Did you know that there has been five women inducted into masonry*? While not well known, and seemingly never talked about, all five of these women became Freemasons before the existence of co-masonic lodges. Interestingly, though, perhaps not surprisingly, there is no record of women becoming regular masons since co-masonic lodges were invented. I would like to speak about each of them in their own due time, so, it makes sense to start with the first recorded woman to join a regular masonic lodge, the Honorable Elizabeth Aldworth.
In or around 1711 (Some accounts say as early as 1710, some as late as 1712), Arthur St. Leger, 1st Viscount Doneraile, was holding lodge in his home, to confer degrees, as well as take care of other masonic business. His home was undergoing some renovations, I believe they were repairing some of the walls. Wanting his home to be presentable for his brethren, the bricks for the walls were stacked up hastily, particularly in the wall that adjoined the lodge room to the house’s library; we’ve all been there, you have company coming over, and you want your place to look nice, you do something to make it look nice, and hope that no one accidentally bumps into it and realizes its not as nice as they believed.
Before the lodge meeting had begun, Arthur’s daughter, Elizabeth, was reading in the library. Eventually, she dozed off; while she slept, the lodge meeting begun in the room next door. Elizabeth was awoken by voices at one point, and, realizing it was not just her father having friends over for drinks, decided that she wanted to know more about what was going on in the next room. So, she did what any curious young woman would do- she put her ear up to the wall, hoping to hear more. When that failed (bricks are not easy to hear through), she realized that the bricks in the wall were loose, and decided to remove one of them in hopes of spying on the men next door.
She was silent, captivated by the degree work going on for some time, supposedly observing the majority of the ceremony. It was only after the candidate received his obligation that she realized the weight of what she had just witnessed, not only for the candidate, but also for himself.
Elizabeth realized at this point that she should probably leave the library. Unfortunately, there was only one exit from the library, which was into a hallway that shared the only exit to the lodge room. Knowing that she would not be able to hide in the library forever, and believing in her abilities as an 18th century ninja, she decided to go for it. As soon as she opened the door to the library, she bumped into her father’s butler, who was serving as Tyler, sword and all, causing her to scream and faint. The Tyler altered the men to her presence, and after she was revived, with a little questioning the masons discovered that Elizabeth had witnessed almost the entire degree. After much debate, the men decided that the best solution to this, was to induct Elizabeth into masonry, herself receiving the degree that she had just witnessed.
She was initiated that evening, with the lodge being presided over by her father, as well as her brother, and future husband. She was probably around 17 at the time. Elizabeth did not take the role of mason lightly. She had a full masonic costume, as well as her own apron and jewels. She also wore a small trowel on her left shoulder, often. She was known for her charity. More than that, however, is difficult to be known. It is said that she sat as Master of her lodge, but this cannot be confirmed. Early in her masonic career, she admitted to only having received the F.C. degree, however, she may have received the information of the master mason degree at the same time. There is more issue with exactly which lodge she was a member of. On her tombstone, and on many accounts, she is notated as being a member of lodge no. 44, however, this lodge was not charted until 1735, which does not match up with the rest of the accounts. There have been a number of attempts to ascertain which lodge she was a member of, but they have all been in vain. It very well may have been a private lodge, or perhaps the numbers were just mistaken throughout the years. What we do know for sure, is that she did exist, and she was in fact, the (first) lady Freemason.
Elizabeth passed in 1775, her story, however, story is incredibly well documented. This is a pamphlet that was made of her biography after her death it was printed in 1860, and was actually a reprint of the original, which was published in 1811. Both her apron, as well as her jewel currently reside in the Provincial Grand Lodge of Munster.
Four other women have been initiated into regular masonry- all more or less by the same method- hide somewhere you shouldn’t, view the degree work, get caught, and have the men decide they have “no other choice” but to make you a mason. I am curious then, when exactly the bit in the obligation came about, where it states that a mason will not knowingly make a woman a mason- I found that obligations started around 1735, well after our dear Elizabeth became a mason, but who knows what it included at that time. There were women that were made masons after the inclusions of the obligation, so the bit about not making a woman a mason may not of come around under later. I would not, however, recommend this to any woman that wishes to become a mason- I cannot imagine they will go this route these days!
*It is worth noting, that this incident occurred before the unification of the Ancient and the Modern masons, so the use of the word regular here is not truly appropriate, this is not the case however, for the later women iniated into masonry.