Fellowship for enabling me to carry out research
concerning this paper in English archives.
3. See Barbara Taylor and Sarah Knott eds, Women, Gender and Enlightenment
(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Elizabeth Eger, Bluestockings. Women of Reason
from the Enlightenment to Romanticism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). Robert
Collis, ‘Jolly Jades, Lewd Ladies and Moral Muses: Women and Clubs in Augustan
Britain’, Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism 2.2 (2011): 202–35.
4. Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlighten­
ment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 245–59. Janet M. Burke and Margaret
Jacob, ‘French Freemasonry, Women, and Feminist Scholarship’, The Journal of Modern
History 68.3 (1996): 513–49.
5. However, as Margaret Jacob points out, most French historians do not realize
that vast, unexamined archives were returned to Paris in 2000 from Moscow. Among
them were over 750 large boxes of masonic manuscripts stolen by the Nazis from
the Grand Orient on rue Cadet in June 1940. For instance, some of the recently
found documents prove that there had been a lodge for women in Bordeaux as
early as 1746. The most recent works on the gender relations of French Freemasonry
include James Smith Allen, ‘Sisters of Another Sort: Freemason Women in Modern
France, 1725–1940’, The Journal of Modern History 75.4 (2003): 783–835; Margaret C.
Jacob, The Origins of Freemasonry: Facts and Fictions (Philadelphia, PA: University

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62 Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism

country of the society.6 As for gendering English freemasonry, there is a


clear need for examination of eighteenth-century subversions of masonic
law concerning women, both in rhetoric and practice. This includes the
investigation of the attempts to establish adoption or all-female lodges,
the first British appearance of which has been dated to the early twentieth
century in scholarship so far.
Drawing on several so-far neglected documents available in the Burney
Collection of the British Library, as well as in the Library and Museum
of Freemasons’ Hall in London, this paper intends to contribute to this
discussion by investigating the gender structures and roles represented
in eighteenth-century English masonic constitutions, pamphlets and
rituals as well as newspapers.7 To examine these sources, the following
method shall be adopted: first, we shall investigate the origin and public
perception of the exclusion of women from the fraternity in England
and discuss how freemasons defended this ‘landmark’. Second, we shall
analyse how and why English freemasons invited women to participate
in various masonic activities including balls, feasts and public masonic
ceremonies. Third, we shall highlight how some English women, follow­
ing the advice of some liberal-minded ‘brethren’, managed to subvert this
gender-exclusive principle by establishing all-female or adoption lodges.
Finally, the paper will analyse the gender constructions of traditional
male masonic rituals as well as the so-far ignored English ceremonies of
adoption lodges admitting both sexes.
It was in 1723 that the society of freemasons published its first book
of constitutions in London. As Margaret Jacob notes, in the eighteenth

of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 99–129; Bernard Kenneth Loiselle, ‘“New but True
Friends”: Freemasonry and the Culture of Male Friendship in Eighteenth-Century
France’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, Yale University, 2007); Alexandra Heidle and
Jan A.M. Snoek eds. Women’s Agency and Rituals in Mixed and Female Masonic Orders
(Leiden: Brill, 2008). Jan A.M. Snoek, Initiating Women in Freemasonry: The Adoption
Rite. Text and Studies in Western Esotericism 12 (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2012).
6. There are two exceptions: Marie Mulvey Roberts, ‘Masonics, Metaphor and Mis­
ogyny: A Discourse of Marginality’, in Languages and Jargons, eds. Peter Burke and Roy
Porter (Cambridge: Polity, 1998), 133–54. Roberts investigates certain gender-related
issues of masonic language but her usage of sources is sometimes confined to twentieth-
century ritual exposures and eighteenth-century bawdy lodge drinking songs, some of
which were written by Georgian anti-Masons. Based upon the latter documents, she
highlights the misogynistic elements of masonic practice, while, in my opinion, she
slightly exaggerates the ‘virulent’ misogyny of freemasons. Cécile Révauger, ‘Women
Barred from Masonic “Work”: a British Phenomenon’ in The Invisible Woman: Aspects of
Women’s Work in Eighteenth-Century Britain, eds. Isabelle Baudino, Jacques Carré, and
Cécile Révauger (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 117–27. Révauger examines the internal
and external factors why women were excluded from lodges.
7. Virginia Berridge claims that newspapers are still underutilized as a source for
historical research, which is also true for the study of freemasonry.

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Péter Women in Eighteenth-Century English Freemasonry 63

century ‘the constitutional ideal, the creation of constitutionally governed


civil societies, was masculine work’.8 In accordance with this, the third
charge demanded that the ‘Members of a Lodge must be good and true
Men, free-born, and of mature and discreet Age, no Bondmen, no Women,
no immoral or scandalous Men, but of good Report’.9
The male dominance in masonic membership can be dated back to
the Middle Ages. Although modern freemasonry as an institution was
established in early eighteenth-century England, the founding ‘brethren’
saw the origin of their society in the medieval past. That is why their
first book of Constitutions of 1723 heavily and intentionally builds on the
regulations of medieval stonemasons. Mainly due to the nature of their
work, the stonemasons’ guilds had predominantly male members.10
Relying on this tradition and considering the male-dominated European
societies of their time it seemed natural to them to close their lodges to
women.
Despite their generally egalitarian rhetoric, English freemasons had a
bad reputation with regard to their attitude towards women in certain
circles. For instance, in 1726 a father described freemasonry to his son
who had just been initiated into the fraternity as ‘a Set of Men who are
strongly suspected to bear no great Good-will to the Fair Sex. […] The
Good Wives hereabouts conclude themselves ruin’d the Moment their
Husbands become Free-Masons’.11 In 1757 the London Evening Post

8. Margaret C. Jacob, Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in


Eighteenth-Century Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 135. A significant
but ignored exception is the constitution of the Fair Intellectual-Club, which was
founded by women in 1717 in Edinburgh. M.C. An account of the Fair Intellectual-Club
in Edinburgh: in a letter to a honourable member of an Athenian Society there. By a young
lady, the secretary of the club (Edinburgh: printed by J. M’euan and Company, and to be
sold at the said J. M’euan’s shop in Edinburgh, and T. Cox at the Amsterdam Coffee-
House near the Royal Exchange in London, [1720]), 6–12. R. Collis, ‘Jolly Jades, Lewd
Ladies and Moral Muses: Women and Clubs in Augustan Britain’, Journal for Research
into Freemasonry and Fraternalism 2.2 (2011): 202–35.
9. James Anderson, The Constitutions of the Free-Masons: Containing the History,
Charges, Regulations, &c. Of That Most Ancient and Right Worshipful Fraternity. For the
Use of the Lodges (London: printed by William Hunter, for John Senex, and John Hooke,
1723), 51.
10. In general, English craft guilds were never exclusively male, and women
were admitted into their ranks from the Middle Ages onwards: see Alice Clark,
Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (London: Routledge, 1919; repr.
1992); Marjorie Keniston McIntosh, Working Women in English Society, 1300–1620
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
11. Gentleman in the Country, The Free-Masons Accusation and Defence. In Six
Genuine Letters. Between a Gentleman in the Country, and his Son a Student in the Temple
(London: printed for J. Peele; and N. Blandford, 1726), 18–19.

