There’s nothing worse than getting an unsatisfactory answer to an important question, with the possible exception of being asked an important question and having an unsatisfactory answer, which is always the absolute worst. I’ve written about Freemasonry and women before, but the question still comes up. In fact, it’s coming up more and more, because more and more young men are joining freemasonry, and we’ve all got women in our social circles who, naturally, are put off by the men-only stance of freemasonry. This gets even more complicated when we bring transgenders into the mix. Because these questions are generally directed, through social circles, at young men, and because being young men, they are likely relatively new to freemasonry, these questions are often given dismissive answers.
“That’s just how things are…”, and “women wouldn’t be into this kind of thing,” etc. These are, frankly, dumb, indefensible answers. No one should pass along traditions of bigotry, and no one should underestimate the thirst women have for deep bonds and experiences.
First Things First: Forget the idea that women aren’t allowed to be freemasons. It’s not true.
A couple weeks ago I had a woman message me through my lodge’s website wanting to know how to become a freemason. It happens occasionally. Maybe they’re genuinely interested, or maybe they want to start a fight. It doesn’t matter. Freemasonry, when done seriously, is an exceptional program of self-reflection and improvement, and I always encourage anyone who reaches, out to explore it, and then I send them a link to the organization that is best set to support them on their way.
Yes, women can be freemasons. And yes, women freemasons are real freemasons. There are a lot of different kinds of freemasonry, just like there are a lot of different kinds of law schools. Some are all male, some are all female, some are coed, some are religious, some secular, etc. But they all basically teach the same thing: the law.
In freemasonry, there are a lot of different schools too, but we basically all teach the same thing.
It can’t be ignored, of course, that the most popular and prevalent school of freemasonry is what is sometimes referred to as Male-Craft Masonry. I definitely want to get into the particulars and history of each, but for now just suspend your disbelief and accept the following statement: They’re all legitimate.
A Defense of Male-Craft Masonry
Why do we have male-only freemasonry? The short, libertarian answer is because men sometimes like to just be around other men, and that’s something that we get to do. I don’t insist women include men in any of their get-togethers. Why? Because insisting that your social group can’t function without a man around is condescending and would probably make you uncomfortable. Well, same goes. This might be a different argument if freemasons got some kind of systemic benefit that is unavailable to women, but that’s not the case. We have no knowledge you can’t Google, and we have no connections or influence that you couldn’t get by joining any other group you’d like.
A second short defense is that a huge part of freemasonry is about creating an environment of harmony. Women, along with religion and politics (the other two things not allowed in most male-craft lodges) are the three things men historically fight over. The long-term goal is, of course, to create harmony in the presence of these things, much like the long term goal of many is to have the self-control not to eat a whole bag of chips and down a quart of ice cream while playing Candy Crush on the couch every night, but when you’re just starting out, the best move is to get the temptations out of the house entirely. We’re creating a harmonious environment and that means removing the temptations that cause us to be selfish and aggressive.
The longer, more complex answer is that a huge part of freemasonry is about bonding, and men and women generally don’t bond in the same ways.
Male bonding has a long, long history that is generally related to conflict. As hunters, and soldiers, men would form bands of brothers, or horizontal honor groups. For a primer on Manly Honor, check out the Art of Manliness series. While bands of brothers still form (in the military, police, fire, rescue, etc), the basic truth is that most of us no longer have an honor group with which to bond. Sure, some of us have sportsing leagues, or fantasy sportsing leagues, or gaming guilds, etc, but how many times have you seen your husband or boyfriend, when under stress, retreat to the loneliness of the television, or his smartphone, or just check out socially all together?
A UCLA study on friendship among women found this same thing. Women, when under stress, would tend to gather with other women, while men would tend to isolate, which is part of a predictable fight or flight response.
In the UCLA study they found that women had a heretofore unheard of third option to the the fight/flight stress response, which was “tending or friending”. Their bodies generated oxytocin (sometimes called the love hormone) in response to stress, which generated a desire to either tend to children or seek out friendships. In these acts, more oxytocin would be generated, enhanced by their estrogen production, which would produce calming, stress-reducing effects, which facilitates bonding.
