Freemasonry, a fraternal organization that traces its roots to the stonemasons’ guilds of medieval Europe, has traditionally excluded women from its membership. Since the formation of the first Grand Lodge in England in 1717, mainstream Freemasonry has remained a predominantly male domain, largely based on tradition and archaic social norms. However, the development of liberal Freemasonry and organizations such as the Centre of Liaison and Information of Masonic Powers Signatories of Strasbourg Appeal (CLIPSAS) have challenged the status quo, promoting greater inclusivity and diversity within the fraternity. This essay will discuss the historical exclusion of women from Freemasonry, the evolution of liberal Freemasonry, the role of CLIPSAS and the Strasbourg Appeal, and the current state of liberal Freemasonry in the United States.
Historical Exclusion of Women
The exclusion of women from Freemasonry can be attributed to a combination of religious interpretation and social conventions. Early lodges were established by men who sought to create a brotherhood centered around shared values and mutual support. The first Grand Lodge of England’s constitution explicitly excluded women from membership, justified by the organization’s reliance on biblical teachings and the story of Eve, which was used to argue that women were inherently weak and susceptible to temptation.
Additionally, traditional gender roles prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries confined women to domestic responsibilities, leaving little room for their involvement in fraternal organizations. The social stigma associated with women’s participation in such groups further reinforced their exclusion.
Emergence of Liberal Freemasonry
As social and political changes swept across the Western world in the 19th and 20th centuries, attitudes towards women’s roles in society began to shift. The women’s suffrage movement and the increasing presence of women in the workforce led to a reevaluation of traditional gender roles. This, in turn, prompted some members of the Masonic community to question the validity of excluding women from their ranks.
Liberal Freemasonry emerged in response to these changing attitudes, advocating for a more inclusive and egalitarian approach to the fraternity. While mainstream Masonic lodges maintained their exclusionary policies, liberal Freemasonry embraced the participation of women and promoted gender equality. These progressive lodges operated outside the jurisdiction of mainstream Grand Lodges and faced considerable resistance from conservative elements within the Masonic community.
CLIPSAS and the Strasbourg Appeal
In 1961, representatives from several liberal and progressive Masonic lodges convened in Strasbourg, France, to discuss the future of Freemasonry and the need for greater unity among likeminded organizations. The meeting resulted in the Strasbourg Appeal, a declaration affirming the principles of universal brotherhood, freedom of conscience, and the rejection of dogmatic authority. The Strasbourg Appeal also called for the recognition of women’s right to participate in Freemasonry, marking a significant departure from the traditional exclusionary stance.
Following the Strasbourg Appeal, the Centre of Liaison and Information of Masonic Powers Signatories of Strasbourg Appeal (CLIPSAS) was established to promote cooperation and unity among liberal and progressive Masonic lodges worldwide. Today, CLIPSAS represents over 90 Masonic organizations from across the globe, including female-only, male-only, and mixed-gender lodges, all of which adhere to the principles outlined in the Strasbourg Appeal.
Alternative Organizations for Women
Parallel to the development of liberal Freemasonry, several alternative Masonic organizations have emerged to provide opportunities for women to participate in Masonic activities. Among them, the Order of Women Freemasons and the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons, both founded in England in the early 20th century, practice rituals and ceremonies similar to those of their male counterparts. These female-only lodges, along with mixed-gender organizations like the Order of the Eastern Star and the Order of the Amaranth, have allowed women to engage in the spiritual, intellectual, and social aspects of Freemasonry.
In addition to these organizations, many liberal and progressive Masonic lodges affiliated with CLIPSAS have opened their doors to women, offering a more inclusive and egalitarian approach to the fraternity. These lodges often operate in defiance of mainstream Masonic authorities, demonstrating a commitment to the principles of the Strasbourg Appeal and a rejection of traditional gender-based exclusion.
Liberal Freemasonry in the United States Today
While liberal Freemasonry has gained traction in Europe and other parts of the world, its presence in the United States has been limited. Mainstream Freemasonry continues to dominate the American Masonic landscape, with most Grand Lodges maintaining their exclusionary policies toward women.
However, there are some exceptions. Le Droit Humain, an international Masonic organization founded in France in 1893, operates several lodges in the United States that admit both men and women. Additionally, some American lodges have begun to distance themselves from the mainstream Grand Lodges and align with liberal Masonic organizations like CLIPSAS. These lodges, although few in number, demonstrate a growing interest in a more inclusive and progressive approach to Freemasonry.
The George Washington Union, an American Masonic body affiliated with CLIPSAS, is another example of liberal Freemasonry in the United States. Established in 2006, the George Washington Union adheres to the principles of the Strasbourg Appeal and offers membership to men and women without regard to race, religion, or sexual orientation.
Despite these developments, liberal Freemasonry faces considerable challenges in the United States. The mainstream Grand Lodges wield considerable influence and resources, making it difficult for alternative organizations to gain a foothold in the American Masonic community. Additionally, conservative attitudes toward gender roles and the traditional nature of Freemasonry continue to hinder the acceptance of liberal Masonic lodges in the United States.
The history of women’s exclusion from Freemasonry and the emergence of liberal Freemasonry provide a fascinating perspective on the evolution of gender relations and the challenges faced by progressive movements within long-standing institutions. While the exclusion of women from mainstream Freemasonry remains a contentious issue, the development of CLIPSAS, the Strasbourg Appeal, and alternative Masonic organizations have played a vital role in promoting greater inclusivity and diversity within the fraternity.
In the United States, liberal Freemasonry has yet to gain significant traction, but the presence of lodges affiliated with CLIPSAS and other progressive organizations demonstrates the potential for change. As social attitudes continue to evolve and challenge traditional gender roles, the future of Freemasonry may see a shift toward a more inclusive and egalitarian approach, both in the United States and around the world.