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64 Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism

reported from ‘a small Borough Town by the Sea, in the West Part of the
Country of Dorset’:
They have also a friendly Male, and Female club, for depositing Sums in
order to help one another, in case of Sickness or Distress, and besides what
they call a FreeMason’s Lodge: This last amuses many of the Inhabitants,
who were puzzled to guess the Cause of this new-fangled Male Sect,
springing up in that Place to the Disquiet of many of the Females (who
are excluded…)12

It is no wonder that masculinity and perhaps the male superiority of this


‘Male Sect’ were ridiculed by the ‘profane’, that is, the non-initiated. The
first such writing is dated as early as 1724 and entitled ‘The Sisterhood
of Free Sempstresses’,13 which was a short skit on freemasonry and
women. It was soon followed by other anti-masonic pamphlets, which
reinforced the prejudices against the brotherhood. Freemasons were
mocked in theatrical plays such as The Female Freemason (1737) and in
humorous writings including The Discovery, or the Female Free-Mason
(1771).14 In fact, the latter could have been based upon a real discovery,
since, as we shall see, some English women must have joined an
adoption lodge in the mid-1760s at the latest.
According to a masonic song appearing in print in 1754 for the
first time, a secret plan seemed to exist “to raise Lodges for Lady Free
Masons”.15 It is natural that the public was fascinated with the idea of
female freemasonry in the middle of the eighteenth century.16 This is
well illustrated by the interpretation of a clandestine ‘Grand Assembly

12. St. James’s Chronicle, or the British Evening Post, 10 July 1764, Issue 523.
13. Read’s Weekly Journal, 25 January 1723/24 reprinted in The Early Masonic
Catechisms, eds. Douglas Knoop, G.P. Jones, D. Hamer (London: Manchester Uni­
versity Press, 1963), 226–28.
14. Grub Street Journal, 21 April 1737, Issue 382; Middlesex Journal, or Chronicle of
Liberty, 20 July 1771, Issue 363. The publication of The Discovery, or the Female Free-
Mason was also reported in A Catalogue of Prints and Books of Prints, both Ancient and
Modern, after the Most Eminent Masters (London: Hooper and Davis, [1779]), 68.
15. Anon., The Pocket Companion and History of Free-masons, Containing their Origine,
Progress, and Present State: an Abstract of their Laws, Constitutions (London: printed for
J. Scott; and sold by R. Baldwin, 1754), 326. This song was reprinted in numerous
masonic writings including the subsequent editions of this book as well as the Ahiman
Rezon.
16. John Entick, who compiled the aforementioned Pocket Companion further
increased the curiosity of the public by printing a most likely unauthentic letter from
John Locke to Thomas Earl of Pembroke (6 May, 1696), which claims that Locke, with
the help of Mr Collins, copied an old MS in the Bodleian Library on the subject of
freemasonry. When Locke discussed this finding with Lady Masham, she became ‘so
fond of Masonry, as to say, that she now more than ever wishes herself a Man, that
she might be capable of Admission into the Fraternity’. Anon., The Pocket Companion
and History of Free-masons… , 218–19.

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Péter Women in Eighteenth-Century English Freemasonry 65

of the Ladies’ held in Thame, Oxfordshire on 6 July 1757. ‘The Occasion,


however, of this Celebrity is hitherto so profound a Secret, that it
hath given Room to an idle Report round the Country, that it was the
Institution of a Lodge of Female Free masons’.17
In response to these mockeries and anti-masonic writings that attacked
the lodges, among other things, for excluding women, freemasons had to
develop justifications for their all-male, gender-exclusive organization.
This theme formed a continuing part of masonic apologetics from the
1720s onwards. So let us review the main arguments of these works.
‘Why we don’t admit Women, as well as Taylors, into our Lodges?’,
asked Aaron Hill, a self-designated freemason as early as 1724 in The
Plain Dealer.18 His answer, which appeared frequently in later defences,
was the following: ‘I have some Reasons to fear, that our Secrets are in
danger of being expos’d’.19 This was further elaborated by other masonic
pamphlets, which argued that women were incapable of keeping
secrets. By using the rhetoric of male power and privilege in the cult of
feminine domesticity of the eighteenth century, these masonic writings
only reinforced the existing socially constructed gender stereotypes.
The following quotation from a letter written as a reply to an accusation
of freemasonry in 1726 also mirrors how freemasons viewed women’s
attitude to the fraternity:
That the Ladies are a little jealous of the Fraternity is natural, from their
Innate Curiosity by reason the Mysteries of Masonry are secluded from
that Sex; but so far are Masons from slighting that agreeable Part of the
Creation, that I fear, too many of the Brotherhood love ‘em but too well.20

There is also an intriguing masonic print from 1754 that illustrates female
curiosity, which is entitled ‘The Free-Masons Surpriz’d or the Secret
Discover’d. A True Tale from a Masons’ Lodge in Canterbury’.21 It depicts
Moll, a chambermaid falling through the ceiling while discovering the
‘mysteries’ of freemasonry.22

17. London Evening Post, 9 July 1757, Issue 4630.


18. The Plain Dealer, 14 September 1724, Issue 51.
19. The Plain Dealer, 14 September 1724, Issue 51.
20. Gentleman in the Country, The Free-Masons Accusation and Defence, 12.
21. Anon., The Free-Masons Surpriz’d. or the Secret Discover’d: A True Tale from a Masons’
Lodge in Canterbury (London: printed for Robert Sayer in Fleet Street and John Smith
in Cheapside, 1754). The print is available online at <http://www.freemasoncollection.
com/3–MASONIC%20DOCUMENTS/free-masons-surprized-masonic-documents.
php> [accessed 28 November, 2009]. Thanks to Harriet Sandvall for drawing my
attention to this item.
22. According to Marie Mulvey Roberts, the ‘traditional female curiosity in the
activities of the lodge is likely to have been a collective male fantasy fuelled by the
self-importance of its members’. Roberts, ‘Masonics, Metaphor and Misogyny’, 148.

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66 Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism

It was Captain George Smith, the Provincial Grand Master for Kent,
who provided the most elaborate explanation about why women were
not admitted into masonic lodges in his debated The Use and Abuse of
Free-Masonry in 1783. In this significant work, inter alia, he aimed to
eradicate and remove the grounded opinions, especially of the ‘fair sex’,
about freemasonry. He hoped that if women rightly understood their
exclusion from lodges, they would stop censuring freemasons ‘with
all the severity their delicate minds are capable of’.23 He states that the
reason why, according to some freemasons, women were not allowed
to join this society:
To take away all occasion for calumny and reproach, which those shallow
geniuses seem to think would have been unavoidable, had they been
admitted. And again, that since women had in general been always
considered as not very well qualified to keep a secret.24

At this point he refers to the well-known biblical story of Samson


and Delilah (Judges 16), where the beloved Delilah betrayed Samson.
However, he personally finds it ‘unjust to exclude the fair sex from
benefiting by our societies on account of Delilah’s behaviour’.25 Then he
offers a more reasonable explanation relying on tradition and custom:
My fair readers will please to recollect, that in the most early ages of
antiquity, women’s minds were not so enlightened as in the present age;
that they were only considered in the days of king Solomon as handmaids,
and not as companions and associates to men employed in so learned,
so useful, and so mysterious a society as masonry, as there are many
transactions in the royal art, which are far beyond that knowledge which
women in general attain. At the first institution of masonry, it was thought
proper to exclude the fair sex, and as old customs are but too seldom laid
aside, their expulsion has been handed down to us. And as we are such
strict observers of its ancient manners and customs, so transmitted to us
by our forefathers, these I hope will be sufficient reasons, both ancient as
well as modern, why that most amiable part of the creation have hitherto
been excluded.26

It is important to observe how Continental freemasons defended the


non-admittance of women in their lodges. Robert Beachy’s research on
masonic apologetic texts in Continental Europe highlights that simple

23. George Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry: A Work of the Greatest Utility to
the Brethren of the Society, to Mankind in General, and to the Ladies in Particular (London:
printed for the author; and sold by G. Kearsley, 1783), 350.
24. Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry, 351. In the footnote he observes
that ‘some men are equally as unqualified to keep a secret, as the women are here
represented to be’. Later he claims that ‘women on the contrary keep their own and
friends’ secrets better than men’. Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry, 359.
25. Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry, 352.
26. Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry, 353–54.

