There are many women in symbolic representations in Freemasonry. When the craft deals with principles and values, often we find females acting as the personification of those principles and values. I got interested in why this might be, and found some interesting things I’d like to share.
Freemasonry is old. It came to us as a slow, gradual evolution of the thoughts, ideas, beliefs, teachings, idealism of many men through many years. It tells a simple story-a story profound in its meaning, which therefore must be simple, as all great truths in the last analysis are simple.Jeremy Cross
Let’s start by listing & looking at some female representation of masonic principles and values.
The Four Cardinal Virtues
These are very old ideas. The actual virtues themselves came originally from Plato’s Republic, book IV, 426-435. Roman authors expanded on these virtues, and men such as Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century adapted them and considered them theological virtues. Long before Freemasonry became organized, these virtues were established and entrenched. The first reference I was able to find for specifically female depictions of the entire group was in the 14th century in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Justice specifically goes certainly much further back to the Roman goddess Iustitia part of the Roman Pantheon.
The Weeping Virgin
The weeping virgin is another common symbol; opinions differ on what the woman herself represents, but in several sources she is taken as an emblem of innocence, who would weep over the memory of the deceased.
Faith, Hope, and Charity
These are the next most common representations of masonic principles as women.
Setting aside the purely legendary accounts that have come down to us (see Migne, P.G. CXV, 497; Mombritius, Vitae Sanctorum, II, 204), we find that in the reign of Hadrian, a Roman matron Sophia (Wisdom), with her three youthful daughters, Pistis, Elpis, and Agape (Faith, Hope and Charity), underwent martyrdom for the Faith, and were interred on the Aurelian WayThe Saints Faith, Hope, and Charity
It isn’t really possible to survey so many different cultures and different points in time for their view on women, because the situation of women was drastically different and dependent on time and place. The motivating question here is how these different cultures thought about gender, and why the god of war would be male, while fortitude would be female. Both genders can display any virtue clearly, but in an allegorical representation – to draw something as a person you must choose a gender.
I originally set out to answer for myself: “why are these Masonic virtues represented as female?” I now suspect this question doesn’t have an answer at all, because the symbols themselves are inherited through so many generations, time periods, and cultures — all of which had different attitudes. One might go get a PhD answering the question strictly from the perspective of one time and place, and still not have the big picture.
We can though put our figure on a moment in history where the use of females as symbolic representations of virtue changed though. And it appears tied up with the so-called Cult of Domesticity is an example of changing social attitudes about the role of women in the home.
Cult of Domesticity
This term refers to a value system that developed in the 19th century in England and the United States. To understand what happened, we have to first note that during this time period, the Industrial Revolution was sweeping through society, and causing massive changes.
Prior to the industrialization of the Western world, family members worked side by side and the workplace was located mostly in and around the home. With the shift from home-based to factory production, men left the home to sell their labor for wages while women stayed home to perform unpaid domestic work.Divisions of household labor
This was one of the early foundations of the idea of “separate spheres“. In 2020 most people take for granted that there is a “work life” and a “home life”. This division between the two only really arose in the Industrial Revolution. Much of the work at the time was dirty, manual, and dangerous – and taken by men, leaving women behind.
The “cult of domesticity” then reflected changing views of women, associated with the “separate spheres” idea. What are now considered antiquated and silly sexist views (such as a woman’s place is at home) stemmed from this time period, rapid change, and economic transformation.
Pinning Down When This Changed
Schaeffer-Bossert’s article “The Representation of Women in Religious Art and Imagery” refers to a “Sattelzeit”, roughly the 1760s – 1830s, where religious and cultural attitudes were shifting.
The anthropomorphic virtues disappeared during the era when bourgeois economic ideals were replacing the older notions of sustenance and common good that were represented by Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice. (…) Both the virtues and their representation in the allegorical female figures were eliminated. The female body had come to be associated with weakness; it had become taboo to associate it with strength or other “male” attributes.The Representation of Women in Religious Art and Imagery
Indeed in cultural art, from about this time going forward — women fell out of favor as allegorical representations of virtues. These changing attitudes though were at first limited to England and the United States. It took another century or so for them to spread widely along with industrialization. As that process continued, other forces such as colonialism and expanding economic influence meant that these cultural attitudes traveled and spread.
In 2020, image searches for fortitude turn up pictures of soldiers hunkering down; searches for hope & charity return pictures of flowers growing up through cracks in the pavement, and perhaps a donation box.
Young people of 2020 may not be familiar with these symbols, and if they are may interpret them as fundamentally religious – which they are not, as they go all the way back to Plato in the days well before Christianity existed.
How about that – these principles are so ancient that Christianity, a 2000-year old religion – is the johnny come lately here.
The point is that the culture view of principles & values has changed, and that interestingly Freemasonry, with its long history – has retained and continued to remember women as personification of values. This isn’t out of any stand on a gender issue, but more as a byproduct of tradition. Freemasonry then acts as a sort of cultural memory, even when outside society may have forgotten and moved on.
- Phoenix Masonry: Father Time and the Weeping Virgin
- The Representation of Women in Religious Art and Imagery, by Stefanie Schaefer-Bossert
- Saints Faith, Hope, and Charity, from the Catholic Encyclopedia
- Women’s Roles Throughout the Course of History and Trade
- Gendered Virtue: A Study of its Meaning and Evolution in Early Modern France, Mariela Saad
- Virtue and Virtuality: Gender in the Self-Representations of Queen Elizabeth I, Janel Mueller
- The Cardinal Virtues
- Adams, Michele (2011). “Divisions of household labor”. In Ritzer, George; Ryan, J. Michael (eds.). The concise encyclopedia of sociology. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 156–57. ISBN 978-1-4051-8353-6.