- By Karen Kidd, PM
- (I speak only for me)
The Grand Lodge of California, the state’s largest male-only Masonic body, apparently has suddenly concluded that it’s OK with women and mixed Freemasons. Seriously, they’re very chill about it.
This has been evolving for years, but it really became obvious when the May/June edition of California Freemason was issued. The entire edition is dedicated to the long history of women in Freemasonry – that is, as Freemasons – and not-at-all taking the old Malecraft line of ignoring, downplaying, and denying that past, present, and future.
They’re not even being condescending about it. Whoa O.O
The May/June issue of California Freemason includes articles about the universal appeal of Freemasonry “to men and women alike,” feminine symbols that “are threaded into the very fabric of Freemasonry,” and stories about women Freemasons and Co-Masons active in the U.S. All the articles are written as if the women Freemasons have existed for centuries (they have); there’s no problem with that (there isn’t), and that it is something that obviously should be taken for granted (it should).
The edition seems to be doing it’s level best to pretend that this has been the norm all along and invites the reader to buy into that. As if there never was any other less pleasant time in which Malecraft writers marginalized, downplayed, and ignored women-only and mixed Freemasonry.
The message is clear: this is the new line, dear reader. Let us forget the old.
Well, 1) some of us never bought into the old line, and 2) this is all very well and good, but it’s making me, as a masonic historian, more than a little nervous.
We’ve been here before.
This is not the first time that Malecraft Masons in California have been OK with Femalecraft and mixed Masons. The last time it happened, it didn’t turn out so well.
There are more than a few brothers and sisters who don’t want me to talk about that history because things are going well right now in California, and my talking about the unpleasant past, apparently, could endanger that.
“Just let it go,” one Femalecraft Mason said to me very recently. “Don’t screw this up for us.”
On one level, I can see wisdom in that. After all, there is precedent for burying unpleasant Masonic history. When the Antients and the Moderns healed their decades of often bitter differences in the early 19th Century, that generation largely pretended the bitterness never happened. It became as WBro Castells described it:
“Everything of a disagreeable and painful sort was forgotten, or passed over lightly; and a certain delicacy of feeling made everyone refrain from disputes which might engender bitterness and re-open old sores.”1
I can even see something Masonic about that.
However, the historian in me is more than a little alarmed because we have been here before. I hope it doesn’t go bad again, in the same way or in any other, but I can’t take for granted that it won’t.
Not that I can do anything more than watch while I hope for the best. I am but a common brother, no one great in any order.
Still, I am impudent enough to ask the Masonic movers and shakers at the actual center of all of this – far from the periphery where I stand, watch and hope – to please, PLEASE, just bear the unpleasant past in mind; and, above all, be cautious.
At least as cautious as I am trying to be.
The Masonic Order to which I belong, the Honorable Order of Universal Co-Masonry, United Federation of Lodges2 today is easily the largest Co-Masonic body in North America. Since its Masonic divorce from Le Droit Humain in the 1990s, the Order has grown to the point that it’s approaching the numbers of other mixed bodies in the world and now itself has become an international body.
That growth is its own mostly unwritten history, but this blog will be focused, instead, on why the developments in California are giving me pause.
Universal Co-Masonry has its largest North American presence in California. In no other state or province (outside of Colorado, the state in which the Order’s headquarters is located), does the Order have more lodges of multiple bodies than in California. There are more Blue Lodges of Universal Co-Masonry in California than any other state, including Colorado.
Some of the earliest Lodges of the order were consecrated in California and, then as now, those Lodges tend(ed) to be among the strongest in the Order.
Perhaps that was partly why Bro. Louis Goaziou, a leading founder and President and Grand Commander of Co-Masonry in North America during the first part of the 20th century, tried to steer the Order toward closer relations with Malecraft Masonry in the U.S. His aim seems to have been more about détente and acknowledgment rather than full on amity, recognition and other front office agreements.
Such things, really, are not necessary.
In the decades prior, Co-Masons largely preferred to operate under the radar of the Malecraft. The Malecraft were to be acknowledged and respected but close relations were ill advised. The Malecraft, after all, had a habit of throwing persecutions.
I’ll refrain from reciting the usual litany of that very unmasonic behavior in any great detail and just say that co-masons generally felt the Malecraft were, for good reason, best avoided.
Goaziou, who had been arrested in 1908 in Pennsylvania for being a Co-Mason and personally faced other Malecraft persecution,3 certainly agreed with that preference. However, as the years wore on and co-masonry grew, Goaziou seems to have developed a vision of how things could be if the various branches of Freemasonry could just get along.
There was, after all, much to be gained. In addition to harmony and that “certain delicacy of feeling,” a standing down of unpleasantness would be good for Co-Masonry. The Order would be allowed to grow without hiding its light under a bushel and, perhaps, the Malecraft would be willing to assist in that by opening their premises for Co-Masons to rent.
If better relations were possible, Goaziou decided there was too much to be gained for him to not at least try.
In the early 1920s, Bro. Goaziou took the first modest steps, mostly just a bit of outreach. When Goaziou traveled to Co-Masonic Lodges, he worked in visits to Malecraft Lodges.