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Péter Women in Eighteenth-Century English Freemasonry 67

praise for homosociality in the earliest masonic documents swiftly gave


way by the middle of the eighteenth century to broad elaborations of
sexual difference:
Some authors noted women’s legal and financial dependence on fathers
and husbands as an implicit disqualification for lodge membership. In
sum, women could never establish the freedom of thought and action
requisite for Masonic affiliation. Other writers developed elaborate
descriptions of the physical and moral shortcomings of the female sex.
Vanity, moral weakness, and excessive sensuality made women poor
candidates for the rigours of lodge association, including fraternal loyalty
and the ability to maintain secrets.27

However, the available evidence suggests that English freemasons did


not seem to go as far as their Continental brethren in their criticism of
women—most of these arguments at least did not appear in English
masonic writings that I consulted.
Though we are unable to reconstruct how the members of the frater­
nity actually spoke about women after their lodge meetings, English
freemasons were very careful about how they addressed the ‘Fair Sex’
in public speeches and writings. Although allusions to women were
lacking from most rituals, other masonic writings made brief references
to women. Most of these texts spoke respectfully of women and several of
them even praised them. In a late eighteenth-century ritual book giving an
account of the Genesis, separated from the ritual, one can find a quotation
from Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book VIII) admiring womanly virtues:
The Almighty then, as his last and best Gift to Man, created Woman,
under his forming Hands, a Creature grew Manlike, but different in Sex,
so Lovely Fair, that what seemed Fair in all the World before now seemed
Mean, or in her summed up; on she came, led by her heavenly Maker,
though unseen, and guided by his Voice, adorned with what all Earth or
the Heaven could bestow to make her amiable. Grace was in all her Steps,
Heaven in her Eye, and in every Gesture Dignity of Love.28

One possible reason for this praise of women in this context could be that
freemasons were trying to compensate for the masculine aspects of the
ritual following this account. In a similar fashion, the aforementioned
Captain Smith also emphasized that ‘no society, or body of men upon

27. This quotation is from the abstract of Robert Beachy’s paper ‘Masonic Apologetic
Writings and the Construction of Gender in Enlightenment Europe’, presented at
the symposium ‘Lodges, Chapters and Orders: Fraternal Organizations and the
structuring of Gender Roles in Europe (1300–2000)’ at the University of Sheffield on
11–13 July 2002.
28. John Browne, The Master-Key Through All the Degrees of a Free-Mason’s Lodge; To
Which are Added, Eulogiums and Illustrations, upon Free-Masonry; Theology; Astronomy;
Geometry; Architecture; Arts; Sciences; Etc. with a Correct and Complete List of All the
Modern Regular Lodges (London: printer A.L., 1798), 14.

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68 Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism

earth, can venerate, adore, and esteem the fair sex more than free-
masons do’.29 Later he championed the virtues of women: ‘She is the
most pleasing companion in the gay and cheerful hour of prosperity
[…] She is the tender and careful preserver of his health, and the
ever-anxious and soothing attendant on his sickness’.30 To defend the
merits of the fraternity, he claimed that freemasons ‘are inspired with
a far greater desire and reverence for the most sacred and happy of all
institutions, marriage. […] and weigh the great importance of marriage,
both as a sacred and moral duty’.31
Women were invited to a number of masonic celebrations, on
some of which special speeches were addressed to them. In these brief
lectures, similarly to Smith, the leaders of the Craft not only glorified the
basic principles of the fraternity but also tried to destroy the prejudices
of the numerous women present, without whose merits, according to
these lectures, no man could become a good freemason. As Provincial
Grand Master for Hampshire, before opening a provincial grand lodge
in Southampton on 6 September 1777:
Lord Charles Montagu gave a public breakfast to the ladies, who were
attended by the Stewards of the Lodge, and afterwards introduced
to see the brethren assembled in ample form. As soon as the company
were seated, his Lordship, in a short, but elegant address, after politely
thanking them for the honour of their visit, pointed out those excellent
principles which are the basis of Free masonry, observing, that though
Free and Accepted Masons had been often censured for shutting their
doors against female enquiries, there was nothing in the institution but
what merited their favour and approbation; for no man could obtain the
character of a good Mason, unless he was a good brother, a good friend, a
good father and a good husband. Brother Dunkerley next addressed the
Ladies in a speech of equal elegance, after which the Foundation Anthem
[…] was sung […] The Ladies then took their leave, and the brethren
proceeded in open lodge.32

The following newspaper report also testifies that Thomas Dunckerley


(1724–1795), perhaps the best-known freemason in the last decades
of that century, was especially talented at making the fraternity more
appealing to numerous contemporary women. On 12 August 1789,
Dunckerley, as the Provincial Grand Master for Somerset, held Grand

29. Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry, 350.


30. Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry, 354.
31. Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry, 354, 356.
32. Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, 9 September 1777, Issue 2591. Smith
might have referred to this occasion: ‘At Royal-arch processions; private and public
Masonic orations, &c. at one of which the ladies were thus addressed by the orator
[footnote: Thomas Dunckerley, Esq., provincial grand-master of Essex, Wilthsire,
Dorsetshire.]’. Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry, 360.

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Péter Women in Eighteenth-Century English Freemasonry 69

Lodge in honour of the Prince of Wales’s birthday, where he ‘delivered a


charge to the Society, and made an elegant address to about 400 Ladies,
whom he with strong emphasis repeatedly styled the most lovely and
beautiful part of the creation, without whose charms the life of man
would not be worth possessing’.33
After lodge meetings freemasons sometimes attended theatres and
hence promoted the performances, during which special epilogues and
prologues, often written by the ‘brethren’, were recited to popularize
the merits of the brotherhood. In a theatrical epilogue spoken on an
occasion on a masonic visit to Drury Lane Theatre in 1729 or 1730,
having recalled the classical biblical story about Samson’s betrayal by
Delilah, a freemason commenting on the exclusion of women from
lodges expresses his grief in the following manner:
We know, that the Ladies of this present Age
Can keep a secret, if their Word engage;
Our Lodges doors should therefore open fly,
The Beauties of this Isle to gratify:
But Solomon t’ each Tongue has fix’d a Chain
Which past a certain Length, no Pow’r can strain.
And yet to shew how complaisant we are,
We’ve brought the Flow’r of all our Lodges here,
Griev’d at the Heart we can’t receive you there
We’ll do our utmost to redress that Wrong [sic].34

33. Morning Star, 17 August 1789, Issue 160. Dunckerley also elegantly addressed
‘most of the Ladies in Marlborough’ and provided an apology of masonic values at
the end of a so-far neglected charge delivered on 11 September, 1769:
‘Next to the Deity, whom can I so properly address myself to, as the most
beautiful part of the creation? You have heard, Ladies, our grand principles
explained, with the instructions given to the brethren; and I doubt not
but at other times you have heard many disrespectful things said of this
society. Envy, malice, and all uncharitableness will never be at a loss to
decry, find fault, and raise objections to what they do not know. How great
then are the obligations you lay on this lodge! with what superior esteem,
respect, and regard, are we to look on every lady present, that has done us
the honor of her company this evening. To have the sanction of the fair is
our highest ambition, as our greatest care will be to preserve it. The virtues
of humanity are peculiar to your sex; and we flatter ourselves, the most
splendid ball could not afford you greater pleasure, than to see the human
heart made happy, and the poor and disirest obtain present relief.”
William Martin Leake, A Sermon Preached at St. Peter’s Church in Colchester on Tuesday,
June 24, 1777: … Before the Provincial Grand Master, and the Provincial Grand Lodge, of
The … Masons of Essex. By the Revd. William Martin Leake, … To Which Is Added a Charge
Which Was Delivered … At … Marlborough, … By Thomas Dunckerley… (Colchester:
printed and sold by W. Keymer, 1778), 34–35.
34. Reprinted in Early Masonic Pamphlets, eds. Douglas Knoop, G.P. Jones and
Douglas Hamer (Manchester: Manchester University Press: 1945), 231.

