The Brotherhood of Freemason Sisters:
Gender, Secrecy, And Fraternity in Italian Masonic Lodges
Chicago: University of Chicago, 2014, 249 pp.
Reviewed by Frances Julia Riemer
The Freemasons are a famously mysterious organization. Tracing its origins to medieval stonemasons, its esoteric symbols and long list of notable members have made the organization the object of both much interest and scorn. Conducting an ethnography of an elite secret society is a daunting proposition, and in her book, The Brotherhood of Freemason Sisters: Gender, Secrecy, and Fraternity in Italian Masonic Lodges, Lilith Mahmud shows us she is clearly up to the challenge. Mahmud takes the reader on late night rendezvous in hidden lodges and temples in undisclosed locations, and introduces us to members hiding in “plain sight.” All the while, she provides a methodological map and theoretical frames for a feminist ethnography that uses gender as an analytic to examine the reproduction of privilege in what she calls a “society of discretion.”
Taking seriously the Freemasonry’s universalizing claims of acceptance and inclusivity and guiding principles of liberty, fraternity, and equality, Mahmud interrogates what those values mean from the standpoint of women Freemasons. She argues that in the 21st century, Freemason lodges are “central sites for the reproduction of beliefs about gender, citizenship, and humanity that have become hegemonic in liberal countries in the global North.” She focuses specifically on four Masonic groups in Italy–the men-only Grande Oriente d’Italia-Palazzo Giustiniani (GOI), the Ordine della Stella d”Oriente (ES), an auxillary group open to women relatives of the GOI, the mixed-gender Grand Lodge of Italy (GLDI), and the Gran Loggia Massonica Femminile d’Italia (GLMFI), the only women-only Masonic organization in Italy–to narrate stories of initiation, fraternity, male privilege, high culture, and national conspiracies. Her choice of the fraternal lodges afforded Mahmud a still all too rare opportunity to produce an ethnography of elite. For her, elite is not as “a static position” but “a collective identity category” performed and reproduced around class demarcations. Equally important to note, by studying gender in the predominantly white, male, upper class Freemason lodges, Mahmud is able to observe gendered performance and reproduction dressed in the liberal political philosophies that define Freemasonary and Western thought writ large.
Mahmud’s feminist ethnography was guided by the questions:
What is it that still makes the words women Freemasons sound inherently oxymoronic to most, even at a time when women have arguably entered all kinds of masculine spaces, albeit with great difficulty and amid ongoing sexisms? Why is the subject position of a woman Freemason beyond recognition? (15)
Mahmud collects data through interviews and participant observation at galas, coffee shops, theaters, and private homes. In her telling, the process of data collection becomes both transparent, which is an enormous resource to other researchers, and absolutely fascinating. Mahmud is an unusually entertaining academic author who brings us along with her through the streets of Florence. A scholarly Dan Brown, she points out hidden ciphers of Masonic history in the city’s mid 19th Century architecture. Evocative and intriguing, her narrative takes us on the journey of seemingly public spaces, made sacred by Freemasonary’s coded signs and symbols. Mahmud invites us, the profane, to travel with her on a path on which one is reborn into the new “ontological category” of Freemason.
For Freemason sisters, that path is complicated. By looking across these four lodges, Mahmud gives us an analysis of women Freemasons, who, she tells us, embodied an “oxymoronic subjectivity.” She argues convincingly that the historical exclusion of women from Freemasonry, combined with their own embracing of Enlightenment ideals and their rejection of Italian feminism, makes their participation in the brotherhood a paradox. By drawing on the work of postcolonial, critical, and feminist theorists for her analytic lenses, Mahmud frames the narratives of Freemason sisterhood as negotiations of representation and legitimacy. She organizes her findings around everyday practices of discretion, initiations as ritual and social pathways, brotherly love and gender politics, intellectual pursuit and women’s marginalization, and women’s transparency in discourses of political terrorism.
The Brotherhood of Freemason Sisters: Gender, Secrecy, and Fraternity in Italian Masonic Lodges is getting accolades, and I can see why. In Mahmud’s careful hands, this study of gendered elite becomes one of subtleties and contradictions. While she traces how fraternity as an “intentional project” reifies power differentials in practice, she never lets go of the belief that fraternity is in itself the “heart of humanism.” Freemason lodges may very well be gendered, racialized, and class-based organizations, but Mahmud reminds us that the pursuit of fraternity is nonetheless a “profound source of meaning and purpose” for us all.
Dr. Frances Julia Riemer is an educational anthropologist who has conducted ethnographic research in the US, Africa, and Latin America. She is currently working on Sticky Points of Contact: Baskets, Safaris, and other Global Connectors, based on ethnographic data collected in the southern African country of Botswana. Dr. Riemer is the author of Working at the Margins: Moving off Welfare in America, and co-editor of Qualitative Research: An Introduction to Methods and Designs. She is currently a professor in Educational Foundations and Associate Faculty in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ.