ISSUE 12 - FREEMASONRY TODAY  

The Order of
Women Freemasons

A grey January afternoon in Notting Hill, lately the setting for the Hollywood blockbuster of the same name. In it boy meets girl and they fall in love against the vivid backdrop of Notting Hill bohemia. When boy and girl are Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, then Notting Hill is bound to acquire the status of 'cool' in the collective psyche of Londoners.

Notting Hill however proves to be even more than already meets the eye, never mind its newly acquired fame, for apart from its colourful markets, ye olde bookshops, streamlined minimalist restaurants and cafes, Notting Hill is also the locus of the oldest Order of Women Freemasons in the land. And I was on my way to meet the Grand Master, MW Bro Brenda I. Fleming-Taylor.

I entered Pembridge Gardens, a residential street flanked by substantial Victorian terraced houses with projecting porches supported by white marble columns. One house, however, had pitch black columns. I approached them and rang the bell.

Soon I was shaking hands with the Grand Master and on a guided tour of the Women's Grand Lodge. It felt so tranquil, so remote from the hustle and bustle of Notting Hill; in fact it was as though I had stepped into another world, and when I walked into the temple, I realised that I really was in another world. The Grand Master invited me to try her magnificent gilded chair for size, and although I would define myself as a Cartesian in philosophy, there was no doubt about the feeling of elation I experienced; or was it because the chair stood on a podium?

Eventually we reached the Grand Master's office where three other members were waiting. I was introduced to Dr Monika Boggia-Black (Past Assistant Grand Master), Mrs Barbara Whittingham (Assistant Grand Master) and Mrs Margaret Masters (Deputy Grand Master).

Founded on 6 March 1908 with the title of the Ancient Masonic Union, and subsequently the Honourable Fraternity of Antient Masonry, the order has been called the Order of Women Freemasons since 1958. At present there are 349 lodges, with two consecrations in the pipeline. The order is derived from the first English Co-Masonic Lodge Which arrived on these shores from France in 1902.

The first three lodges, established on 5 June 1908, called themselves Free Masonic Associations of Men and Women and one of them had a lady at its head whose initial title of Sister Florence Faulding was changed before the day was over to that of W Bro Florence Faulding.

Other orders proliferated from this nucleus. In 1913, a group of members of Lodge Stability No 5 seceded to form an order called the Honourable Fraternity of Antient Freemason's and one of the reasons for this was, according to the Grand Master, that "they wanted to work Royal Arch Masonry. So, I think, eleven of them left, taking with them the warrant of Lodge Stability No 5."

Paradoxically, the first Grand Master of the order was a man: Dr William Frederick Geickie Cobb (UGLE member and Co-Mason), Rector of St Ethelburga-the-Virgin within Bishopsgate in the City of London between 1900 and 1941 and a supporter of women in business.

My interests, as usual, were of a more secular nature: who are the members? What do they think about Co-Masons? How do they relate to the members of the United Grand Lodge? What is it like to be 'one of us'? What makes somebody want to join? Some questions were answered with courtesy and humour, some others were not answered, some others were tantalisingly eschewed, but since the discussion was conducted with four, instead of the customary one person, I was four times as privileged in terms of material...

Dress

After my visit to so magnificent a temple, I was prompted to ask about regalia, and Dr Boggia-Black volunteered: "Well, with most of the Christian degrees, when we start, normally we wear short black dresses with whatever regalia is necessary, and when we get on further into Knights Templar, then we wear the Templar regalia, consisting of a tunic with red cross and cloaks - to keep the horses' bottoms nice and warm! - and the swords, black gloves, helmets - the whole thing. The only difference between men and women is that men wear black trousers and we wear black stockings. The regalia through the higher degrees is more or less the same, except that men would probably be wearing black morning dress and we wear black short or long dresses, according to rank. The ceremonies do not differ. In the Craft degrees, all lodges vary - there are hundreds of different rituals - but all the higher degrees past Royal Arch - Templars, Rose Croix for example - are the same as those of men. We all work from the same book."