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70 Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism

However, the view that freemasons were women-haters also appeared


at the beginning of other theatrical epilogues, often presented by the
wives of masons, but they ended up as anthems to the joys of marriage
to a mason:
I thought—unable to explain the Matter,
Each MASON, sure, must be a Woman-Hater
[…]
Ye marry’d Ladies, ‘tis a happy Life,
Believe me, that of a FREE MASON’s Wife,
Tho’ they conceal the Secrets of their Friends
In Love and Truth they make us full Amends.35

It is telling that this epilogue and another by Mrs Bellamy were


published in Lawrence Dermott’s edition of the Constitutions in 1756,36
which, although forbidding women to join the brotherhood, had 13
women among its subscribers.37 By publishing these epilogues in their
constitutions, freemasons wanted to destroy the prejudices of women
against the brotherhood and portray a positive picture of their fraternity.
The following unique epilogue, written by Captain Gardiner and
spoken by Mrs King, was introduced at the end of a new comedy called The
Brothers and performed in front of, among others, freemasons of the Royal
Edwin Lodge at Dereham in Norfolk on 17 August 1770. Mr Gardiner,
who must have been a freemason, also recommended women curious
about the secrets of the fraternity to be indifferent to these ‘mysteries’ and
to recognize the honour, honesty and loyalty of freemasons:
We Women, tho’ we like GOOD Masons well,
Sometimes are angry that they will not tell;
And then we flaunt away from rout to rout,
And swear, like you, we’ve found the SECRET out:
But O vain boast! to all enquiring eyes,
Too deep the MINE where that bright JEWEL lies!
That Masons have a SECRET is most true,
And you, ye Beauties, have a Secret too:
Now if the Masons are so rigid grown,
To keep THEIR Secret to themselves alone,

35. The Antient Constitutions of the Free and Accepted Masons, New Engrav’d on Copper
Plates with a Speech Deliver’d at the Grand Lodge of York… Likewise a Prologue Spoken by
Mr. Mills, and an Epilogue spoken by a Masons’s Wife, at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane,
on Friday the 27th Day of December, 1728, 2nd edn (London: Printed for B. Creake,
1731) [British Library], no page number indicated.
36. Laurence Dermott, Ahiman Rezon or, A Help to a Brother; Shewing the Excellency
of Secrecy … The Ancient Manner of Constituting New Lodges … Also the Old and New
Regulations … To Which is Added, the Greatest Collection of Masons Songs … Together
with Solomon’s Temple An Oratorio … (London: printed for the editor, sold by Brother
James Bedford, 1756), 195–96.
37. Dermott, Ahiman Rezon or, A Help to a Brother , xix–xxii.

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Péter Women in Eighteenth-Century English Freemasonry 71

Be SILENT in your turns, ‘tis that allures,


SILENCE! and bid the Masons - find out YOUR’S
[…]
The ties of HONOUR only, Masons bind,
Friends to each other, and to all mankind;
True to their KING, and for their COUNTRY
[…]
In peace, with honest hearts they court the Fair,
And most they triumph when they triumph there:
Their actions known, their bitt’rest foes approve,
For all that Masons ask, is—LOVE for LOVE.38

It is clear from these accounts that from the early days of organized
freemasonry onwards several freemasons realized the tension between
the egalitarian principles of the fraternity and the discrimination of
women from lodges. However, it is not hard to imagine that having
consumed a few drinks after the ceremonies, the all-male company did
not care much about the criticism of the excluded women and made
jokes about the absent females or sang misogynist drinking songs, too.
To decrease this tension between the egalitarian masonic rhetoric
and the actual discriminative practice, freemasons invited women to
participate in a number of public masonic celebrations and involved
them in various masonic activities.39 Most masonic halls and lodges
were far from being alien environments to women since they could visit
them during non-masonic events such as concerts or public masonic
feasts including St John the Evangelist day. The following examples will
suffice to illustrate this.
In 1764 the Caledonian Lodge commemorated St John the Evangelist,
who was a patron saint for freemasons, at their lodge in the Half-Moon
Tavern, Cheapside:
The Right Hon. and Most Worshipful Grand Master, Deputy Grand
Master, and other Officers of the Grand Lodge, with a number of Ladies
and Brethren of Distinction, honoured them with their presence. The
evening was concluded with a ball, and the whole ceremony conducted
with that form, order, regularity, and decorum, so becoming the dignity
and character of that ancient and honourable Order.40

In May 1772, Bingley’s Journal found it remarkable that a great number


of women were in the gallery of the Merchant Taylors’ Hall ‘when the
Duke of Beaufort invited Lord Petre with the ensigns of the office of

38. Bingley’s Weekly Journal, or the Universal Gazette, 18 August 1770, Issue 11.
39. Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry, 360; Révauger, ‘Women Barred from
Masonic “Work”’, 122–24.
40. London Chronicle or Universal Evening Post, 29 December 1764, Issue 1253.

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72 Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism

Grand Master’ in the presence of many persons of distinction, besides


an estimated 700 Freemasons.41
On 1 May 1775 Lord Petre laid the foundation stone of the Freemasons’
Hall ‘in the presence of 160 ladies, and upwards of 400 brethren’.42 The
building was erected within a year and dedicated on 23 May 1776:
Upwards 200 ladies, who were complimented with tickets to see the
ceremonies and hear the musical performers, attended, and were
introduced by the assistants to the hall committee into the galleries of the
hall […] A solemn piece of music was next performed, during which the
ladies withdrew to tea and coffee, and such of the musicians who were not
masons, retired to accompany them […] the lodge was then covered, and
the ladies introduced amidst the acclamations of the brethren…43

It is important to note that in the new Freemasons’ Hall there were


two galleries, ‘either for music, or to admit women to the sight of such
ceremonies as the laws of the society will permit’.44 Four years later a
book about the moral and physical vindication of female talents, which
was dedicated to Her Majesty, was sold only in a masonic coffee house
by the Freemasons’ Hall in Great Queen Street.45
During the celebration of constituting a lodge in Devizes on 28 July
1788, having displayed their regalia:
The Right Worshipful Master (Andrew Bayntun, Esq.) in the Chair, and
the officers and the brethren seated, the Lodge door was thrown open,
when many Ladies did the Brethren the honour of a visit, and with a
general smile of approbation, added much beauty to the splendor and
dignity of the scene; in about half an hour the Ladies retired, and the lodge
proceeded to business.46

From time to time freemasons’ wives were also invited for special
women’s nights.47 For the benevolence of society and the improvement of
their public image, they established the Royal Cumberland School in 1788
for the education of the female children of freemasons and also appointed
a patroness for the new school, namely, the Duchess of Cumberland.48

41. Bingley’s Journal, 2 May 1772, Issue 101.


42. Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry, 81, 148–49.
43. Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry, 98, 102–103.
44. Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry, 150.
45. Lady, Female Restoration, by a Moral and Physical Vindication of Female Talents;
in Opposition to All Dogmatical Assertions Relative to Disparity in the Sexes. Dedicated to
Her Majesty; and Humbly Addressed to the Ladies of Great Britain and Ireland. By a Lady
(London: sold only at Free-Masons coffee-house, Great Queen-Street, Lincoln’s-Inn-
Fields; and J. Macgowan’s, No. 27, Paternoster-Row, 1780).
46. Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal 2 (August 1788): Issue 2075.
47. Bernard E. Jones, Freemasons’ Guide and Compendium (London: Harrap, 1956),
72, 484–85.
48. Lloyd’s Evening Post, 3 October 1792, Issue 5503. Free Masonry, for the Ladies…, 5.

