When Jo-Anne Elab and Alexandra Sarov told acquaintances that they were joining the Freemasons, the reactions were predictable. “It’s been the usual funny handshakes, rolling up the trouser leg,” says Jo-Anne. “A bit Men in Black-ish.”
Whether they wear wear dark suits and sunglasses is presumably up to them (and it is thought there are handshakes, although they aren’t used outside a lodge), but freemasonry is no longer just for men. While most people associate masonry with a secret, all-male brotherhood, Jo-Anne and Alexandra are part of the Co-Freemasons – a movement that admits both men and women, and is trying to dispel some of the myths surrounding the masons.
Alexandra, 27, is already a member of the Co-Freemasons and when her mum, Jo-Anne, is initiated this summer, they will become the first mother and daughter Co-Freemasons in a movement that has around 400 followers in the UK, about half of whom are women.
The origins of freemasonry are much debated. But in London at least, it is thought that in the early eighteenth century, organised freemasonry began when a group of like-minded men got together in a coffee house and devised a socially egalitarian forum in which men could fraternise, while avoiding religion and politics. Their metaphor is that of the stonemasons and their guiding symbols mirror the tools of that trade – the square, compass and apron.
Feminism and freemasonry
Over in France in the 1890s – when campaigning for women’s rights was in full swing – Co-Freemasonry, or Le Droit Humain, was established. As Julian Rees, spokesman for Britain’s co-freemasonry movement explains, they felt it was wrong for masons to exclude women. As he points out, if freemasonry is meant to be dedicated to the perfection of humanity, it is difficult to follow that if half of humanity is excluded.
Co-Freemasonry was brought to Britain by Annie Besant, known for her involvement in trade unionism, feminism and Fabian socialism. In 1877, she was arrested for handing out birth control pamphlets in London’s slums and in 1888, she supported the plight of the so-called ‘matchgirls’, who protested over poor working conditions in match factories. She was initiated into Co-Freemasonry in France and established Britain’s co-freemason federation in 1902.
While freemasonry does allow women to join in the form of women-only lodges, co-freemasonry allows men and women to be part of the same lodge – a group of masons. They follow similar rituals in their lodge meetings; but the Co-Freemasons claim that they accord more spiritual significance to these rituals. Freemasonry is not a religion and people from any faith or none can join. What it aims to do is give people a sense of spirituality, and a chance to enhance their self-knowledge, without the dogma sometimes associated with organised religion.
For Alexandra, who is studying biochemistry, it was the philosophical side of co-freemasonry that attracted her to the movement. “I was interested in the esoteric side of freemasonry, the social side and the charity side – the concern for the state of the human condition overall really, however you might want to go with that. I had an interest in philosophy of science, I was reading on Sir Isaac Newton and the Royal Society and it took off from there. I realised they were involved with freemasonry and thought ‘That’s quite interesting, I’ll find a bit more about that’.”