In online communities with Freemasons present (especially British and American), the subject of women frequently pops up and the reactions are always the same. There were no women Freemasons, there are no women Freemasons and women who are member of a mixed or “femalecraft” lodges are not Freemasons either. Karen Kidd, one such female Freemason herself, decided to sift through archives, media and whatnot to discover stories about women Freemasons; not members of the Order of the Eastern Star, mixed or “femalecraft” lodges, but women that were initiated into (mostly) regular lodges in the 18th and 19th century, long before there were other kinds of Freemasonry, many even before there were ‘lodges of adoption’. These are the women that are not supposed to have existed, but who did.
The author found a few well documented cases, quite a few reasonably documented cases and she ends her book with a few rumoured cases. The stories are often quite alike. A (young) woman is so curious about the secrets of Freemasonry that she decides to spy on a lodge; or a woman accidentally overhears the proceedings of a lodge; in either case, she is discovered and the lodge decides that the best way to prevent her from spreading the secrets, is to initiate her so she has to swear an oath of secrecy. In most cases, that is as far as the woman comes. She does not regularly attend lodges, receive additional degrees or anything. In some cases there is more to say about the women though.
An interesting case in the book is Hannah Mather Crocker (1752-1829) who supposedly led an all-women lodge in 1778 (St. Ann’s Lodge in Boston, USA).
The most interesting story to me, was that of Lavinia Ellen “Vinnie” Ream Hoxie (1847–1914) who was the muse of the famous Freemason Albert Pike (1809-1891). Pike supposedly wanted to create a women’s Freemasonry based on the French lodges of adoption, but rewritten to be more Masonic. Pike’s Rite did not make it. Rob Morris (1818-1888) wrote a Rite for women himself (not based on the lodges of adoption) which became more popular and would eventually lead to the Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic-like organisation that women related to Freemasons can join.
“Haunted Chambers: The Lives of Early Women Freemasons” makes an alright read. Sometimes the author seems to try to fill her pages by giving a lot of biographical information that is not really interesting regarding the subject; biographical information about (grand)parents even. More amusing are cases in which the author rattled up old newspaper clippings, reports from Masonic journals, etc.
This book is not about the preamble of mixed Freemasonry. Marie Deraismes (1828-1894) is only mentioned in passing. Most of the women in this book did not ask to join and were granted to do so either; they were mostly ‘accidental Freemasons’ who were not really recognised as equal members. Is the fact that they knew (some of) the secrets of Freemasonry enough to call them “female Freemasons”? Some certainly were and those are the most interesting cases from this book. Kidd found only a handfull though.
Reading this book you will learn a thing or two about the early years of Freemasonry and the place of women in the society of that time.
2009 Cornerstone Book Publishers, isbn 1934935557