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Péter Women in Eighteenth-Century English Freemasonry 73

However, several enlightened minds, both women and men, were


not content with this degree of women’s involvement in masonic
activities from the 1760s. They found the contradiction between the
sexual exclusivity of the lodges and their ideal of equality increasingly
unacceptable. The dissatisfaction of an educated woman led to the
organization of a public debate in Capel Court, Bartholomew Lane,
London on 29 December 1788, which addressed the following question:
‘Is it not an Instance of great Partiality, Inconsistency, and Injustice,
in the Free Masons, to exclude the Fair Sex from a knowledge of their
Secret?’ This advertisement reports that this question was brought
forward at the particular request of a lady of great literary fame, who
had ‘frequently honoured this society with her sentiments’.49
In the 1780s some progressive freemasons such as Thomas Dunckerley,
William Dodd and George Smith also began openly to advocate the
reformation of the fraternity. For instance, Smith not only regarded the
non-admission of women ‘a very great misfortune’ offending the women
but argued for the elimination of that ancient custom that barred women
from lodges:
There is no law ancient or modern that forbids the admission of the
fair sex amongst the society of Free and Accepted Masons, and custom
only has hitherto prevented their initiation; consequently, all bad usages
and customs ought to be annihilated, and ladies of merit and reputation
admitted into the society; or at least be permitted to form lodges among
their own sex, in imitation of those in Germany and France.50

According to Smith, it is beyond dispute that women have an ‘undoubted


right’ to become members of masonic lodges since their minds are also
capable of improvement. Furthermore, brethren who assist the women
in forming female lodges do not violate their masonic obligations.51
The publication of Smith’s book was so influential that ‘Several ladies
of the highest rank, determined to form a Lodge of Freemasons upon
the plan which Captain Smith has given in his new work’, according
to the correspondent of the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser in
1783.52 The correspondent had no doubt that they would keep the secret
as inviolably as men. If the account of the journalist is authentic, this is
the first reference to an all-female lodge in England. Considering the
moderate nature of the British Enlightenment, it is striking to observe
that English all-female lodges seem to have appeared almost at the same
time as their French counterparts. Another London newspaper reported

49. Star, 27 December 1788, Issue 205.


50. Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry, 361–62.
51. Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry, 365.
52. Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, 26 June 1783, Issue 4402.

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74 Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism

two years later that ‘a lodge of female Freemasons is now established


at Paris, who differ from the societies, and from their own sex only in
one particular, that they do not allow any men to be admitted into their
lodge’.53 It is possible that the journalist confused freemasonry with
quasi-masonic orders, several of which had all-female membership from
the seventeenth century onwards. If the newspaper correspondent was
not mistaken, this account is most remarkable since so far scholarship, to
the best of my knowledge, has not managed to identify any exclusively
female masonic orders prior to the early-twentieth century.
Moreover, the General Evening Post reported on 21st May 1787 that
after Thomas Dunckerley organized a grandiose masonic celebration
in honour of Queen Charlotte’s birthday in Bocking in Essex, ‘several
ladies in this county formed a select party in this town [Braintree], and
dedicated a Lodge to Urania, in honour of the day’.54
Although no other record about this meeting has been identified
so far, I will offer a hypothesis about the membership and social
construction of this lodge. We have seen that several eighteenth-century
masonic feasts were attended by the wives and sisters of freemasons
themselves. Consequently, if we know the membership lists of those
lodges, which attended the celebration in Bocking, we can tentatively
identify the wives of their members who were present and could have
been involved in the establishment of the Urania Lodge. It is most
probable that Bocking freemasons organized this celebration, which
started in front of their own lodge, that is, the sixteenth-century White

53. Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, 25 June 1785, Issue 3862.
54. A letter from Braintree described the events of the day as follows:
‘Yesterday being the anniversary of her Majesty’s birth-day, the Brethren
of the most ancient and honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons
assembled at the White-Hart inn, where a grand Lodge was held in honour
of the day, by Thomas Dunkerley, Esq; the Grand Master for this country,
&c. &c. A grand procession was formed to the church, and an excellent
sermon given by the Rev. Brother M.P. Carter, from the 9th chapter of St.
Mark, part of the last verse. A liberal collection was made for the poor; and
an elegant dinner provided for the Fraternity. The health of our gracious
Sovereign, our much beloved Queen, the Duke of Cumberland, (our Grand
Master) the Prince of Wales, Prince William-Henry, &c. were drank with
all Masonic honours. The genuine spirit of loyalty appeared in this town,
and the festival was conducted with that chearfulness and harmony
peculiar to the Society’. General Evening Post, 19–22 May 1787, Issue 8345.
I introduced and analysed this letter for the first time in my paper entitled “Religion
and Enlightenment in Thomas Dunckerley’s neglected writings” at the II International
Conference on the History of Freemasonry in 2009 in Edinburgh. It was published in
Andreas Önnerfors and Róbert Péter eds. Researching British Freemasonry, 1717–2017
(Sheffield: University of Sheffield, 2010), 127–57.

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Péter Women in Eighteenth-Century English Freemasonry 75

Hart Inn. Furthermore, in a letter Dunckerley encouraged the members


of St. Nicholas Lodge No. 201 in Harwich to attend the gathering and
asked them to “wear cocked hats in the procession to church”. It is
also natural that freemasons from Braintree, less than two miles from
Bocking, participated in this feast. For instance, the letter about this
gathering was sent to the General Evening Post from Braintree.
We are very fortunate since in this year the Social Lodge No. 411
in Bocking, as well as the Good-Will Lodge No. 491 from Braintree
sent their annual returns to the Modern Grand Lodge in London. Fur­
thermore, we have the annual returns of the St. Nicholas Lodge from
1784. All these returns inform us about the names of the members, their
professions, the dates of their initiations as well as their admission to
the given lodge.
I start with the membership list of the Social Lodge in Bocking, whose
master was a surgeon called Layzell Brunwin who lived in Braintree. It
included six esquires, five clerks, three attorneys at law, two surgeons
and a gentleman. According to my preliminary research, the names
of the wives of three freemasons of this lodge might be Ann Brunwin,
wife of the Master, Ann Alston and Elizabeth Bullock. The Social Lodge
had a prominent member, whom Dunckerley much respected. He was
Benjamin Craven, whom Dunckerley appointed Senior Grand Warden
for the Country of Essex as well being the Eminent of the “Conclave and
Field Encampment in Essex”. It is likely that Craven’s wife, as well as the
aforementioned three ladies not only participated in this gathering but
were actively involved in the creation of the Urania Lodge in Braintree.
Two further arguments reinforce my hypothesis about the existence
of an adoption or all-female lodge in Braintree in 1787. First, it is not by
accident that Dunckerley called Benjamin Craven’s wife ‘Sister Craven’
in his 1791 letter to him, as Andrew Prescott highlighted. Second, 25 out
of the 34 members of the Good-Will and Social Lodges were initiated
at the age of 21 in the previous two years. These remarkably young
freemasons might have had radical ideas concerning the reformation of
English freemasonry. It may be noted that the Social Lodge in Bocking
stopped providing the Grand Lodge with annual returns after 1787 and
had lapsed 11 years later.
Perhaps the initiative of setting up the Urania Lodge came from the
wives of the members of the Social Lodge in Bocking rather than those of
the other two lodges. If we look at the membership lists of these lodges,
we can observe that their members came from a low social standing.
The master of the Good-Will Lodge was a baker, the senior warden
was a hairdresser, the junior warden was a brickmaker, the tyler was a
glover. As French scholarship on women freemasons has highlighted,

