With its roots in social reform, the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons, also known as Freemasonry for Women, is a force for empowerment, says Grand Master Christine Chapman
What inspired you to become a Freemason?
My father was a mason and he loved every minute of it. He came to it late in life, but made some wonderful friends. It meant so much to him to belong. My mother joined at his behest and my husband was one, too, so I knew quite a lot about it. My mother asked me to join, so I took the plunge and entered the Constance Leaver Lodge, No. 39, in Marble Arch. I’ve now been a Freemason for 42 years. And I’ve never regretted it for a minute!
You became Grand Master in 2014. How have you found it?
It’s almost 24/7 now. I’m always at the end of my mobile and on social media, looking for opportunities to promote the fraternity. I had quite a rapid rise after a number of years as a ‘pale blue brother’. My first office was as a Grand Steward and by then, I’d made Freemasonry my life and I think they recognised I was dedicated. You can’t take on the responsibilities of a Grand Master without giving yourself to it 100 per cent.
What are the origins of women’s Freemasonry?
The old myth that it began with inquisitive women being discovered hidden in lodge cupboards, grandfather clocks and under floorboards – and that they were made masons to protect the secrets – is entertaining, but none of these women went on to develop women’s Freemasonry.
It began in prerevolutionary 18th-century France with the Lodges of Adoption, which were female masonic societies under the adoption of masculine lodges. When the French Revolution arrived, all these lodges were for the chop, at least metaphorically. However, women were coming to the forefront of French intellectual society and Maria Deraismes, a well-known writer and supporter of women’s rights, was invited to become a full member of Loge des Libres Penseurs, working under the Grande Loge Symbolique de France. Her initiation in 1882 caused a schism, so this lodge and nine others seceded to form a new Grand Lodge called La Grande Loge Symbolique Ecossaise. And a new parallel movement was formed that eventually became known as Le Droit Humain, or the International Order of Co-Masonry.
Not long after this, the radical feminist Annie Besant travelled to France to join this movement and when she returned to England, she decided to form the British Federation of the International Order of Co-Masonry in 1902, and remained its leader until her death in 1933. However, in true masonic fashion, there was a breakaway by members who wanted their Freemasonry to run along similar lines to UGLE. So in 1908 a new Grand Lodge was formed called the Honourable Fraternity of Antient Masonry, or HFAM, although they later added The Order of Women Freemasons to their title and are now usually referred to as the OWF. Up until this point, female Freemasons had used the term ‘sister’. But now they decided that as members of a universal brotherhood, it was more suitable to be styled as ‘brother’.
‘It’s almost 24/7 now. I’m always at the end of my mobile and on social media, looking for opportunities to promote the fraternity’
What type of Freemasonry was practised in the Honourable Fraternity of Antient Masonry?
For the first five years of its existence, they practised only the Craft degrees, but some members wished to introduce the Royal Arch. And having received the degree from former members of an extant UGLE chapter, they formed one themselves to practise the Royal Arch. But the Grand Lodge of HFAM decreed that the time was not yet ripe for this introduction.
So on 27 November 1913, Mrs Elizabeth Boswell Reid and her daughter Mrs Lily Seton Challen set up their own Grand Lodge to be known as The Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons, or HFAF, which is my Grand Lodge. Elizabeth Boswell Reid became our first Grand Master. So in 1913 we had three masonic Grand Lodges admitting both men and women, although women outnumbered the men in both HFAM and HFAF. Eventually these fraternities decided to become single-sex, and by 1933, we had achieved this aim in HFAF.
So HFAF was founded on the wave of social change in 1913?
We were inspired by the suffragettes and were founded on a streak of rebellion, because we’d broken away from another group. But they were all founded with the same principles – to empower women. We had one suffragette I know of – Helen Fraser, a great orator who inspired women to join the suffrage movement.
What’s the difference between the HFAF and OWF societies?
The OWF are much larger than us. But we like to think we’re more flexible and can react more quickly to initiatives and seize opportunities. Carpe Diem is one of my mantras and another is that there are no problems, only solutions. Take the consecration of our New Delhi Lodge. We had an Indian lady who came over to the UK, joined a lodge and took her degrees because she was determined to take Freemasonry to India. But she couldn’t get other Indian women to come over to England to take their degrees. So we went out there to make it happen.
‘We have to fight people who think we’re upset that we can’t join the men. At HFAF, we want to work as women, for an organisation of women, doing things for women’
What are the misconceptions about women’s Freemasonry?
We sometimes come across men who don’t think we could possibly be doing it at the same level as them. So we’ve had to fight that. Nowadays they’re much more supportive and UGLE is in particular. We also have to fight people who think we are somehow upset that we can’t join the men. At HFAF, we want to work as women, for an organisation of women, doing things for women. We have a saying: it’s a bit like football – the same game, the same rules, but different teams.
How is the relationship between you and UGLE?
We have a very good working relationship. Take the Gender Reassignment Policy; we worked together on that. Our policy mirrors UGLE’s, so if any of our members want to become a man, they can remain a member. And we have an agreement to accept members from each other’s organisations if they’d feel happier in an organisation filled with members of their new gender. We’ve also been working with UGLE in the Universities Scheme since 2016, as students now demand that women be given the same opportunities to become Freemasons.
What else are you doing to grow your membership?
Growing our membership is a slow process, because to be honest, as fast as we get new members in, older members either stop coming due to old age, or because they’ve passed on. But although we’re small, we punch above our weight with our initiative and innovation. We have very committed and enthusiastic overseas lodges in Spain, Gibraltar, Romania and India, and next year a lodge is opening in Washington, DC.
Why do you think a woman should join your fraternity?
I think that even nowadays, women need to feel empowered. Freemasonry offers that by making women confident, self-aware and self-assured. It’s a wonderful system of morality and guidance to help you lead a better life, achieved through allegory and symbolism. Women appreciate belonging to a group of other women. Especially today, when people have hundreds of friends online, but might not have real people who they can connect with. Women take Freemasonry every bit as seriously as the men. I can honestly say that my life has been transformed immeasurably by being a female Freemason and a member of HFAF. And I will defend the right of women to be Freemasons until my dying day.