Funding The Temples Of Masculinity

Women's Roles In Masonic Fairs, 1870-1930

Photos: Courtesy of The Livingston Masonic Library

William D. Moore, Director
The Chancellor Robert R Livingston Masonic Library
Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons in the State of New York
71 West 23rd Street, New York, New York 10010–4171

Women in New York State not only affected the Fraternity’s functioning, but they also supported its material welfare.

Recent histories addressing American fraternalism have focused upon Freemasonry as a gender-based institution. These works have highlighted masculine agency and have understood Freemasonry as an organization which functioned in opposition to the influence of women. They have been influenced by both the nineteenth-century rhetoric of the "separate spheres" and the separatist tendencies of our contemporary discussions of gender. In this representation of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fraternalism, men banded together in a rejection of feminine domination, and, in response, women attacked these groups which excluded them.

Although Masonry in this period was by definition a male institution, it was not supported exclusively by men. The roles that women played in fairs held to raise funds for the construction of Masonic temples in New York State between 1870 and 1930 indicate that Freemasonry was not just a male device for the construction of masculinity, but a societal resource that reinforced values supported by both men and women alike.

In these years, each Masonic lodge had a set of rooms set aside for the performance of the Masonic ritual. During meetings a member of the Lodge sat by the door with a sword and ensured that only members of the Fraternity entered. Since women were not allowed to join the brotherhood, this activity guaranteed that the lodge room was an exclusively male sanctuary.

Hundreds of Masonic temples were built throughout New York state during this period. Masonic fairs were a common means of raising funds to finance these buildings. These fairs lasted anywhere from three days to three weeks, and were miniature versions of the international expositions popular during this time. At the fairs, a variety of entertainments occurred including dancing, oratory, variety acts, puppet shows, comic plays, and musical programs. Food, ranging from full meals to desserts and other sweets, was invariably available.

The primary activity at the fairs, though, was the buying and selling of goods. Booths loaded with consumer products filled the halls where the fairs were held. A view of a Masonic bazaar held in Manhattan in 1887, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, shows a hall filled with well-stocked booths (see illustration at the beginning of this article). An image from 1873 in the same newspaper (see picture below) provides us with a good portrait of a booth from another Masonic fair. Booths offered goods ranging from clothing and Masonic regalia to household appliances and furniture. Many of these tempting goods were sold outright, but others were raffle prizes.

In 1913, a Masonic newspaper published an editorial item that provided answers for the question, "What is a Bazaar?" This piece claimed that a bazaar was:

A place where a fool and his money are soon parted.

A place where you buy a night-cap for your mother-in-law and a ribboned laundry bag for your laundry man.

A place where the fair sex inveigle you to a booth and leave you penniless.

A place where your wife spends ten dollars’ worth of time and work and worry to make nine dollars.

A place where innocent men find themselves helpless.

These answers defined the fund-raising bazaar as a female realm while postulating that the Masonic fair was a forum where women did the work and worry, where men were helpless, and where the fair sex left men penniless.

A reporter for the Brooklyn Times saw the Brooklyn Masonic Guild Fair, held in Brooklyn, New York, in 1903 in a similar light. "The question on every lip," he wrote, "was: ‘Where did all the girls with strenuous ways come from?’ They seemed to know at once if a man had any surplus. If its left to them, as it will be largely, Brooklyn will have a temple second to none."

The perception of Masonic fairs as women’s realms appears to be accurate. Women did more at the fairs than simply staff booths and sell chances. They also both chaired and served on committees and produced handiwork to be sold. Women were involved in all aspects of the fairs’ operations.

The thousands of women who actively participated in these fund-raising fairs for the construction of Masonic temples are witnesses to the fact that Freemasonry was not an organization of purely masculine agency. Women not only affected the Fraternity’s functioning, but they were also actively committed to its overall existence and supported its material welfare.

We cannot help but ask why women would support an organization from which they were summarily excluded because of their gender. An easy answer would be to say the masculine hegemony prevailed in society and that women were so oppressed that they could not control their actions or beliefs, that they had grown to love the shackles of male dominance that bound them. This view, however, robs women of their agency. It does not allow the female participants of Masonic fairs responsibility for their actions.

Another answer which respects these women’s individuality may be found if we interpret Freemasonry, not as a men’s group, but as an organization with religious or moral overtones. Masonry’s stated raison d’etre was that it taught men to be craftsmen who lived by the square of rectitude, the level of equality, and the compass which circumscribed the boundaries of correct behavior.

If, in the ideology of the separate spheres, the teaching of morality and virtue were seen as women’s work, then Freemasonry as an organization crossed gender boundaries. As a male organization it taught ethics based upon Old Testament biblical patriarchs, but it also assumed the women’s role of teaching morality and providing charity.

Freemasonry’s emphasis on spiritual teachings provides the answer to why women felt comfortable working towards the construction of Masonic temples. The women at the Fairs were not building structures for the use of men, they were building structures for the use of good men. They were building temples in which their husbands, sons, and brothers would be instructed in a system of morality and would learn to value the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Since the teaching of morals was defined as women’s work in this period, the building of Masonic temples could be defined as falling within the realm of legitimate female occupations.

This article has been shortened by its author from the original version published in Heredom, Vol. 5, 1996.
William D. Moore
is Director of the Chancellor Robert R. Livingston Masonic Library of the Grand Lodge of New York, New York City, and also serves as the Treasurer of the Masonic Library and Museum Association. He has written extensively on fraternal history and culture and is currently at work on a doctoral dissertation on Masonic architecture and material culture.