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76 Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism

the members of the adoption lodges were primarily noble women.


The difference between the social composition of the French and the
supposedly earliest-known English adoption or all-female lodge is
striking. Although both the Social Lodge and the Good-Will Lodge had
one gentleman member, the lodge members did not have an aristocratic
background at all. As the Urania Lodge was set up in Braintree it is
possible that wives of baker and hairdresser brethren also attended this
special meeting.
There are at least two complementary reasons why this lodge was
dedicated to the muse of astrology. On the one hand, as Robert Collis has
pointed out, Queen Charlotte was associated with Urania, for instance, in
an ode written for her previous birthday.55 On the other hand, they may
have chosen Urania because of a well-known contemporary masonic
ode, written by Mr Jackson with music by Mr Gilding, which praised
the Greek muse.56 What is more, this ode was published at the end of an
adoption ritual in London four years later. It is possible that this ode was
sung during the birthday celebration on that day. Although the Urania
Lodge must have been only a temporary lodge, its creation is significant
in the history of female clubs and societies, since there is no record of any
adoption and/or all-female lodge in England before the 1900s.57
Furthermore, the 1790s possibly witnessed the appearance of fur­
ther adoption or all-female lodges. For example, on 17 May, 1796 the
Provincial Grand Lodge of Kent held an anniversary meeting at Dartford.
The Freemasons’ Magazine described the ‘uncommonly brilliant, numerous
and respectable procession’ where ‘much beauty and elegance was
derived from the Lady Masons who assembled in great numbers, dressed
in white and purple’.58 After the procession, Dr. William Perfect, the Pro­
vincial Grand Master, politely conducted them into the church. If the

55. Public Advertiser, 20 May 1786, Issue 16223. Thanks to Dr. Robert Collis for
informing me about this ode.
56. ‘WAKE the Lute and quiv’ring Strings,/Mystic Truth Urania brings;/Friendly
Visitant, to thee/We owe the Depth of MASONRY:/Fairest of the Virgin Choir,/
Warbling to the golden Lyre,/Welcome, here thy ART prevail:/Hail! divine Urania,
hail!’ For example, this ode was reprinted in James Anderson [revised by John
Entick], The Constitutions of the Antient and Honourable Fraternity of Free and Accepted
Masons. Containing their History, Charges, Regulations, Etc. … For the Use of the Lodges.
By James Anderson, … Carefully revised, continued and enlarged, with many additions, by
John Entick (London: Printed for Brother J. Scott, 1756), 321.
57. However, we cannot entirely exclude the possibility that this was an adoption
lodge.
58. The Freemasons’ Magazine, Vol. 6 (May 1796), 361. Andreas Önnerfors, ‘“Perfection
by progressive Excellence”: An initial analysis of the Freemason’s Magazine, 1793–
1798’, in Researching British Freemasonry, 1717–2017, eds. A. Önnerfors and R. Péter
(Sheffield: University of Sheffield, 2010), 172.

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Péter Women in Eighteenth-Century English Freemasonry 77

‘Lady Masons’ were actual freemasons, it is astonishing that they were


allowed to participate in the public procession of a regular Grand Lodge,
the constitution of which barred women from masonic work. If the term
‘Lady Masons’ only refers to the wives and sisters of male freemasons,
why did they dress up in white and purple?
In fact, the initiation of women into English lodges was not an entirely
new phenomenon. There is some not entirely conclusive evidence of
the initiation of women in England even from the last decade of the
seventeenth century. For a long time masonic scholars had thought that
the first woman freemason was the aforementioned Elizabeth Saint-
Leger, who was initiated in her father’s lodge at the age of 17 around
1710.59 But recent scholarship by Neville Barker-Cryer has pointed out
that even in 1693 two widows were named as members in a masonic
lodge in York: the York Manuscript No. 4 (stored in the Grand Lodge
of York) claims that 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’.60 But this was unimaginable for
male-oriented masonic researchers, who therefore interpreted ‘shee’ as
a misprint for ‘they’. Analysing the original manuscript, Barker-Cryer
argues that the document means ‘she’ without any doubt.
Nevertheless, in France women did not have to wait too long to
be admitted officially into masonic lodges since by the 1740s, gender
exclusion had begun to break down.61 As opposed to the accidental

59. Fred Lomax Pick, and Gilfred Norman Knight, The Pocket History of Freemasonry
(London: Fredrick Muller, 1983), 148–49.
60. Neville Barker Cryer, ‘Women and Freemasonry’, Masonic Times, May 1995, 18–
21 (p. 20). For the involvement of women in lodges before 1717 see Paul Rich, ‘Female
Freemasons: Gender, Democracy and Fraternalism’, Journal of American Culture 20.1
(2004): 105–10. Enid L. Scott, Women and Freemasonry (Enfield: E. L. Scott, 1988).
61. It may be noted that the earliest (English) newspaper reference to a French
adoption lodge is dated back to 1737. On 22 December the London Evening Post
reported that a certain ‘Mademoiselle Cart—u’ being a mistress of a Freemason,
managed to get to know the secrets of the fraternity from him, ‘wherefore upon
the strength of her Discoveries she set up a Lodge of her own, and receives Free-
masons of both Sexes in all the Forms: the Lieutenant General of the Police, indeed,
sent for her, but she came off with only a bare Reprimand’. London Evening Post,
22 December 1737, Issue 1577. The article probably refers to Mlle Carton, an opera
dancer, who was said to provide R. Hérault, Lieutenant General of the Paris Police,
with a masonic ritual, which he published in December, 1737 (see London Evening
Post, 14 January 1738). The authenticity of this story is questionable, although the
police records mention her name, but in a different context: five or six lords intended
to invite some ladies of the Opera, including Mlle Carton, to join a mixed convivial
order called L’Ordre de la Félicité. See A.J.B. Milborne, ‘The Early Continental
Exposures and their Relationship to Contemporary English Texts’, Ars Quatuor