In most lodges, according to the order's own brief account of its history, the ladies "wear a long black skirt, white blouse and a surplice of white voile. Some Lodges have their own traditions, which include wearing evening dress for Installations, and white for a First Degree and black for a Third. Candidates wear a simple white cross-over pilgrim's gown over their clothes, with just enough skin showing to apply a poignard, Square or Compass: '

My questions were being addressed, albeit in a curiously roundabout way, but two very important reasons which appear to attract women to Freemasonry were emerging: the first was to do with the spirit of friendship, support and camaraderie which binds everyone together in an extended family; the second was that the majority of women come from families with well established traditions of membership of masonic societies. Furthermore, the Order of Women Freemasons emphasises the spiritual basis of Freemasonry and it may be that women are more sensitive to the spiritual aspects of Masonry than many men.

"When I go into the temple," the Grand Master said, "I feel immediately at home. I feel peaceful, relaxed. You leave the outside world behind and sit with like-minded people. You have come to do a particular thing that you have in common. You probably have a social board afterwards when you can talk about everyday happenings, family events &c." Mrs Barbara Whittingham agreed: "The friendships you make in Masonry are special ones; you can attend a function of one or two thousand people; you sit down next to a complete stranger and say: 'Oh hello, I am so and so, what lodge are you'? She will tell you and you immediately start talking about the lodge experience. Oh yes, we do so and so; we support this charity, or not, we look after that one... very special friendships." "You can go to a lodge for the first time," added Mrs Margaret Masters, Deputy Grand Master, "and you will never be left on your own. People will come and make you feel welcome."

Whilst the Grand Master and Mrs Whittingham followed the family tradition when they became Freemasons, Mrs Masters had nobody in the family that belonged to the fraternity; in fact she was not only unaware of women masons, but had never even heard of Freemasonry. Meanwhile, Dr Boggia-Black joined before her mother, although her father had been a mason. She describes her activities in the order as "a fascinating hobby, and as with everything else, you get out of it in proportion to what you put into it. If you are interested to go on and learn and meet people, I think this is probably the only hobby that I know of where women of all ages, all levels of education and so on can meet together on the same level."

Finally, I asked the Grand Master about their relationship with the rest of the masonic community, especially the United Grand Lodge of England: "We have never enjoyed a close relationship with them because they did not initially acknowledge our existence and we still have the original petition, dated 1928, when we wrote to them. We just wanted recognition and they refused point blank on the grounds, I suppose, that we are women. It was quite an upsetting time for the powers at work in 1928.

"From then on, we decided that if we were to be recognised, it would be on our terms and not theirs. Now we enjoy a far better relationship with them from a publicity point of view, for they openly acknowledge our existence. They even have women working on their premises, which at one time they would not have allowed. They know we exist and I like to think... perhaps it is a bit naughty, that the reason they did not acknowledge us was - I said that to their former Grand Secretary, Commander Higham: "You know deep in your hearts that we perform our ceremonies much better than you:' Charming fellow!"

As to relations with Co-Masonry, the idea was dismissed rather peremptorily: "...I think that the proof of the pudding is in the eating" said Dr Boggia-Black. "The Co-Masons are a very small order and we are the largest organisation of women Freemasons." I continued to press the point and was surprised to learn that the competitive spirit between men and women operated with impunity.

The Grand Master explained: "How can it work, let's say, if the woman occupied a senior office, and the husband was a junior officer? If you have the situation that in a lodge, you as, Master of the lodge would be issuing orders, how would your husband feel if you ordered him to do so and so? Can you see the problem?" I could not see that there was a problem in the first place, but well understood the implications. "...Our husbands join us in our social activities and we join them. At the socialising level it works, but it would just not work at any other. We are a single sex organisation and it will stay that way. And that will not change, certainly for as long as I am Grand Master."

Extracted from Issue 12.