Those Malecraft lodges, which Goaziou and other Co-Masons habitually referred to as “Lodges of F and AM,” were more than ready to receive him. Within a few years, he was speaking with Malecraft brothers who had “Grand” in their Masonic titles, and he developed a wide-ranging correspondence with many of the world’s leading Malecraft scholars of the day.
Soon Bro. Goaziou was receiving invitations to speak in open lodge, or at least with the lodge at refreshment, and the talks he gave were very well received. For example, he gave a talk on March 2, 1926 during a meeting of Rockridge Masonic Lodge No. 468, F and AM4 in Oakland, California on the topic of “Women in Masonry.” A local newspaper reporter was present, and Goaziou himself later reported to Co-masons in the Order that he was strongly encouraged by this particular lodge visit.
“There is hope for the future when it becomes possible for your Grand Commander to speak on ‘Women in Masonry’ before Lodges of F and AM.”5
During that stop in Oakland, Bro. Goaziou also visited five other Malecraft Lodges and had to turn down invitations to visit others for lack of time.
I could go on quite a while about events and developments in this largely successful effort to heal divisions between Co-Masonry and Malecraft Masonry in California, as well as the rest of the country. Things were looking very promising, much as they are in California now, but . . .
The bottom line was this: it went very badly. So badly, that it hasn’t been tried again until very recently.
I could go into great detail about how badly it went but this is a blog, not a book.6 Very long story short, a few Malecraft Masons of the bottom-feeding sort, who didn’t think much of Goaziou’s efforts or of healing divisions in Freemasonry, began to agitate for legal action against Co-Masons in North America.
The supposed basis for that legal action was never very clear but the overall subject seems to have been, “Get’em.”
In the early spring of 1929, articles slandering Co-Masonry began to appear in third-rate Masonic publications, largely written by the same few authors who acted very like trolls on the Internet today. The articles continued well into the summer and began to be picked up by more mainstream publications – Masonic and otherwise. Imagine the attention it would attract if the New York Times republished something first published in InfoWars.
By that autumn, an effort was underway to pressure the Grand Lodge of California “to take legal action against the Co-Masonic Lodges,” Goaziou warned in his October Circular.
There was as much to lose as there had been to gain. The math was simple enough. If the Grand Lodge of California took legal action against Co-Masonry, other Malecraft Grand Lodges were likely to follow. Legally, Co-Masonry was on very strong ground and probably could/would win any such litigation. Practically, however, Co-Masonry did not then have the resources to fight such a battle and probably would go under if it had to.
For months, Co-Masons held their breath, but Goaziou ultimately received word through back channels that the Grand Lodge of California had decided no such legal action would be taken. Co-Masonry in North America had missed a bullet.
Bro. Goaziou also continued to receive invitations to speak in Malecraft Lodges, and his many friends in Malecraft Masonry encouraged him to continue his efforts at healing the divisions.
However, Goaziou and other Co-Masons had suffered a terrible scare and collectively returned to the prior preference of avoiding Malecraft Freemasonry. Goaziou himself announced that he had been wrong to make the effort and that, “to avoid a recurrence of a similar incident,” he would refrain from those efforts.
It was over.
Now, here we are, about 90 years later. It’s 2019 and things are, again, looking promising in California.
Today, not only does Universal Co-Masonry have its greatest presence – outside of headquarters in Colorado – in California, Femalecraft Freemasonry is very much on the rise in the state. Recently, Lodge Aletheia, active in Los Angeles under charter from the Women’s Grand Lodge of Belgium and which traces its history to the 1980s, gave a symposium and had no qualms about advertising it. They weren’t afraid at all.
It is now masonically safer to openly be a Co- or Femalecraft Mason in California. The May/June California Freemason seems to be further encouraging a certain giddy lack of circumspection.
I’ve also heard that the May/June issue of California Freemason itself has prompted significant conversations within the Grand Lodge of California, and that some of the discussions are about how to better show respect and appreciation for the many different threads of Masonry, without violating anyone’s obligations.
Which really isn’t all that difficult. Seriously, it really isn’t. It’s just not something that would have happened even five years ago.
And yet all this – and more – is happening out in the open without the Grand Lodge of California having a snit about it. No threats of lawsuits, getting the state’s General Assembly to move against Co- and Femalecraft Masonry, accosting non-Malecraft Freemasons on the street, breaking into their premises or any other bits of ugliness that could have been expected not very long ago.
Like everyone else, I want to feel very encouraged about that. In a way, I suppose I am feeling encouraged. I’m just feeling it in a very cautious sort of way.
Because that unpleasant history did happen and forgetting history usually tempts a repeat cycle. Still, I suppose the détente in California – if that’s what’s happening – is a good thing.
Y’all carry on, though I hope you will be cautious. I’ll just wait here in the periphery and see how it goes.
1 See page 27 of the WBro the Rev F. De P. Castells’ “Origin of the Masonic Degrees” (A Lewis, London, 1928).
2 Formerly know as the Honorable Order of American Co-Masonry, American Federation of Human Rights.
3 Yup, it was illegal to be a Co-Mason in Pennsylvania in 1908. If you want to know more about that persecution, as well as the historical points I’m trying to make in this blog, read this.
4 Merged to help form Oakland Durant Rockridge Lodge #188, F & AM in 1983.
5 Goaziou’s Circular 74 issued May 1, 1926.
6 Seriously, if you want to know, read this.