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78 Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism

involvement of women in English freemasonry, the French lodges of


adoption now began formally to admit women. Historians cite this event
as a crucial moment in the history of Western liberal culture. According
to Janet Burke, the eighteenth-century mixed lodges ‘showed quite
clearly the first stages of feminist thought and the women members’
links to the Enlightenment’.62 Women tasted one of the first fruits of
liberty in masonic lodges. It should be stressed that they did so at a time
when some of the Parisan salons of the great philosophes, like d’Holbach,
specifically excluded women from their proceedings. However, these
lodges of adoption were far from being egalitarian in their admissions
policy since they mostly initiated women of high social status. In that
respect, the first, probably temporary, exclusively female lodges formed
in the 1780s in England—and perhaps in Paris—seem to be more radical
and democratic, since the ‘sisters’ could perform freely their masonic
work without the guardianship of the ‘brothers’.
However, for liberal-minded English masonic reformers such as the
author of Freemasonry for the Ladies, or the Grand Secret Discovered (1791),
it was the Continent that ‘set the example to Masons of every region,
of admitting at proper seasons, Ladies into their lodges, and France
can boast even a princess of the Blood Royal patronising and assisting
at their assemblies. The adopting this trait of an enlightened period
in England is withheld’.63 He claims that the exclusion of the ‘Female
Sex’ is a ‘circumstance not favourable to the gallantry of Britons’.64 His
pessimism leads him to exaggerations: for instance, he claims that it was
only in Britain where prejudices against the fraternity exist ‘(and which
have certainly contributed to prevent the general satisfaction of the
good opinion of every one) have been kept alive and occasioned discord
in those breasts in which domestic felicity should ever dwell’.65 It is clear
from his account that in the 1790s the adoption lodges in England were
far from being as widespread as in France.
In 1791, similarly to Smith, the author of Freemasonry for the Ladies,
intended to destroy the prejudices about freemasonry in his work
dedicated to Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of York. He also
questioned the common opinion about the inability of women to keep a

Coronatorum, 78 (1965): 172–93 (p. 173). I thank Margaret Jacob and Jan Snoek for
helping me interpret this article.
62. J.M. Burke, ‘Leaving the Enlightenment: Women Freemasons after the Revo­
lution’, Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.2 (2000): 255.
63. Anon., Free Masonry for the Ladies, 4. Matthew Cooke’s handwritten name
appears on the cover of a copy of this book available in the British Library.
64. Anon., Free Masonry for the Ladies, 3.
65. Anon., Free Masonry for the Ladies, 3.

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Péter Women in Eighteenth-Century English Freemasonry 79

secret. Somewhat surprisingly, he only advocated the occasional intro­


duction of women into lodges. It was evident for him that they ‘should
not be generally present’.66 For this purpose, an adoption ritual was
published, which, along with the earliest known example from 1765,
we shall compare with traditional masonic ceremonies in the last part
of my paper.
Let us look at the traditional rituals of the fraternity since playing out
ritualistic dramas is an essential part of masonic practice. If we examine
the rituals of the first three ‘degrees’ of the period, we can observe that,
apart from very few exceptions, the written text of the rituals depicted
a world without women. One exception is when the newly initiated
brother is presented with two pairs of white gloves, ‘one pair for himself,
and the other pair for a lady, with a strict charge to present them to that
female, for whom he has the greatest regard’.67 The fact that womanly
virtues were lacking from the universal truths and fundamental moral
lessons of these ceremonies is not surprising at all in the male-dominated
English society of the eighteenth century. In masonic rituals only men
were addressed and recognized as moral agents. As we have seen, this
does not mean either that English freemasons regarded eighteenth-
century feminine virtues as irrelevant to life’s highest truths or that they
did not occur in other dimensions of masonic practice. For instance, in
masonic iconography Charity is depicted as a mother nurturing and
protecting her children.68 However, it can be said that the language of
the rituals privileged the male and his power.
In English masonic practice, if a non-mason manages to pass
through the lodge door guarded by the ‘Tyler’ with a sword to ensure
only members of the fraternity entered, the sex of all new members is
revealed both symbolically and physically, by exposing the left breast
during the initiation ceremony of the first-degree ritual. However, this
screening did not always prove to be a sufficient means to exclude the
other sex, as the following passage from a footnote of a ritual concerning
the exposing the left breast confirms:
This is done lest a Woman should offer herself; and tho’ many Women
are as flat chested as some Men, and Brethren are generally satisfied
with a slight Inspection, I would advise them to be more cautious; for

66. Anon., Free Masonry for the Ladies, 5.


67. Smith, The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry, 357. Laurence Dermott, Ahiman rezon,
or a help to all that are, (or would be) free and accepted masons, … the second edition by Lau.
Dermott ([London]: Printed for the author and sold by Br. Robert Black, London,
1764), xviii.
68. This motherly personification of ideal masonic virtue occurs on the frontispiece
of the 1784 edition of the Constitutions and, as Harriet Sandvall’s research shows, on
numerous eighteenth-century masonic certificates.

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80 Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism

it is probable, that a Woman, with a tolerable Degree of Effrontery and


Spirit, may, one Time or other, slip into the Order, for Want of necessary
Prudence. If the Irish may be credited, there is a Lady at this Time in that
Kingdom, who has gone through the whole Ceremony, and is as good a
Mason as any of the whole.69

To understand the main ideas conveyed in rituals it is essential to


refer to the iconography of freemasonry as the fundamental tenets of
masonic ideology have been indicated by symbols since the early days
of the fraternity. The iconography of modern freemasonry is built on
the working tools of medieval cathedral-building craftsmen. The first
rituals gave metaphorical interpretations of the working tools of these
stonemasons: freemasons were and are supposed to build up their own
spiritual temples stone by stone.
After the newly admitted mason has been enlightened by the
teaching of the ritual, he starts to dress, smooth and square his ‘Rough
Stone’ by expanding his intellect, controlling his passions and purifying
his life. In his masonic labour of perfecting the stone (‘ashlar’ in
masonic terminology) the candidate metaphorically uses the so-called
working tools such as the square and compasses. In terms of masonic
iconography, the former is to regulate actions, while the latter is to
keep masons in due bounds with all mankind, particularly with their
‘brethren’ in freemasonry. These examples clearly show that the central
icons of the fraternity include a number of masculine tools. As opposed
to the medieval operative craftsmen, modern gentlemen freemasons
wear cotton or fine white leather gloves and lambskin aprons. The
usage of these soft and elegant materials indicates the historical process
during which the working stonemasons accepted gentlemen into their
lodges in the early eighteenth century.
Thus we can see that the masonic lodge was a ritual space for men
only, and its design and furniture in most cases reinforces that fact. The
lodge offered a legitimate space for men where they could express their
masculinity. Thus, another possible reason for the exclusion of women
from the lodge could be that men wanted to immerse themselves in a

69. J*** G******, Mahhabone: Or, the Grand Lodge Door Open’d. Wherein Is Discovered
the Whole Secrets of Free-Masonry, Both Ancient and Modern, 2nd edn [with additions]
(Liverpool: Johnson and Davenport; and J. Gore, 1766), 29–30. The unknown masonic
commentator on this ritual refers to the authenticated instance of Elizabeth Saint-
Leger, who was ‘made a Mason’ after she accidentally witnessed a secret ceremony
carried out in her father’s library, which functioned as a home lodge on certain
occasions in the 1710s in Ireland. See Edward Conder, ‘The Hon. Miss St. Leger and
Freemasonry’, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, 8 (1895): 16–23. Dudley Wright, Women and
Freemasonry (London: William Rider & Son, 1922), 84–87. It must be noted that her
initiation took place prior to the constitutional exclusion of women in 1723.

