- Leaving the Enlightenment: Women Freemasons after the Revolution
Women’s Freemasonry in France awoke after a decade or more of sleep, as the Masons refer to it, during the violence and uncertainty of the Revolution. The minutes and rituals of these mixed-gender lodges of adoption during the First Empire reflect well the post-Revolutionary situation. What had been an organization with rituals and practices based on the principles of the Enlightenment and an elite sociability now had a new atmosphere. A casual visitor to one of the meetings might see the procedures as comparable to those of the 1780s; someone taking a longer, more intimate look and comparing the earlier organization with the post-Revolutionary group would see subtle but important differences. The women were now even more in charge within their organization than they had been earlier, and they were focusing both their private and public activity sharply on works of charity, not because of Enlightenment principles, as had been the case in the eighteenth century, but in response to a complex combination of forces.
The primary question of this study revolves around the newly-opened lodges of adoption and their relationship to the changed intellectual, social, and religious atmosphere of France. With the passing of the century of light, the foundation of Masonry had disappeared. What it left in the lodges of adoption was an interesting microcosm in which to assess the new place of women in society. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the lodges had worked out meaningful rituals, meeting formats, and principles. In the decade before the Revolution, those elements had become standardized and widely accepted. A direct comparison with post-Revolutionary lodges offers some interesting insights. The organization had made impressive strides in the direction of women’s autonomy within the Masonic family before the watershed of the Revolution. In an atmosphere of Rousseauian domesticity, Napoleonic family traditionalism, and a resurgence of religious influence, did the women in their lodges lose the momentum and gains of the immediate pre-Revolutionary decade?
Interestingly, historians of Masonry seem to have lost sight of these mixed-gender lodges after the Revolution. A few of them paid some small attention to the formation of the lodges in the eighteenth century, generally dismissing them as harmless toys to mollify women angered by their exclusion from the brotherhood of Masonry. These historians of Masonry, almost always brothers themselves or extremist critics of the order, seem not to have seen the post-Revolutionary mixed lodges as worthy of any attention at all. As with their disparaging view of the eighteenth-century lodges of adoption, they failed to recognize that these post-Revolutionary lodges had a distinct significance for their women members. Just as the eighteenth-century lodges showed quite clearly the first stages of feminist thought and the women members’ links to the Enlightenment, these post-Revolutionary lodges help to bring new insight into the question of the impact of the Revolution on women and the depth to which changing social and intellectual structures affected organized women. These organizations, children of the Enlightenment, had lost their philosophical base somewhere in the Revolution.
The story of women’s Masonry, as it was often called despite its mixed-gender membership, was a dramatic one. Officially, Masonry was closed to women. The eighteenth-century Masonic constitution forbade women members. Yet in France, in the middle of the eighteenth century, a number of lodges opened their own mixed-gender affiliates, possibly as early as the 1740s. The number of lodges of adoption grew [End Page 255] rapidly, and in 1774 the Grand Orient of France voted to recognize the mixed lodges as an official part of Masonry. In the immediate pre-Revolutionary decade, the lodges of adoption grew so quickly in number that they existed in virtually every sizable French city and many towns, and the Masons published at least one new edition of the ritual catechism each year. 1
Brothers almost exclusively ran the earliest degree rituals, designed to bring the sisters from one level of gnosis within the organization to a higher one. 2 The rituals were at the heart of Masonry. It was there the sisters...