Improved Order of Red Men Poster


Fraternal history shows that in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, exclusionary practices provoked multiplicities of the Masonic paradigm.


The Parameters of Brotherhood: Gender, Race and Ethnicity in Fraternal Orders

The tension that I discussed in the previous chapter between brotherhood and selectivity forms the axis of this chapter. Like any social structure, fraternalism offered a particular construct through which its members acted and were acted upon. Fraternalism’s “significance resides not only in the social networks it created, reinforced, or displayed, but in the meanings it articulated, the cultural context it provided for social action.” [1] To understand this cultural context, one must observe the social categories that fraternalism validated and those it denied in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity. In the culturally dynamic era of the late 19th century, the aporia between egalitarianism and selectivity was forced to its crisis and resulted, ultimately, in the exponential proliferation of variations on the fraternal model. 

            The Masonic principle of universality, “defined as the association of good men without regard to religion, nationality, or class,” [2] was incongruous with the fact that Masonry was “predominantly a white, native, Protestant, middle-class organization.” The outright exclusion of women however was espoused as being officially intrinsic to the Masonic experience: it was an experience by men, about men, and for men. The need for an entirely masculine asylum may have been a reaction to Victorian notions of relationships between the sexes. At the time, men and women occupied distinct and separate spheres. As production moved from the household to factories, middle-class women “no longer had a direct role in producing goods.” [3]   Men, therefore, were the obtainers of wealth “and created the economic and political institutions on which civilization depended, while women raised children and cultivated moral and religious values, so that civilization would retain a modicum of civility.” [4]   This gender-oriented bifurcation between home and workplace not only allowed the home, a place of leisure and nurture, to be dominated by women, but also landed women in the role of “moral custodian” [5] for society.                      

            The feminine monopoly on morality was strengthened by transformations in liberal Protestant theology, which began to understate the masculine power of a wrathful God in favor of a more sensual, nurturing one. This feminization of religious experience implied that “a good woman, though unschooled in theology, could better discern the will of a loving God than could a hard-hearted doctor of divinity.” [6] As a reaction to the notion that morality could only be obtained through women, Freemasonry “claimed that men could obtain morality through participation in an all male brotherhood.” [7] The exclusion of women from lodge rooms allowed men to reclaim their spiritual development and create a hyper-masculine environment in which to do so.

Victorian Parlor
Scottish Rite Ceremonial Backdrop


            The sharply bifurcated nature of gender roles can be seen visually when comparing the feminized Victorian parlor to the masculine lodge room (see figure above). “The ritual space of the men’s lodge—rectilinear, symmetrical, mathematically ordered—was the visual antithesis of the ritual space of the ‘feminized’ parlor—profusely ornamented, naturalistic in detail, devoid of solid masses.” [8] These visual differences suggest that Masonry offered men an escape from the domestic sphere and reinforced masculine traditions that they could not experience at home.
            This masculine reaction to the “feminization of culture,” [9] however, exacerbated animosity between Masons and women who felt that the lodge posed a threat to the domestic sphere. The manner in which Masonry dealt with this animosity reveals, at first, a manipulative attempt to validate separation of the sexes, but ends ultimately in the rise of women’s auxiliary orders. Early attempts by Masons to assuage tensions between the sexes involved a form of flattery by which fraternalists praised the moral superiority of women. A nineteenth-century fraternal writer posed the justification: “You were born Masons; any initiation or ceremony would be superfluous; therefore we do not insult you by any such propositions.” [10] Eventually, however, fraternal orders began to recognize the fact that the best way to mitigate feminine antipathy was to allow the creation of women’s auxiliaries. By instituting the Degree of Rebekah, the Odd Fellows were the first  to attempt “to lessen and ultimately destroy the prejudice felt against the Order by many of the fairer sex” [11] through devising a ritual for them. The Masons followed suit by creating The Order of the Eastern Star, as did the Improved Order of Red Men with the institution of the Degree of Pocahontas.
            These rituals, however, actually worked more to separate women further from the secrets of the brotherhood than bring them into the fold. “Unbeknownst to female initiates, the differences between the ladies’ degrees and the rituals of the male orders were profound.” [12] For one, ladies initiation into these degrees was contingent upon the presence of their husband and his status in the order. Secondly, meetings of these women’s auxiliaries were always presided over by a male official from the Masonic or Oddfellow’s lodge. This control afforded the opportunity for men to inculcate notions of womanhood that would isolate women from experience of the true order. Women initiated into the Degree of Rebekah “were instructed to perpetuate the legacy of self-effacing Biblical heroines” [13] and concern themselves with assuaging the suffering of the world. Lacking the intense drama of the masculine ritual, “female ceremonies, usually written by men, consisted of dull recitations of biblical parables.” In essence, the institution of women’s auxiliaries was way for fraternal orders to put women in their place while simultaneously duping them into feeling accepted.

