It is not generally known, but researchers have shown that records do exist which confirm that women were in fact operative masons, and even presided over Lodges of Operative Masons.
The Regius Manuscript, dating from about 1390 is the oldest manuscript yet discovered relating to Masonry. Two extracts are of particular interest:
Yn that onest craft to be parfytte; And so uchon schulle techyn othur, And love togeder as syster and brothur
In that honest craft to be perfect; And so each one shall teach the other, And love together as sister and brother.
Articulus decimus. The thenthe artycul ys for to knowe, Amonge the craft, to hye and lowe, There schal no mayster supplante other, But be togeder as systur and brother, Yn that curyus craft, alle and som, That longuth to a maystur mason.
Tenth article. The tenth article is for to know, Among the craft, to high and low, There shall no master supplant another, But be together as sister and brother, In this curious craft, all and some, that belongeth to a master mason.
If you need proof, see the printed version of the Regius Manuscript, article 10, on the Web page of the Grand Lodge of New York
However we do have to point out that not everyone agrees with these interpretations of the Regius Manuscript
The following examples were recorded by Enid Scott in her pamphlet, “Women and Freemasonry”
- It is on record that a woman mason was responsible for the carving of the porch on the tower of Strasbourg Cathedral. It was begun in 1277 by the Architect, Erwin of Steinbach, and his daughter Sabina, who was a skilful mason, executed this part of the work herself
- In the records of Corpus Christi Guild at York, it is noted in 1408 that an apprentice had to swear to obey “the Master, or Dame, or any other Freemason.”
- Women members were recorded in the Masons’ Company in the 17th century as being non-operative. Of course at this time ‘non-operative’ meant not being engaged in the physical work, but acting in the capacity of accepting orders for assignments, and not what we would now refer to as ‘speculative masonry’. Such women were called ‘Dames’ to distinguish them from Master Masons. Margaret Wild, a mason’s widow, was such a one and was made a member of the Masons’ Company in 1663
- A minute dated 16th April 1683, from the Lodge of Edinburgh refers to agreement that a widow may, with the assistance of a competent freeman, receive the benefit of any orders which may be offered her by customers of her late husband, such freeman being prohibited from taking any share of the profits from such assignments.
- One day later on 17th April, the records of St Mary’s Chapel Lodge give an instance of the legality of a female occupying the position of ‘Dame’ or ‘Mistress in a masonic sense. But it was only to a very limited extent that widows of master masons could benefit by the privilege.
- From the manuscripts which make up the Old Charges, the York MS no 4(Grand Lodge of York) dated 1693 refers to the “Apprentice charge” and instructs that, “One of the elders taking the Booke and hee or shee that is to be made mason, shall lay their hands thereon, and the charge shall be given”. Of course this has been disputed by some masonic historians who claim that the “shee” is a mistranslation of “they”, but others including the Rev. A. F. A. Woodford, accept it as evidence of the admission of females into masonic fellowship, especially as many of the other guilds at this time were comprised of women as well as men.
- The Masons’ Court Book records the names of two widows in 1696.
- In 1713-14 we find the unusual instance of Mary Bannister, the daughter of a Barking barber, being appointed to a mason for a term of seven years, the fee of five shillings having been paid to the Company.
- Several instances of male apprentices being assigned to work under female masters during the period 1713-1715 appear in the records of the “Worshipful Company of Masons” in MS 5984 of the Guildhall Library in London.
It should be remembered that all these instances occurred before the formation of the first Grand Lodge in London in 1717. In 1723 the Rev. James Anderson was given the task of issuing a set of Constitutions, which were revised in 1738, when he introduced the idea that women were prohibited from becoming masons
For a more balanced view of women and freemasonry, take a look at Ed King’s page