Women produce oxytocin in all kinds of ways, from giving birth to breastfeeding. Even hearing a baby cry–and it doesn’t have to be yours–can generate oxytocin, which triggers all kinds of physical and emotional responses.
Men also benefit by oxytocin, which can encourage loyalty, trust, and cooperation. It can also encourage people, for better or worse (usually depending on how marginalized a group feels), to prefer their own particular group/tribe over others. But it can also cause men to better identify competitive relationships and be more competitive in general, and can fuel jealousy.
The problem is that men don’t generate nearly as much oxytocin, and when we do, it’s typically through sexual arousal. It’s also involved in the creation of testosterone, which is another hormone that has a light and a dark side, and also can reduce the effects of oxytocin.
Now I’m not an expert on oxytocin and hormones, so I won’t claim that there’s any definite connection here, but it seems to me that male-craft freemasonry is designed, through bonding rituals (like our degree work, our educational discussions, and fellowship) to generate oxytocin in males that is so useful for stress reduction, and mental and spiritual growth, while removing points of competitiveness and marginalization that can twist oxytocin into a negative hormone.
Essentially, guys hanging out with other guys reduces their stress. A study of Barbary macaques found the same thing. Apes, when put under stress, would do well bonding with other males, feeling safer in numbers, and looking out for each other. When stressed males were in mixed groups, they would fight and posture.
Male-craft masonry is important to a lot of freemasons, because it’s a type of bonding that is very hard to otherwise obtain, but so crucial for our health and well-being.
Mixed-Craft and Female-Craft Masonry
As I said before, there are a lot of different types of freemasonry, and yes, they are legitimate schools of freemasonry, which I will explain, but first I want to talk about why Male-Craft Freemasonry has such traditionally terrible relations with other types. It boils down to two words: irregular and clandestine.
Freemasonry is old. Really old. It may not be Solomon’s Temple old, but it’s still pretty old, and the thing about old stuff is that they weren’t really regulated very consistently. Masonic lodges, as best as we can put together, were groups of people who wanted to learn about philosophy and morality by modeling themselves off honest-to-goodness stonemason guilds. There may be direct connections, in fact. This is because in the age before schools or the internet, this was a really effective way to pass down knowledge and learning.
While operative masons received their charter to labor from their employers, speculative masons didn’t really need anyone’s permission to work, so essentially, if you had a good knowledge of the craft, and a bunch of friends, you could start a lodge. If you had so many friends that some of them wanted to start their own lodges based on your knowledge off the craft, you could be a grand lodge and hand out charters. The result of this is that in those early days there were, in fact, a lot of different grand lodges, and a lot of different versions of freemasonry. If any one was more “legitimate” than the others, those distinctions have been lost to the sands of time. These are called “time immemorial lodges.”
These minor differences in style are generally ignored. Sometimes a difference between styles is so great that one grand lodge declares another grand lodge “irregular” and pulls recognition. All this means is that a member of one school of freemasonry cannot be a member of an irregular school of freemasonry at the same time. It is usually accompanied by a denial of visitation rights, or the ability to perform ritual together. My lodge says no women. Your lodge admits women. If we worked together I could be breaking my word and my word is my bond.
So irregular means “not same enough.” It’s not that their sincerity is being called into question, but there can’t be amity. It’s not that you’re a bad person, we just can’t date. It’s not you, it’s me.
Clandestine means fake. They formed all by themselves, without the warrant of a grand master. These are groups that use the moniker of freemasonry to their own ends to bilk members out of money in a pyramid scheme, to dangle unending degrees in their face to control them through avarice, and it’s basically a con game. It has nothing to do with the craft of self-betterment. It’s about self-enrichment of the fakers.