            With the proliferation of quasi-Masonic fraternal orders toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, women’s auxiliaries had begun to exert more autonomy. One remarkable example was the Ladies of the Maccabees, auxiliary of the Knights of the Maccabees, which, though originally similar to the Order of the Eastern Star and the Rebekahs, managed to develop its own identity. Before breaking with the Knights of the Maccabees entirely, the LOTM established a rule forbidding male members. [14] Espousing gender segregation, Bina West, leader of the LOTM and ardent feminist, desired “to create opportunities for men and women to meet as independent equals.”

Bina West, Supreme Grand Commander of the Ladies of the Maccabees (1892)

Though the formation of women’s auxiliaries challenged the stringent exclusion of women as formulated by Masonic ritual, their triumph over “the inviolability of male social institutions” [15] acted primarily to reinforce gender boundaries by espousing a separate but equal doctrine. With the increasing incorporation of more and more fraternal orders, however, the idea of mixed-sex membership would eventually come to fruition, especially in cases of fraternal orders that had a more distinct social agenda. The Grangers, for instance, developed a more family-oriented society that prefigured a “couple-oriented sociability that was to emerge in full force in the 1920s.” Though most fraternal orders would remain single-sex, the existence of exceptions to the rule underscores the increased heterogeneity that characterized later transformations of the Masonic paradigm.

            The manner in which Masons and fraternal orders in general handled controversy concerning the exclusion of women paralleled their treatment of that concerning the exclusion of non-whites. The idea that “racial exclusion was a hallmark of mainstream American fraternalism throughout its history” [16] is supported by official policies dictating that members must be white. In this respect, the aporia caused by incongruities between the rhetoric of universal brotherhood and its actual implementation is fiercely illuminated.
            Most black fraternal orders closely paralleled white orders in terms of ritual and organization. These included the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows and the Prince Hall Masons. Prince Hall Masonry was instituted in 1774 when “Prince Hall, a black artisan and fourteen other black residents of Boston were made Master Masons by the English army lodge during the Revolutionary War.” [17] Avoiding racial overtones, The Grand Lodges of Masonry did not recognize Prince Hall Masonry as “real” Masonry and resorted to legalism to justify its claim. Lynn Dumenil makes a persuasive argument that Freemasons, by “claiming that Prince Hall Masonry had not been legally established” [18] and leaving out any mention of racial inequality, avoided calling rhetorical attention to any imperfections in the concept of universal brotherhood. [19] It is important, however, to temper Dumenil’s point with historical context and realize the powerful effect of racism as a social standard. Theoretically speaking, in a white supremacist society, an integrated fraternal brotherhood could not function. Whether they were operating on socially imprinted racist tendencies or close interpretations of Masonic doctrine, the Freemasons avoided the issue by making it a matter of legality.

            This ability to discriminate without technically undermining the principle of brotherhood manifested itself in other ways. Use of the blackball “gave a small minority within each lodge the power to reject anyone whom they might find unacceptable and provided a simple mechanism by which orders could exclude members of stigmatized groups without publicly contradicting their rhetoric of equality and universality.” [20] Often, however, the efficacy of this indirect method of insuring racial boundaries was supplemented with direct articulation of racial exclusion. In1892, the Modern Woodmen of America (see figure below) , the “only major order that did not specify the exclusion of blacks” [21] were forced by other fraternal orders to enact a “whites-only regulation” after allowing a black membership. [22] In 1891, 97.6 percent of 386 fraternal organizations in Connecticut excluded blacks,” [23] demonstrating a microcosm of the national norm.
Modern Woodmen of America (ca. 1892)

            Exclusionary practices extended to Native Americans as well, though not as consistently. Ironically, The Improved Order of Red Men, “though [their] ritual celebrated [Native American] culture and tribal structure” [24] excluded Native Americans entirely. The Knights of Pythias, however, “exempted Indians from their racial restrictions” [25] as did the Independent Order of Foresters who were led at the turn of the century by a Mohawk Chief named Oronhyateka (see figure below). The romanticism of  being led by an Indian chief induced the IOF to include native Americans, but remarkably Oronhyateka, “never challenged the IOF’s exclusion of blacks.” [26]   Though exceptions to the rule existed, fraternalism achieved its egalitarianism through exclusionary methods.

