OWhen you mention Freemasons, people tend to have similar reactions: do the members have a secret handshake? Do they roll up their pant leg? Is there corruption? The one thing they don’t tend to think about is women.
The roots of female Freemasonry date back to France in 1882, when Maria Deraismes became the first female initiate, at the Lodge of Freethinkers. Co-Masonry (Freemasonry which admits both men and women) was introduced from France to the UK in 1902 by Dr Annie Besant, who became its leader. Besant was a feminist activist, social reformer, and one of the organizers of the Matchgirls’ Strike in 1888.
In 1908 the British Co-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), leading to the creation of two separate organizations which were to become the Order of Women Freemasons and Freemasonry for women, who both continue to operate. Since 1935, they are only women.
They are led by two Grand Masters (the women’s lodges use the same language, the same traditions and the same rites as those of the men). The Order of Women Freemasons has several thousand members while Freemasonry for Women has around 700. There are craft lodges (local lodges) of women Masons across the UK and overseas , notably in the United States, India, Gibraltar, Spain and Romania.
Freemasonry originated among stonemason guilds and its symbols are objects used in construction. There are three fundamental degrees of Freemasonry: the first is initiation, when someone joins; the second is Passing to Fellowcraft; and the third is the master mason, also known as the resurrection ceremony.
“When I joined in 1976 it was really ‘them and us’ and you had to be kept in your place: it was rank oriented. But it’s much more user-friendly now… men have softened their attitude towards us. At first, they were hostile and wouldn’t recognize us. Things have changed considerably,” said Christine Chapman.
“It’s the most wonderful women’s club… The camaraderie. This fact that your situations in life change – nobody knows what comes – but it’s something constant. You can come in and there is always a friendly face and A warm welcome … If you were with a partner before but you are not with a later, you still have a place where you can go and feel comfortable. The lodge is always there for you,” says Susan Bentley.
“I joined because I was curious. I was engaged to a guy whose father was a Freemason and they had all these beautiful parties … I moved to Brighton and finally found one of the guys I was friends with. His mother was a Freemason and she introduced me to a London box, and here I am. I never aspired to thisit was an accident … I never imagined that I would get to this position,” says Maxine Besser, Deputy Grand Master, 74 years old.
Historically, Freemasonry has been a secret affair, with members 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 Raising ceremony was taking place as Mathilde Mbouck, a doctor from south-west London, received her third degree and became a master mason.
Even though there is more openness, there are parts of the meeting that I am not allowed to see as a non-Mason. “I would rather not use the word ‘secret’ but rather say that we like to keep a bit of mystery and an element of surprise,” says Flora Quintner, 84, a retired English and law professor.
“For example, you wouldn’t be impressed if you just told a friend you were going to the movies and that friend blurted out what happened at the end. It would take all the fun out of the event. Likewise, we keep the details of our ceremony private for the same reasons.
I also ask him about the handshake and the rolled up pant leg. “Yes, there is a secret handshake but I’m not going to show it to you,” she laughs. And the trouser leg? “We wear skirts.”
The secret handshake is used to signify the degree attained by a Mason. It should only be used during ceremonies and not outside the lodges.
In the past, if an individual 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 to join online.
Anyone wishing to become a Freemason must meet three requirements: be over 18 years of age, be of good moral character (there is an interview to establish this), and if it is not necessary to belong to a specific religion, he must believe in a supreme religion. being – during ceremonies people are required to take an oath to a supreme being.
And what about allegations of corruption? “Personally, I have not heard of corruption within our organization or, for that matter, at UGLE [United Grand Lodge of England, the male Freemasons]Quintner says.
“Before joining, all Freemasons are advised that Freemasonry holds no business or commercial advantage and that one should not join if they simply wish to promote their business. We do not subscribe to conspiracy theories , which we’re happy to say have almost become a thing of the past.
And what future for female Freemasonry? “I really believe there is a path for Freemasonry in modern society because there are a lot of members and a lot of initiations are still going on,” says Ndanga-Adjovi.
“The main challenge for Freemasonry is to send the right messages. The old traditions of keeping secrets, of not communicating enough, may now need to change.