American Masonry Confronted by the Initiation of Women

American Freemasonry is also a family affair. Because of its prohibition on the initiation of women, a subject that is still taboo on the American side of the Atlantic, the Order has created a series of para-Masonic organizations (as mentioned in chapter 5). These organizations are grouped together in the DeMolay organization and are comparable to the junior organizations in France. For young girls there are several organizations such as the Rainbow and the Daughters of Job. The place created for women (wives, daughters, sisters, or nieces) in the movements like Eastern Star, the Order of the Amarante, and the White Sanctuary of Jerusalem is more or less akin to that of the former lodges of adoption that Albert Pike vainly strove to introduce into the United States in 1830. He personally translated the French ritual; however, it was never promulgated.

Women are therefore still absent from the American temples. This is astonishing given the influence they hold in the civil society of this great country and the combat waged by certain women to claim and win equal treatment in several prestigious clubs that until then had reserved membership exclusively for men and had continued to close their doors to the opposite sex. That the Masonic order has been spared in this battle for equality could also be interpreted that the game is not worth the candle, in connection with the loss of influence this noble and ancient institution has experienced in the United States.

The coed Masonic order, the American Federation of Human Rights, enjoys a precarious existence. The lodge brothers Louis Goaziou and Antoine Muzzarelli, both of whom were French, created the first coed lodge of this obedience in Pennsylvania at the beginning of the twentieth century, soon to be followed by another fifty-some lodges, but I am compelled to note that this endeavor has had very inconclusive results. It seems that Muzzarelli was more adept at inspiring the lighting of the fires of new chapters than at assuring their long-term survival. These co-Freemasonry lodges were most often conducted in French, which by this very fact attests to their marginal nature in an English-speaking milieu. Moreover, their claim to be a mixed Order was as far as it went. The Theosophical Society’s massive entrance into the Droit Humain–American Federation (DH-AF) with the 1909 creation of a Chicago lodge that was deeply involved in this very spiritualistic circle of influence would prove to be a decisive turning point that would leave a lasting and singular imprint on this obedience in the United States.

Today the DH-AF is painfully attempting to rebuild itself after experiencing some major crises at the end of the twentieth century and showing a significant decline that threatened its very survival, in the context of an isolation that could not help but prove unfavorable to its continued existence. It has proceeded by approaching—by virtue of the support granted by the top leaders of the international DH—the scattered components of the small liberal trend of obediences that, like the George Washington Union, have enjoyed markedly greater success in a short period of time in their efforts to restore an authentic mixed Freemasonry to the American landscape. However, nothing indicates that the hour for a veritably promising albeit belated burst of energy has arrived.

The actual efforts of the Grande Loge Féminine de France (GLFF; Women’s Grand Lodge of France) to try to establish itself in the United States have also not borne the hoped for results. One lodge created in New York stopped all activity as a result of local, internal difficulties concerning operations. This obvious setback seems to have dissuaded this important female French obedience from pursuing their efforts. On the other hand, the Grande Loge Féminine de Belgique (GLFB; Women’s Grand Lodge of Belgium), the little sister of the French organization from whom it got its charter, has been more fortunate in its efforts on American soil since the 1990s. It is likely also necessary to see its decision since it began these efforts to conduct activities in the majority of its lodges solely in the English language as its primary key to success; English is synonymous with receptiveness in American society. This is how it has very quickly, and with an eye toward the long term, been able to recruit a significant number of American initiates.

But, perhaps on the strength of a Belgian tradition in this regard, it has not completely forsaken bilingualism, and part of its success could reside in this. In New York, its Universalis Lodge enjoyed such stunning success that it soon expanded into the new Silence Lodge, formed on March 13, 2001, with a large contingent of initiated sisters. On the strength of this encouraging experience, the GLFB soon established itself on the West Coast, in California, with the first entirely American female lodge. This lodge bears the distinctive title of Aletheia [which means “truth” in Greek —Trans.] and is located in West Los Angeles. Then, with the grand lodge definitely in full flight on this side of the Atlantic, it was the turn of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., to welcome the creation of the Emmounah Lodge, whose activities are conducted alternately in French and English.

