CritCom | Homepage

The Brotherhood of Freemason Sisters: Gender, Secrecy, and Fraternity in Italian Masonic Lodges

0 Comments 🕔26.Feb 2015

I delved into The Brotherhood of Freemason Sisters: Gender, Secrecy, and Fraternity in Italian Masonic Lodges by Lilith Mahmud with great anticipation. Both the location and the topic of the study prepare the reader for an exciting read. