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The Differences between Co-Masonry and The Eastern Star

By Bro. Karen Kidd 3o

Co-Freemasons, startlingly often, are asked what is the difference between them and the Order of Eastern Star. I suspect OES members also hear this question, equally more often than they'd care to. The initial response always seems to be surprise, even a little dismay; too often followed by a cross declaration that there is every difference in the world. That the two bodies have nothing in common.

Don't be so sure.

As God - and the devil - is in the details, the differences between the Order of Eastern Star and Co-Freemasonry often are detailed in their similarities.

An illustration of this is the dilemma of Alma L. Bayer, Worthy Grand Matron of the Pennsylvania Order of Eastern Star, and her Sisters, during the summer of 1921. It was then that their "Brothers" in the Masonic Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania threatened to suppress the OES in that state. In his June 1, 1921 edict, the Grand Master of Pennsylvania Freemasons John S Sell ordered all Freemasons in the state "to sever all relation" with the OES on pain of expulsion. 1

As a chapter of the OES cannot confer degrees - or even meet - without at least one Master Mason present2, things looked very grim for the OES in Pennsylvania. In the national headline-stealing kerfuffle that followed3, national OES officers recommended the Pennsylvania Grand Chapter go under and reconstitute as a body that barred men from joining. Bayer and her fellow Grand Chapter officers refused that advice4. Instead, in her circular letter to the more than 63,000 OES members in that state, she admitted "we are confronted with dissolution" but recommended prayerful meditation "and hope that sometime there will be a rift in the cloud which is now hovering over our beloved order and that our radiant 'Star' will again shine forth in all its splendor."5

It's an interesting episode in OES history and there's certainly a good deal more to it. In terms of how the OES is similar to Co-Freemasonry, it points up what probably is the most glaring similarity of all: relations with Male-Only Freemasons have not always been cordial and fraternal. There have been times Male-Only Masons have used their influence, even with elected officials, to make trouble for Co-Masons. Members of the OES can point to similar situations. However, these situations are not constant but are sporadic and tend to fairly quickly resolve themselves. Otherwise, all is an uneasy calm.

There are other similarities between the OES and Co-Freemasonry. Both are initiatic, Ritual-based traditions that allow men and women to join. Both have their own histories, ideals and customs. Both have their so-called "secrets" and their own ways of keeping them. There are other similarities as well but it's important to point out that these similarities do not make the OES the same as Co-Freemasonry any more than it makes Co-Freemasonry the same as the OES. These bodies are far from interchangeable.

It is in one similarity that we start to swerve into the realm of difference. Co-Freemasonic Orders certainly are independent. The laws, declarations, and edicts of one Co-Masonic body, or any Masonic body for that matter, have no bearing what-so-ever on any other such body. It is a paradox in Freemasonry that many Male-Only bodies consider those that accept women to be "irregular" but that consideration has no power to make it a fact. The independence of Co-Freemasonry means every Co-Mason is as "regular" in his/her Order as any other Freemason is in his/her Order.

On paper, the OES also is independent of all Masonic bodies. The laws, declarations and edicts of any Freemasonic body, officially, can have no bearing on the OES. However, this has not been the practice. One of the more glaring examples of the OES' lack of independence was in 2009 in Georgia.6

That year, officers of Georgia's Grand Lodge of Freemasons pressured that state's OES to expel its Co-Masonic members. If they did not, the OES was warned, they would not be allowed to meet in premises owned by Freemasons in that state. Meeting premises seems to have been the Georgia OES' mess of pottage. Rather than tough it out as their Pennsylvania Sisters did in 1921, officers of the Georgia OES chose to ferret out and expel those members found to be Co-Masons, including one sister who had been a member of the OES for 25 years.

The OES may be Independent on paper but, as this episode illustrates, they are not independent in fact. There are other points of difference that widen the distance between the OES and Co-Freemasonry.

Though Co-Freemasonic bodies, for the most part, traditionally do not release their numbers, Co-Freemasonry cannot approach the OES in terms of sheer numbers. The best estimates available limit the number of Co-Freemasons worldwide to a few hundred thousand. Meanwhile, the General Grand Chapter of the OES easily can live up to its boast of being "one of the largest fraternal organizations that both men and women can belong," numbering half a million members7.

However, the most glaring difference between the OES and Co-Freemasonry is the simplest. Co-Freemasonry is Freemasonry and the OES is not.

Though some ill-informed Male-Only Masons refer to the OES as "Masonry for Women", the OES has never claimed to be Freemasonry. During the 1921 difficulties in Pennsylvania, the Grand Lodge of Freemasons were reminded by the Worthy Grand Matron that the OES maintains its "claim to be no part of Masonry - that wonderful organization."8 At two points in its own Ritual, a new member is informed that the OES is not Freemasonry. Certainly its male members must be Freemasons and its female members must be closely related to Freemasons but that's as far as it goes. The OES' claim to legitimacy is not based in any way on being Freemasonic.

It doesn't have to be. The OES doesn't need to be Freemasonry anymore than Co-Freemasonry is compelled to emulate the OES. It seems a difficult thing for many nonMasons to grasp but that is very much the truth. It is the only point of difference between the OES and Co-Freemasonry that makes any difference at all. It is a big deal only if it is made to be. For the Pennsylvania OES in 1921, things remained uncomfortable for a few years but, gradually, people forgot there was any such edict against them. Little by little, things returned to normal. The edict itself didn't float off the Masonic books in Pennsylvania until June of 1991; and when it did, it did so with nary a ripple9. The difficulties of the Pennsylvania OES in 1921 are now largely forgotten.

That is how it is in the best of fraternal organizations. Huge kerfuffles aggrandized out of small differences usually just fade away. There is something very Masonic about that.


[1] See "Abstract of the Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania" issues by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania (King & Baird, Printers, 1922) page 184.

[2] At the very least, seated or acting as Worthy Patron.

[3] And yes, it would make a great paper but this isn't that paper. If I knew of an existing paper on this topic, I would cite it.

[4[ See page 2 of the Mckean Democrat published in Smethport, Pennsylvania June 23, 1921

[5] See the October 1921 edition of "The American Tyler Keystone".

[6] My information for what follows comes with email and in-person conversations with those at the center of this largely hushed up controversy.

[7] For more information, see the General Grand Chapter of the OES here: http://www.easternstar.org/

[8] See the aforementioned edition of "The American Tyler Keystone".

[9] For this much resolution, see a note inserted into the online version of paper "Characteristics Peculiar To Pennsylvania Freemasonry" originally presented by Pennsylvania Grand Lodge Past Grand Master William E. Yeager during Masonic Week in Washington DC in February 1971. That online version may be viewed here: http://skirret.com/papers/pennsylvania_freemasonry.html

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