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Péter Women in Eighteenth-Century English Freemasonry 81

masculine setting. However, it could be argued that being among men


only, freemasons could freely exercise their femininity since they did not
have to play a man’s role in front of women. This could be illustrated by
the moving table-speeches that took place when a brother was leaving a
lodge because of his old age or illness.
One may well ask how these rituals were modified so that they could
be used in the mixed lodges of adoption. What follows will highlight
those elements of the two earliest known English adoption rituals, from
1765 and 1791, which could be regarded as feminine in eighteenth-
century England.70
What is most striking in the ritual entitled Women’s Masonry or
Masonry by Adoption is the frequent practice of kisses, in particular, the
kiss of peace which reoccurs six times during the ceremonies of the first
three degrees. The candidate is addressed as ‘Masoness’, ‘Madam’ or
‘Sister’. Contemporary stereotypes about women also seem to appear
during the first, entered apprentice degree when the master of the lodge
asks the candidate ‘if it is not out of curiosity that she desires to be a
Masoness. […] He then asks her if he shall find her a firm, resolute
woman, free of all prejudice’.71 In the fellow-craft lodge there is a picture
of Adam and Eve on the wall, where the biblical story of the first couple
is invoked. The candidate wearing a blue ribbon is required to taste of
the fruits of the tree in order to ‘know good and evil’.72 In this ritual
framework, the third degree is called the ‘Mistress Mason’.
In the Freemasonry for the Ladies (1791) adoption ritual, for the names
of each degree, the term ‘degree’ is replaced with ‘dignity’. Of course,
during the first dignity, she is not asked to expose her left breast. Instead:
The Grand Master deputes a lady, (assisted by a brother, ) who has
proposed the candidate, to make the necessary preparation, which
consists of depriving her of her rings and necklace, a white veil is thrown
over her head, and thus blindfolded she is conducted by the brother to the
entrance of the Lodge.73

During this ritual the candidate is divested of ‘prejudices natural to


your sex’. The first sentence of the vow that she has to take refers to
‘by the honour which is the distinguishing characteristic of a woman

70. Jan Snoek identified and transcribed the first English adoption ritual available
in the Library and Museum of Freemasonry in London (UGLE BE.825. Sis). This paper
quotes from his transcription. Thanks to Jan Snoek for sending and allowing me to
use this transcription. Anon., Women’s Masonry or Masonry by Adoption (London: [n.
pub.], 1765), 4.
71. Anon., Women’s Masonry, 4.
72. Anon., Women’s Masonry, 17.
73. Anon., Free Masonry for the Ladies, 15.

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82 Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism

of virtue’.74 After the vow of the second dignity, ‘the Elected Lady rises
and is divested of the chain and ribbon from her right arm, instead of
which she is entrusted with the bracelet of the order that her vow may
be complete’. Here the term Lady is used to address the candidate.75
Similarly to the male ritual, the left breast also plays a role at every
admission since the candidate is given a silver trowel, which is worn
on it.76 At the end of the ritual book we can find anthems and odes that
were spoken and sung during the meetings of adoption lodges. It is
interesting to note that they adopted the aforementioned well-known
ode, praising Urania, used in traditional lodges by simply replacing the
word ‘brotherhood’ with ‘sisterhood’.77

In conclusion, we have seen that the rhetoric and practice of eighteenth-


century English freemasonry tended to articulate the values of the
dominant culture in the Age of Enlightenment. By using the rhetoric
of male power and privilege in the cult of feminine domesticity of the
eighteenth century, the principles of masonic thought only reinforced the
existing socially constructed stereotypes. Traditional English masonic
rituals praised the masculine system of order and rationality. Therefore,
it was obvious for modern speculative freemasons to exclude women
from their fraternity. The justification of their gender-exclusiveness was
naturally built on contemporary stereotypes such as the curiosity of
women and their inability to keep secrets. These all reinforced the existing
gender hierarchies. However, if we consider the historical development of
masonic ideology, it is clear that masonic rhetoric was rarely deliberately
anti-women. Aside from some misogynist drinking songs, we have seen

74. Anon., Free Masonry for the Ladies, 18.


75. Anon., Free Masonry for the Ladies, 25. It is interesting to note that today there
exists an order of women freemasons known as the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient
Freemasons in Britain. Understandably, this body is not recognized by the United
Grand Lodge of England, but what is surprising about this society is the gender
construction of their rituals and iconography. On the one hand, the members of this
all-female body call themselves ‘brother’. Eileen Grey, Grand Master of the order in
1999, admits that sometimes it has hilarious consequences. For instance, somebody’s
own sister in a lodge meeting becomes a ‘brother’. On the other hand, they not only
use men’s rituals but have also preserved the masculine visual elements of ritual
space. During their meetings they feel it more practical to wear plain clothes so as
not to detract from the ceremony. So it can be argued that for these women, the
icons of traditional freemasonry are cosmopolitan and gender-inclusive rather than
masculine. Sandra Miller, ‘The Women’s Lodge’ [Interview with Eileen Grey, Grand
Master of the all-female Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons], Freemasonry
Today 9 (1999): 24–26 (p. 26); see Ann Pilcher-Dayton, The Open Door: The History of the
Order of Women Freemasons 1908–2008 (London: Order of Women Freemasons, 2008).
76. Anon., Free Masonry for the Ladies, 37.
77. Anon., Free Masonry for the Ladies, 58. Anderson, Constitutions (1756), 321.

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Péter Women in Eighteenth-Century English Freemasonry 83

that English freemasons wrote and talked about women with respect
and sometimes with admiration. To please women they invited them to
participate in a number of masonic ceremonies including Grand Lodge
feasts, balls and in the constitution of lodges on some of which they were
specifically addressed. The number of women who praised the values
of freemasonry during these occasions as well as theatrical epilogues in
public and their assistance in fund-raising for masonic charity, among
other things, testify that freemasonry was not an organization of a purely
masculine tendency.
It has been increasingly difficult for freemasons to defend the exclu­
sion of women since the foundation of the fraternity. Like most clubs
and societies born in the Age of Enlightenment, traditional masonic
lodges continued to confirm the sharp gender division in eighteenth-
century English society. However, on the Continent the enlightened
reformers managed to break down the gender boundaries characteristic
of masonic practice as early as the 1740s. In England, this took place
in the 1760s when the first adoption lodge must have been established
there. This paper has demonstrated the existence of probably temporary
all-female and/or adoption lodges in the 1780s. The first appearance
of both English adoption and exclusively female masonic lodges has
been dated to the twentieth century in scholarship so far. We have seen
that this decade witnessed a change in the minds of women and men
concerning women’s involvement in masonic activities in England.
This could be seen in the context of a general transformation of mindset
starting in the 1780s that also saw the establishment of the first female
friendly society in York.78 Women were not merely passive observers of
a masculine and conservative English Enlightenment.
They lived out the enlightened ideas of liberty and equality in mixed-
gender, and especially in women’s, lodges, which can be seen as the
first stages of the feminist movement, though they were not devoid of
social discrimination. Unlike official freemasons, following the ideas
about an egalitarian ‘siblinghood’ to their logical conclusion, some
quasi-masonic, convivial or Jacobite societies such as the Oak Society
admitted both sexes to their ranks in Britain.
In terms of gender, the philosophy of English freemasonry has not
undergone any significant changes since its genesis, which highlights
the fact that gender issues still sharply divide the ideally universal
and egalitarian masonic world. In the recent evolution of the study of

78. Peter Clark, British Clubs and Societies 1580–1800: The Origins of an Associational
World, Oxford Studies in Social History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 108.
Peter Gordon and David Doughan, Women, Clubs, and Associations in Britain (New
York: Routledge, 2006).

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84 Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism

fraternal associations gender analysis is of great assistance for scholars


since it helps to categorize single-sex or mixed-gender organizations
and better understand their inter- and intra-relationships.

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