Initiating Women in Freemasonry: The Adoption Rite

Initiating Women in Freemasonry: The Adoption Rite

Jan A.M. Snoek
Leiden: Brill, 2012. xvii + 550 pages, hardcover, $237.

Freemasonry is often considered an exclusively male fraternity and, in most of its manifestations, so it is. In particular, the dominant stream of Masonry that has historically flowed out of the British Isles (including Masonry as it developed in North America) has forbidden the initiation of women. Why this is so is a knotty question, though probably one over which few people lose sleep.

The usual explanation is that the mixing of men and women in “secret” meetings during the genesis of modern Masonry in seventeenth- and eighteenth- century British culture would have just been too scandalous. And Masonry, being an extremely traditional order, has continued that custom down to the present.

An alternate explanation, put forth by Robert G. Davis in Understanding Manhood in America: Freemasonry’s Enduring Path to the Mature Masculine (Lancaster, Va.: Anchor Communications, 2005), is that Masonic rituals (and their accompanying symbols and lectures) were consciously designed to initiate men into a mature and moral understanding of their responsibilities as men. In other words, Masonry may have evolved from an artisan trade initiation into a broader masculine adult “rite of passage” ritual. Women were not excluded out of some petty sexist spite. Rather, with Masonry understood as an embodiment of the male mysteries, the presence of women in Masonic lodges would have been as awkward as the presence of men in tribal women’s menstrual huts.

Nevertheless, during the upsurge of reform efforts in the mid- to late nineteenth century that encompassed abolitionism, suffragism, spiritualism, Prohibition, alternative healing methods, and a renewed interest in occultism, the exclusion of women from Freemasonry became an issue worthy of challenge. H.P. Blavatsky, in Isis Unveiled, delighted in revealing the keys to several Masonic ciphers and presented her own analysis of Masonic symbolism and history. For good measure, in an exchange of honors with John Yarker, a British disseminator of fringe Masonic charters and degrees, she received a diploma declaring her the recipient of several degrees of the feminine Rite of Adoption. The next generation of Theosophical leaders, particularly Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, went even further by encouraging the growth and spread of Co-Masonry, a version of Freemasonry admitting both men and women.

Yet these efforts toward Masonic inclusiveness were preceded by the substantial development of a largely feminine Freemasonry, particularly in France, in the latter part of the eighteenth century: the so-called Adoptive Rites (into which Blavatsky would supposedly be initiated). This is the subject of Jan Snoek’s Initiating Women in Freemasonry, a breakthrough tackling of a subject hitherto lost in the shadows of obscurity.

Freemasonry’s spread from Britain to the European continent around the 1730s was accompanied by all sorts of paradoxes. If Masonry in Britain was distinguished by an egalitarian mixing of male bourgeoisie, gentry, and aristocracy, Masonry in France was largely an aristocratic pursuit. Yet the French aristocracy allowed a greater latitude for the activities of women, whether through salons or through aristocratic female participation in Freemasonry.

This was largely propelled through the phenomenon of Adoptive Rites, with traditional male lodges founding associated lodges for women, with their own unique degree rituals and mythos. This was often portrayed by unsympathetic Masons as giving a sop to “the ladies,” but Snoek convincingly demonstrates that the Adoptive degree rituals had sufficient sophistication and depth to rival those of mainstream male Masonry. In fact, Snoek offers evidence that the Adoptive ritual may have been adapted from a variety of “Harodim” Masonry that existed parallel to the better-known Grand Lodge Masonry of Britain in the 1700s.

Snoek traces the ebbs and flows of active Adoptive Masonry from the eighteenth through the twentieth century, although he largely concentrates on its continental manifestations and doesn’t bring Co-Masonry into the discussion. His book makes great use of the vast archives of the Grand Orient, the central lodge of France, which were confiscated by the Nazis during World War II and subsequently seized by the Soviet Union, where they were warehoused until their return to the Grand Orient in 2000.

Initiating Women in Freemasonry is a dense and scholarly work, perhaps of most interest to Masonic researchers and the growing number of academic scholars investigating esoteric traditions. It assumes the reader has a substantial familiarity with—or at least an interest in—both the intricacies of Masonic history and such arcane topics as the variations between ritual texts published in various “Masonic exposures” in the eighteenth century. This may drastically limit the potential readership for the book; hence the publisher’s astronomical list price for it.

But make no mistake: Snoek has produced a richly researched and wellargued book that brings a formerly obscure corner of Masonic history into the light of day. It offers evidence that over the past three centuries, more women received a form of Masonic initiation than has hitherto been commonly known or assumed.

This work represents a breakthrough in expanding the discussion of the multitude of “Masonries” that have coexisted since the 1700s. However, it may be a good long while before such specialized research trickles down into more mainstream discussions of what is “real” Masonry. In the meantime, for serious Masonic history buffs, Snoek’s book is a tough, dense, but rewarding read. He deserves the strongest thanks for undertaking it.

Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney was publisher and editor in chief of Gnosis magazine during its fifteen-year span. His book The Masonic Myth (Harper Collins) has been translated into five languages.