Most of the fraternal secret societies that flourished in Europe, America, and Australasia during the nineteenth century limited their membership to adult men. This echoed social prejudices of the time that consigned women to home and church, while defining the wider social world as a male preserve. The emergence of feminism as an active social force in the English-speaking world around the middle of the nineteenth century challenged this state of affairs and forced fraternal orders to find a place for women. A few, such as the Patrons of Husbandry, took the radical step of admitting men and women to the same lodges on an equal basis, but most compromised by creating a ladies auxiliary: a lodge for women connected to the sponsoring order by birth or marriage, with its own initiation ritual and its own passwords, signs, and grip.
Ladies auxiliaries of the nineteenth century drew some of their inspiration from the French rites of Adoptive Masonry, but America was the principal seedbed of fraternal ladies auxiliaries; the decade following the seminal 1848 conference at Seneca Falls, New York, the birthplace of American feminism, saw the first wave of auxiliaries founded. The Order of the Eastern Star, the first Masonic ladies auxiliary in America, and the Daughters of Rebekah (later simply called Rebekahs), the ladies auxiliary of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, both appeared in 1852. By the 1880s, when dozens of new fraternal orders appeared each year, most came into existence with ladies auxiliaries already attached.
Relations between auxiliaries and their sponsoring orders were not always cordial. The Knights of Pythias, the third largest American fraternal order, and the Pythian Sisters, their ladies auxiliary, had a stormy relationship that featured attempts by the Knights’ Supreme Lodge to abolish the Sisters entirely. Two other lodges, the Modern Woodmen of America and the Woodmen of the World, found themselves out-competed by their own auxiliaries, and ended up severing the connection and sending the former auxiliaries into the world as independent fraternal benefit orders – the Degree of Honor and the Royal Neighbors of America respectively.
Even when relationships between the sponsoring order and the ladies auxiliary remained amicable, gender issues brought in complexities of their own. Brothers of the sponsoring order were also allowed to join most auxiliaries, and in the early days, ladies auxiliaries were often organized and managed by the brethren, but well before the end of the nineteenth century most ladies auxiliaries had taken control of their own affairs. In the twentieth century most auxiliaries outside Freemasonry discarded the requirement that members have some relationship to the sponsoring fraternal order; the Rebekahs led the way in this change, starting to admit women with no Odd Fellow connection in 1921.
Ladies auxiliaries remained an important part of social life in America and a few other countries well into the twentieth century, and the decline in membership that hit all fraternal orders in the last decades of the century often took longer to affect the ladies auxiliaries than the fraternal lodges that sponsored them. In many areas, lodges of the Eastern Star, the Rebekahs, the Pythian Sisters, and other auxiliaries remained large and active long after the equivalent male lodges had dwindled or disbanded. Still, the membership of most ladies auxiliaries at the century’s end averaged well past retirement age, and attitudes reflected the social customs of an earlier time – two serious barriers to effective recruitment of younger women. The first years of the twenty-first century have accordingly seen most ladies auxiliaries suffer drastic losses in membership, in some cases even more dramatic than those of fraternal orders. It remains to be seen if these societies of the nineteenth century can reinvent themselves in a way that will permit them to survive into the twenty-first.
- Fraternal Orders
- Patrons of Husbandry (Grange)
- Adoptive Masonry
- Odd Fellowship
- Order of the Eastern Star
- Fraternal Benefit Societies
- Knights of Pythias
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006