Freemasonry membership in France included French nobles and many military men, but the largest portion of membership was the bourgeoisie who liked the idea of being members because they appreciated Freemasonry’s motto of equality. Those excluded from joining included Jews, actors, employees, workers, and servants, as well as women.
Fortunately for women, sometime in the 1730s or 1740s, the idea developed to create a mixed-sex form of Freemasonry known as Maçonnerie d’Adoption or “Masonry of Adoption” or “Rite of Adoption.” One person later wrote that the reason men allowed females to join was because the practice of Freemasonry was “a practical means of giving to their wives and daughters some share of the pleasures which they themselves enjoyed in their mystical assemblies.” Moreover, the Freemasonry assemblages included “commendable fidelity and diligence … [and were] distinguished by numerous acts of charity.”
The idea of women joining did not go over well with everyone. Initially, many Freemasons disapproved stating that they were completely unfavorable towards the “pseudo-masonic and androgynous associations.” They did not believe women should be a part of any freemasonry proceedings. Despite this position, Lodges of Adoption formed and eventually “became so numerous and so popular that a persistence in opposition would have evidently been impolite, if it did not actually threaten to be fatal to the interests and permanence of the masonic Institution.” Thus, on 10 June 1774, the Grant Orient issued an edict assuming control and protection of all the Lodges of Adoption.
To govern these Lodges of Adoption certain rules were adopted, with some of the rules shown below: •No males except regular Freemason were permitted to attend the Lodges of Adoption meetings. •Each Lodge was placed under the charge and held under the sanction of some regularly constituted Lodge of Masons, whose Master, or, in his absence, his deputy, would act as the presiding officer, assisted by a female President or Mistress. •Four degrees of rank were established for women with the first degree being apprentice (apprentie), the second craftswoman (compagnonne), the third mistress (maîtress), and the fourth perfect mistress (parfaite maîtresse). (In 1817 a fifth degree would be added.) One Freemason in the 1700s was Louis Philippe d’Orléans. At the time he was called the Duke of Chartres. The Grande Loge de France had been formed under the Grand Mastership of the Duke of Clermont, and, in 1771, his successor, was the Duke of Chartres. Under the Duke of Chartres the central body was reconstituted as the Grand Orient of France. The Duke of Chartres also appointed the Duke of Luxembourg as his substitute. However, the Duke of Chartres did not attend meetings at the Grand Lodge until 1777, although he did pay “much attention to the interests of masonry, visiting many of the Lodges, and laying the foundation-stone of a Masonic Hall at Bordeaux.” The Duke of Chartres also encouraged women to join the Lodges of Adoption. Among those women whom he encouraged to join was his sister, his wife, and his sister-in-law. In 1775, the Parisian Lodge of Saint Antoine organized a dependent Lodge of Adoption and the Duke of Chartres was established as Grand Master with his sister, Bathilde of Orléans becoming the first woman to receive the title as Grand Mistress.
In 1777, there was an Adoptive Lodge called La Candeur. Bathilde, now known as the Duchess of Bourbon, presided over it. She was assisted in her duties by the Duchess of Chartres (the Duke of Chartres’s wife), the Princesse de Lamballe (the Duke of Chartres’s sister-in-law), and Madame de Genlis (the Duke of Chartres’s lover). Because so many influential and noble women attended meetings and assumed roles, one person later remarked it appeared as if “fashion, wealth, and literature combined to give splendor and influence to this new order of female masonry.”
Because Freemasons talked about and supported equality, historians have questioned whether or not the King and Queen of France approved of Freemasonry or if they thought Freemasonry was dangerous to the monarchy. It appears the King and Queen approved of Freemasonry, at least for a time. One indication is that before the Princesse de Lamballe joined she sought out their approval, which they granted, and, in 1781, when she was appointed Grand Mistress of the Mère Lodge Écossaise d’Adoption, they did not object. Another sign of royal approval comes from a letter Marie Antoinette wrote to her sister, Marie Christine, stating: “I think that freemasonry makes much too great an impression on you; as concerns France, it is far from having the importance here which it may have in other parts of Europe, because everyone belongs to it. One hence knows everything which happens; where, then, is the danger? One would have reason to be alarmed if it were a secret political society. On the contrary … one eats much, and talks, and sings there, which makes the King say that people who sing and drink do not conspire … I am told they speak of God, they do many charities, they educate the children of poor or deceased members, and they get their daughters married: there is no harm in all that.”
Over the years, numerous Lodges of Adoption were created and many events held. One memorable event included honoring the American Ambassador Benjamin Franklin in 1778 by the Quadruple Lodge of Adoption, another lodge of the prominent Parisian Lodge des Neuf Soeurs (Lodge of the Nine Sisters, or Nine Muses). Unfortunately, with the revolution on the horizon, such events became threatened, as did the Lodge of Adoption and even Free masonry, which “itself was scarcely able to resist … [the] most violent and sanguinary of political disturbances.” However, a commencement of the return of Lodges of Adoption occurred in 1805 under the Empress Josephine and the new Empire. It did not work and, so, the French abandoned the idea of the Lodges of Adoption in the early 1800s.
References: Mackey, Albert Gallatin, and Charles Thompson McCenachan, An Encyclopedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences, 1905 Montefiore, Sir Francis Abraham, The Princesse de Lamballe, 1896 Moore, Charles Whitlock, Freemason’s Monthly Magazine, Vol. 17, 1858