The women of the Lodge

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The Independent Online

There are 6,000 female Freemasons in the UK and Commonwealth and their centenary celebrations recently filled the Albert Hall. The current grandmaster supports a policy of non-secrecy, hence this rare interview with Dr Iris Oktabsova and her daughter Zuzanka.

"It's not about worldly power," says Oktabsova, past grand master of Lodge Equity 16. "It's about spirituality and personal growth." Oktabsova, 86, joined when she was 21 years old, after attending a "spectacular" meeting at the Grand Lodge in London's Notting Hill. "A lot of masons at that Lodge were Equity members, so it was quite a theatrical performance." What, with hymn-singing and dancing? "That sort of thing."

If Oktabsova is vague, it is "because otherwise there would be nothing for new members to discover". "There would be no journey," agrees Zuzanka, accountant by day, assistant grand master after hours.

As for secret handshakes: "We have several," says Oktabsova. "And we have fun too," adds Zuzanka. "I shouldn't say it but some of our meetings can be hysterically funny. When you're trying to be very serious and solemn you can get the giggles."

Pioneering female Masons of the early 20th century were suffragists and women's rights campaigners. Is there still a feminist angle? "No. I am definitely not liberated," winks Zuzanka.

"Yes," agrees Oktabsova looking skywards, "it goes beyond gender."