Still in the domain of co-Freemasonry, as well as in that of Franco-American Freemasonry, a pioneering initiative was taken in 1976, in New York, with the support of the GODF on the urging of Serge Béhar, its grand master at that time. In this instance, it was an experiment to see if an American Masonic organization could recognize and adhere to the principles of secularism and full freedom of conscience laid down at the 1877 congress of the GODF. A big undertaking! Like the previous endeavors of this nature, for lack of follow-through and determined support from outside necessary for its success, the George Washington Lodge no. 1 quickly became bogged down before sinking into oblivion, although it had immediately joined CLIPSAS. The history of its somewhat laborious emergence is recounted in appendix 11, which contains a document that I wrote in 1996. Today, the success of this endeavor would appear to figure among the ranks of the most improbable wagers, although at the time that I wrote of it, in 1996, it was quite an honorable one, even though the size of this mixed micro-obedience testifies to the obvious limitations of the endeavor.

This is a worthy reminder to the gentle dreamers who persist in speculations on potential growth while maintaining chimerical illusions about these limitations. It is also of no great importance except for ensuring that the stubborn facts on the ground can be perfectly analyzed with an indispensable lucidity in the Parisian headquarters. Masonic leaders there have sometimes been a little too hasty to confuse what Americans call wishful thinking with the hard reality. While the George Washington Union, a mixed obedience, has managed in the twenty-some years since 1996 to lift itself to a level that is practically equivalent to that of the five GODF lodges in the United States, including that of L’Atlantide in New York, which celebrated its one-hundredth birthday in the year 2000, it is because in this instance it was the beneficiary of all the attentions several brothers and sisters could give it. One of these individuals deserves particular mention: Jean-Louis Petit, twice elected grand master (2000–2003, then 2006–2009), to whom we owe the immense credit of having been able to perform an unsparing audit of what separated the fiction maintained by the former grand master and founder, Harry Hendler, from the stark reality.

Based on this audit, it was possible to patiently develop and establish a culture of American obedience that conducts its activities in a rigorous and authentically American framework. Congressional assemblies are held every year that oversee the proper management of the obedience and its operations as well as the adherence of the lodges, and their brothers and sisters, to a framework that has been crafted over the course of time-tested discussions. The rituals, which have been rewritten and adapted into English, have also made the chapters the beneficiaries of a significant ritual framework. These chapters include Liberty 3, created in 1996, in Washington, D.C.; Thomas Paine of Los Angeles, in 2001; Golden Journey of San Francisco, in 2002; Benjamin Franklin of the Chicago Triangle, in 2003; and the French-speaking lodge of Raoul Zetler in Montreal, Canada, in 2002.

All the aspects of juridical, statutory, regulatory, and administrative organization also benefited from the Masonic know-how of Petit and his grasp of fraternal pedagogy, as well as from his experience as president of the Franco-American Chamber of Commerce of Chicago. These all went hand in hand with his role as a battle-hardened business leader who had created and long presided over the fortunes of a French high school in a Michigan city.

Petit’s success was a gripping and flattering contrast with the improbable ventures of another Masonic brother who had tried to drag in the GODF earlier before actually succeeding, at the beginning of 2010, by promising the moon if a “Grand Orient of the U.S.A.” would be given a charter! Because they utterly ignored the advice and warnings of better-informed Masons against a venture that had no future, the GODF attempted, in less time than it takes to write this, one of its worst American disappointments, which, to boot, also seriously marred the GODF’s image in the United States as well as that of one of its oldest flagship lodges, the one in Washington, D.C.

This did not prevent the main author of this recent “Waterloo” from persevering in a speech that would assuredly have elicited new rebukes if by mischance it had ever been heard. Wasn’t he still claiming, against all evidence, that this “assessment of a failure would only serve to conceal the great potential that exists in the USA”? This American Masonic El Dorado, for as much that it ever existed for the liberal Masonic trend that benefited from a confirmed niche, is assuredly not the one that can be found at the end of a quiet promenade or on the twisting paths toward which adventurous Masons sometimes drag Parisian hierarchs who are barely conversant with the pitiless realities of distant shores. This is an absence of strategy that is essentially linked to the brevity of electoral mandates and the loss of collective memory they ensure, as well as to a priority granted to all that is French and closely tied to short-term electoral stakes.

The international aspects have only rarely figured among the ranks of the GODF’s high priorities concerning the obediences. However, this was definitely the case in 1961 for the Strasbourg Appeal and in 1987 for the Rassemblement Maçonnique Internationale (International Masonic Congress) on the initiative of Grand Master Roger Leray. We will have an opportunity to revisit in chapter 8 this particularly sensitive aspect of Franco-American Masonic relations, which have sometimes been tumultuous, and not only for the GODF.

