I knew about the book Women’s Agency and Rituals in Mixed and Female Masonic Orders (2008) edited by Alexandra Heidle and Jan Snoek. It is a publication of the Dutch academic publisher Brill though and these are always very expensive. This book costs € 181,- and second hand it is still very expensive. It looks like it that people somehow connected to a university can get an affordable (€ 25,-) printing-on-demand version from the publisher (via Brill.com/mybook). Hopefully these will find their way to the second-hand market some time soon.
I found a way to read the book after all though. It contains essays of a variety of authors and some of these essays are very interesting. I plan to give summaries of a few of these essays and today I will start with the opening text (after the introduction by Jan Snoek) The relationships of androgynous secret orders with freemasonry. Documents on the Ordre des Hermites de Bonne Humeur in Sachsen-Gotha (1739-1758) by Bärbel Raschke. The name of the order means ‘order of the hermits of good humour’. Raschke refers to “happy hermits”.
Both Snoek’s introduction to the book and Raschke’s to his own essay speak of early female involvement. Before and not long after the foundation of the Grand Lodge of London in 1717 several initiatives developed that included women. The author names a few. The Ordre des Egyptiens of Mlle de Pré (1635), the Ordre des Allumettes of Mlle d’Andelot (1642), the Ordre de l’Amaranthe of Christine of Sweden (1651), the Ordre de Sophipolis of the Brandenburg electorat Princess Sophie Charlotte (1700), the Ordre de la Mouche à Miel of the Duchess de Bourbon (1703), the Societé des Chevaliers et Chevalières de la Bonne-Foi of Mrs de Saliez (1704).
These were most social / ‘salon’ clubs, but when you know that even a woman in a discussion club was extremely progressive, you can imagine was that a woman founding or even leading such a group, was even more so.
According to some authors, Freemasonry was also one of such clubs for the high society. In spite of questions in the early days, the authors of the Constitutions of 1723 were clear: no woman can be allowed to join the organisation. Different solutions to this problem were thought of.
The “Order of the Hermits in Gotha” “existed for an unusually long time, from 1739 to 1758.” (p. 23) Detailed records are available making this a unique case.
What you see more often in similar cases is that the women behind the Hermits were well acquainted with Freemasonry. The husband and/or other men they knew were members and apparently not shy to discuss it with non-members. Princess Louise Dorothea of Sachsen-Gotha knew plenty of these early, German Masons and she had a remarkably rich Masonic library. She must have been well aware of ‘the female question’.
So in 1739 the princess founded her own order and fashioned it after the Masonic order. The order was lead by Louise and her husband, Friedrich III. There were officers not unlike those in Masonic lodges which were filled by rotation. The regulations stated that all members were equal and Louise saw to it that there equal numbers of men and women member.
Initiation was done by a ritual which contained a catechism, isolation and travels. The rituals were not too long and the ‘after sessions’ contained tea, coffee, games and discussions (the princess was an avid reader of philosophy). There were also table lodges with toasts and singing.
Of course the article of B. Raschke is much more detailed, but here we have but one example of the many initiatives that were started around the rise of Freemasonry, in this case obviously as a reaction to it.