Oronhyateka, Supreme Ranger of the Independent Order of Foresters (ca. 1900)

             Contrasting this racial discrimination, is fraternalism’s early assimilation of ethnicity. Ethnic lodges were officially recognized by Masons early in the 19th century. “Conducting ritual and business in their own language, these lodges self-consciously retained their native culture, a factor that served to separate them from mainstream Masonry.” [27] Though they did not communicate often with other local lodges, these ethnic lodges answered to the state Grand Lodge and were therefore officially accepted. As a new era of immigration began in the 1880s, however, this cultural pluralism did not last. “The upsurge of organized nativism in the 1880s, coinciding with the beginnings of large-scale immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, marked the point when fraternal orders retreated from their previous acceptance of ethnic diversity.” [28]


            As was the case with racial and gender discrimination, these exclusionary reactions to immigration resulted in the formation of new orders that catered to specific ethnicities. In the harsh economic circumstances of nineteenth-century America, ethnic groups realized the stability and mutuality assured by fraternal organization. Italians, Slavs, Jews, Poles, Chinese, Japanese all formed labor and insurance-oriented fraternal societies. How much these orders drew from Masonic ritual is a scantily researched question; but it seems reasonable to assume that their purpose was more instrumental in terms of social stability than traditionally expressive in terms of ritual.
            The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal order, resulted from decades of animosity between Freemasons and the Catholic Church. “In April of 1884, Pope Leo XIII published an encyclical letter . . . denouncing Freemasonry as an abominable form of naturalistic religion,” [29] thereby forbidding any Catholic to join. Incorporating Catholic ritual, the Knights appropriated the fraternal model to provide a rite of passage into American society. In the words of a Knights biographer, “The enthusiasm engendered by the ceremonials was not merely the ritualized mumbo-jumbo of continental secret societies but, rather symbolized the heightened consciousness among Knights that as Catholics they could be religiously proud and as immigrants they could be patriotically loyal.” [30] In this respect, the Knights of Columbus represent a quintessential example of a minority group’s appropriation of the fraternal model in order to assimilate American culture.
            Fraternal history shows that in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, exclusionary practices provoked multiplicities of the Masonic paradigm. By basing themselves on fraternal ideals of unity, brotherhood, discipline, charity, thrift, and economy each of these new orders transmitted culturally “the full gamut of middle-class values.” [31] Furthermore, each excluded group derived power and stability from implementing its own principles of exclusion. [32] In the case of women, the Freemasons’ Order of the Eastern Star and the Oddfellows’ Rebekahs were intrinsically dominated by their male counterparts. A wholly autonomous female fraternal order did not come into existence until the Ladies of the Maccabbees broke from the Knights of Labor and excluded men from their society. Likewise with blacks, the Prince Hall Masons settled for a lack of official recognition and built their own multifaceted fraternal universe, growing vastly by the turn of the century. Discrimination against immigrant groups caused the fraternal paradigm to translate exponentially, allowing each group to assimilate middle class American values while celebrating their ethnic identity. Ironically, each separate faction enjoyed the benefits of an egalitarian system made possible by excluding those who would undermine its operation. The Masonic paradigm essentially provided a moral framework that could be translated into specific social and cultural manifestations over time, causing a multiplicity of ethnically and racially homogenous brotherhoods.  

[1] Mary Ann Clawson, Constructing Brotherhood: Class, Gender, and Fraternalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) 11.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Mark C. Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) 77.

[4] Ibid., 77.

[5] Clawson, 185.

[6] Carnes, 78.

[7] Clawson, 185.

[8] Mark C. Carnes, “Scottish Rite and the Visual Semiotics of Gender,” Theater of the Fraternity Ed. C. Lance Brockman (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996) 80.

[9] Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977) 1.

[10] Edward Ellis, Low Twelve (New York: F.R. Niglutsch, 1907) vi.

[11] Quoted in Paschal Donaldson, The Oddfellows’ Pocket Textbook, revised ed. (Philadelphia: Moss and Co., 1867).

[12] Carnes, 85.

[13] Ibid., 86.

[14] David Beito, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000) 33.

[15] Clawson, 209.

[16] Clawson, 131-2.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Lynn Dumenil, Freemasonry and American Culture 1880-1930. (Princeton: Princeton UniversityPress, 1984), 10.

[19] Ibid., 10.

[20] Clawson, 133.

[21] Ibid.,134.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Beito, 45.

[24] Ibid., 46

[25] Ibid.

[26] Beito, 48.

[27] Dumenil, 10.

[28] Clawson, 131.

[29] Christopher J. Kauffman, Faith and Fraternalism: The History of the Knights of Columbus1882-1982 (Philadelphia: Harper and Row, 1982) 38.

[30] Ibid., 71.

[31] Beito, 53.

[32] Clawson, 11.