Whatever the case may be, whatever future might be in store for the development of an American mixed obedience, it will pass through the persevering expansion of the work undertaken by building the George Washington Union, a member of CLIPSAS. This small denomination crafted itself pragmatically and realistically by relying on the pacts signed with the GODF, while living in full independence and frankly asserting its American nature. It has a symbiotic existence with the American black obediences Omega, Hiram Abiff, and Saint John in Exile (in Haiti), as well as with the Gran Logia de Lengua Española of the Orient of New York, not to mention the bonds patiently established with the Grand Lodge of the Valley of Mexico and the Grand Lodge of Canada. The result is an original Masonic network and regional cosmopolitanism that is far from being negligible, even though the membership numbers remain modest and do not go above several hundred brothers and sisters. It is uncontestably a very promising small crucible or, as some might put it, a niche of rich potential that in this instance is quite reasonable.

A new coed American Masonic entity of the high Scottish grades emerged in the United States in May 2012 with the creation of the Supreme Council, Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, 33rd–George Washington Union. Its headquarters is in New York. It attests to the thus-far successful establishment of a small obedience in which the brothers and sisters aspire to an initiatory progression that goes beyond the grade of master. Its lodges of perfection were quickly established in Washington, D.C. (Sirius), Montreal (Les Pléiades), and San Francisco (Duty and Hope). They should form the foundation on which will soon be constructed sovereign chapters, an aeropagus, and lastly a consistory. A new page of history is thus being written through patient construction of a serious edifice from the ground up.

One point must be made. The question of female initiation is only at a very timorous beginning stage and remains an epiphenomenon in the United States. Para-Masonic organizations undoubtedly satisfy male American Masons but today are archaic survivals that certainly do not respond to the expectations of American women. Despite the decline of the Masonic order in the United States, and its lessened appeal as a social setting, it is inevitable that voices will be raised, perhaps in the form of a civil suit, to obtain the lifting of this discrimination and equal access for both men and women to Masonic initiation.

This initiation has always been denied to women on the grounds of Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723. These texts, which contain “the history, obligation, regulations, etc., of this ancient and venerable brotherhood” of Freemasons, stipulate in chapter 3, “Of Lodges,” “The persons admitted 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.” The question today is whether admission into a lodge is a prize sufficient to induce American women to legally demand recognition, as some did successfully some ten years ago to obtain at least a theoretically coed organization within the Rotary. The answer remains open, and it must be pointed out that the indifference of American women’s organizations in this regard seems to remain total.

Does this mean there is absolutely no interest in this on the part of some of these women? Definitely not. The success of the women’s lodges of the GLFF, like that of the coed arrangements practiced before the GODF became mixed gender by the George Washington Union and the Grand Lodge Hiram Abiff, are there to confirm the real interest that exists for at least a fringe of the female component of American society. It is evident that American women today aspire to enter Masonic lodges in the same conditions as men. The rapid success of the GLFB seems to indicate a preference of American women for women’s rather coed lodges. But this is only one aspect of the matter, which, taken as an absolute, does not conceal the interest women have in benefiting from the same Masonic rights as men.

Attitudes are also beginning to evolve, even if at a snail’s pace, among some American Masons for whom the initiation of women would have appeared as entirely inconceivable not so long ago. As an example, look at this experience recounted by a brother in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Invited to an international symposium organized with my support in 2004 by the Grand Lodge of California in Sacramento, he came accompanied by his wife, who had been initiated into the George Washington Union in San Francisco. The presence of this sister at a conference, albeit one open to the public, inspired a huge shock among the incredulous American Masons who were confronted here for the first time by a reality that they found entirely incongruous. They were literally flabbergasted and were only able to convince themselves of her bona fides after they had “tyled” the sister.

But Anglo-Saxon pragmatism obliged that during the second such conference, organized one year later in Los Angeles by the same grand lodge, two European female obediences were invited. This time the opening speech began as naturally as possible with “Dear sisters and brothers” to welcome the sisters of the GLFF and the GLFB. Since then, the university research of Margaret C. Jacob, and more significantly the book she wrote with Janet Burke, Les premières Franc-maçonnes au siècle des Lumières (The First Women Freemasons of the Enlightenment Era), published in France by the University Press of Bordeaux in 2011, have incontestably helped to travel, at least intellectually, a small part of the long road—which will require great patience—toward the American grand lodges opening their doors to women.

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