French Masonry is a little bit different from what we have here in the states, and even what there is in the UK. This was especially true in the middle of the 18th century. During this time, Freemasonry was beginning to spread throughout the country, from England. While France did follow all of the rules placed by the Grand Lodge of All England, the precursor to UGLE, there was one that they did feel needed a bit of bending. In England, women were not allowed to become Masons, nor were they allowed to attend the banquets or religious services put on by them. France felt that this was a little unnecessary, and they allowed women to attend these events.
As the number of women attending the events grew, so did their want for an organization of their own. There was a separate lodge created, called the Lodge of Adoption. The idea was quite simple, the women would have their own sets of degrees, and were held to similar standards as the regular Masons. However, a Lodge of Adoption could not exist without a supporting, and perhaps governing, regular, masculine Lodge of Masons. Soon after their inception, the Lodges of Adoption came under the jurisdiction of the Grand Orient de France (France’s version of UGLE), who decided that they were consitutional, then unconstitutional, then consitutional, then eventually, they made up their minds and decided that they were unconstitutional. The Lodges of Adoption eventually formed their own jurisdiction, Grand Loge feminine de France. The creation of the Lodges of Adoption were the beginning of what we call co-Masonry today.
Shortly after the Lodge of Adoption had been established, although, the exact date is not known, a Lodge in Paris known as The Lodge of Freres-Artistes, or The Lodge of Artist Brothers, was preparing to open to give a Fete of Adoption, the ritual that opened the Lodge of Adoption, and initiated new women into the Lodge of Adoption that was associated with their Lodge. Before they had opened to receive the women, however, they opened a regular Lodge in the first degree to take care of some other business. As you may or may not know, during the opening of a Lodge, a call is put out for any visitors. Indeed, this Lodge did have a visitor, a young man in a Calgary captain’s uniform. The asked for his certificate, his way of them knowing that he was who he said he was, and he handed it over with little hesitation. It was folded when he handed it to the Senior Deacon, and remained folded until it was passed to the Orator of the Lodge. When the Orator opened it, and read it aloud to the Lodge, they became very excited, and declared that the Captain should be conferred the first degree at once. More on why in a moment.
Remember, that this was the end of the 18th century in France. The French Revolution was still going on, or may have just been winding down. A young General, named Charles Antoine Dominique Xaintrailles commanded a body of the Army of the Rhone and Moselle, one of the Armies of the Republic, who fought against the revolutionaries. This was a tough time for the people of France, and often women would often masquerade as men so as to avoid being the victims of sexual violence. General Xaintrailles had a mistress whom he wanted to protect from this, and so, he made her his aide-de-camp. Kind of like a second in command, and aide-de-camp is an officer, whose job is to monitor a senior officer and help enforce his orders. apparently Madame de Xaintrailles was no dainty flower, as she rose to the rank of captain “at the point of the sword.”*
You see where this is going right? That young captain waiting in the anteroom of the lodge was Madame de Xaintrailles, and the certificate she had handed to the Senior Deacon was the one showing her commission as an aide-de-camp. Apparently, once the certificate was read aloud, the members of the lodge were astonished, and quickly grew very excited. They decided, both unanimously and spontaneously, that she should receive the First degree. Not the first degree of the Lodge of Adoption that they were about to open mind you, but the First degree of speculative, regular, Masonry to Madame de Xaintrailles. They felt that she had “so many times…displayed all the virtues of a man and had deserved to be charged with important missions which required as much courage as discretion and prudence.”*
After being told the decision of the Lodge, she was asked if she would accept. She simply replied,
“I am a man for my country, I will be a man for my Brethren.”
And so, the initiation took place, and Madame de Xaintrailles became a very active member of her Lodge.
How, you may ask, did they ever let this happen? The Reverend, Past Grand Chaplain of England, commented that he failed “to see how the French Brethren were to blame, or how they could have done otherwise under the circumstances. We who know the heroism of English womanhood—not to speak of other peoples—in the adjourned war of the world cannot help speculating humourously what might have been done by himself under similar circumstances, had his gracious presence filled the Chair in the East during any of these recent years.”
Just so you know what’s going on down here, I’ve been asked a few times where I get this information from. I am going to do my best to cite work where I can, so that if you would like to read more on the topic, you can. Let me know if there are any questions.
*The Builder Magazine, February 1921, Vol 7, No. 2
Woman and Freemasonry Dudley Wright
A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry A.E. Waite