The history of lodge recognition, schisms, etc, is very long and so incredibly boring. Most people nowadays confuse the two, and that tends to breed a little bit of that “my group is better than your group” oxytocin bondind thing. Mileage may vary on whether masons or even Grand Lodges think the following are irregular or clandestine, but the general thought of those in the position to make these decisions, including the United Grand Lodge of England, where my state’s charter traces back to, and is the granddaddy of pretty much all freemasonry on Earth, would describe these organizations as irregular and unrecognized, and not clandestine, because despite distinct, even irreconcilable differences, they are both sincere, and can trace their lineage back to the time immemorial lodges, making them as legitimate as anyone else.
Female-craft masonry is just how it sounds. It’s single-gender freemasonry for women. Given the distinct differences between men and women, I won’t go out on a limb and say it’s basically exactly the same, because I’m sure it’s all kinds of fascinating and alien to my eyes, but they get all the social benefits of single-gender tribalism, as do males.
It began in the early 20th century as a breakaway from co-masonry, and is still running strong. Sadly, female-craft freemasonry is not very widespread. It mainly exists in United Kingdom, and a smattering of other countries, though I hear it’s popular in parts of South America.
The largest of these bodies is the Order of Women Freemasons, which, at last count, boasts over 10,000 members, formed into 358 lodges throughout the British Isles, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Spain and Zimbabwe. There are not currently any U.S. based lodges of Women Freemasons.
Mixed-craft, or co-masonry is freemasonry composed of both men and women, and comes in two flavors: God, and God-Free.
The International Order of Freemasonry for Men and Women Le Droit Humain traces it’s lineage through the French Grand Orients of Freemasonry and is perfectly legitimate. They have no gender or religious requirements, per se, fancying themselves the original freethinkers, and mainly concern themselves with worldly affairs to the perfection of humanity for its own sake. And there are plenty of U.S. based Le Droit Humain lodges. In my limited interactions, I personally find them a bit smarmy and self-satisfied, but I won’t knock them too much because they do practice freemasonry and do it sincerely.
My personal preference, just from my investigations, is The Honorable Order of American Co-Masonry, which split away from Le Droit Humain over the God/no God issue. American Co-Masonry is, of course, found throughout America, and from what I can tell, is very seriously done. A fantastic resource to learn more is the recent Masonic Roundtable episode on American Co-Masonry where you can hear about it directly from the horse’s mouth.
Though they are a much smaller organization than Male-Craft Masonry, in many ways I’m jealous of these organizations, because they’re not really subject to populism. No one, to my reckoning, joins Co-Masonry to get in good with the boss, to make connections, or to drive humorous, tiny cars in parades. Regular masonry has gained a much-deserved reputation for pancake-flipping and fair booths. For reading the minutes, complaining about the cost of light bulbs over coffee, and going home again. I feel like (and I’m basing this on no firsthand evidence) that co-masons go to lodge to practice freemasonry. So really, they’re ahead of the game.
As for co-masonry in general, it’s hard to say if it’s better or worse, and I think that’s got to come down to personal preference. One of the points of male-craft masonry is to help create the kind of you that can be your best no matter who you’re with and what you’re discussing. So maybe co-masons, forcing themselves to work in harmony with each other to a greater extent than male-only masons, are more socially and emotionally advanced. Or maybe they’re just more delusional. I really don’t know. But everyone has different challenges, and in the end, I like variety.
So Where Does That Leave Us?
Why can’t a woman be a freemason?
And they can do it well. Most lodges are male-craft because it’s good for men, and men need these things to be better people. Choices exist, and are vibrant and full of philosophy and fellowship. It’s true that female-craft masonry is not an option many places, and one’s choice of co-masonic lodges may be small or distant. It’s also true that male-craft lodges could do more to encourage their growth. I’d love it if my grand lodge let me visit my masonic cousins, because irregular is not clandestine.
But you know what? In the end, even though I’d like more robust masonry for women it’s not our job to make more lodges for women, is it? If we were to open our lodges to women (besides creating a huge recognition stink) we’d be losing something that is very meaningful and necessarily to us. The various types of female masonry also doesn’t want or need our help. No one needs us mansplaining freemasonry. Women have to do what women feel are right for themselves. The most we can do, is get out of their way.