Thursday 22 February 2018

Free Masons , Wizards , sex discrimination, a personal view

On February 8th 2018, the United Grand Lodge of England, the governing body of Freemasons in England and Wales placed an advertisement in the quality press to explain how nice they are and how they are the victims of discrimination. The advertisement is in the form of a letter from their Chief Executive, Dr David Staples.

Advertisement as appeared in Telegraph,Times and Guardian

Please note that in this letter the term "individuals" refers only to men.

My experience of Freemasonry is limited.

As a child my introduction to Freemasonry was by reading Tolstoy's"War and Peace" where Pierre is inspired by the organisation and gains confidence and religious faith through his membership. At university I discovered the organisation really existed and had survived the Napoleonic Wars.

At my London Medical School I was impressed by the efforts made by some of my male friends to get into the best lodge for their careers. There were apparently 2 London Lodges which specialised in promoting the careers of surgeons, where membership guaranteed the excellent patronage needed to make it to top. These grand institutions seemed less than welcoming to some of my fellow male surgical trainee doctors, as membership was definitely only by invitation. They were shattered by the experience of failure but still went on to reasonable careers. To me, as Freemasons were obviously some sort of men only unit, it was just one more possible barrier to hinder my own career progression by its clear discrimination against women and promotion of its own members.

Many doctors were and are Freemasons. As a junior surgeon in a south wales hospital in the early 80's one of my tasks was to check all of the new referral letters for my boss and grade them under one of 3 headings: Urgent, Soon, or Routine. I knew my Consultant, a gentleman of Asian Extraction, was an official of a local Lodge. It was no secret and he did find it a useful organisation to facilitate his own career and enhance his social status. He was very proud of the charitable good works.

One day the office secretary handed me the usual pile of referral letters and I started opening them and assessing their contents. One was clearly a rather personal recommendation from a fellow mason from a different lodge, asking for prompt assessment of a young man closely related to a masonic official. The prospective patient had an orthopaedic problem following an injury. The problem was not one likely to need priority treatment and I was tempted to file it under " routine" but decided to find a new envelope, re seal the letter in it, and leave it for my boss to deal with. The letter also interestingly revealed that there was apparently at least one wizard in South Wales at the time.

My personal experience of Freemasonry as a young woman, therefore. was of a remote and  exclusive organisation which was only open to men, and certainly not all men who wanted to join could. It did have a  somewhat sinister and secretive reputation but the handful of  self declared Freemasons I actually worked with were pretty representative of successful, upper middle class men  and I cannot say they were, in my experience, any better or worse men than others of their class. As a female trainee surgeon, the struggle to just find jobs, pass exams and stay in the speciality was enough of a challenge to consume most of my energies.

Later, as a mature lady County Councillor, a senior local government officer complained to me that a recently appointed Director of Social Services had only got his position due to his masonic superiority, not his ability. I have no idea of the truth of the matter, but learned once more that it is not only women who may feel excluded and disadvantaged by Freemasonry.

In the present, the Freemasons look outdated. The western word has progressed.

It surely cannot be acceptable for the members of a male only exclusive clubs to apparently actively assist each other, seeking to wield power and influence within our society. It is said of Freemasons that no-one joins just for the handshakes. For many it may be just a social club but the reputation has become a cause of concern.

Politics, the civil service, police and many other professions and trades have been associated with free masons. Some declare their membership under their professional interests. It is not strictly a secret society, but it is secretive. and this leads to suspicion.

Formal associations like this, who invite selected people to join, and exclude others are always going to invite criticism in a theoretically open and democratic society, offering equality to all.

When the Freemason were formed, states were generally controlled by Monarchy and Religious elites. There was no equality of opportunity for either sex and women were regarded as not worthy of equal rights, in any case. The Freemasons may have been related to the old guild system but prior to their emergence in Northern Europe in the 1700's the history seems speculative and has an air of mythology about it.

The fictional Pierre in War and Peace, wealthy but rejected by the elite nobility due to his lower station of birth, could well have benefited from Freemasonry and secrecy may have been required back in the day to hide an organisation which sought to promote wealthy bourgeois interests,

The big question is should organisations like the Freemasons exist in this modern world ? We know that no society has yet achieved  equality of opportunity for all but most have made massive strides towards this goal.

Any organisation that excludes women and does not even have free entry for men  is surely past its sell by date?  I would expect that this one slowly diminishes and fades into history.

 .  Siân Caiach 

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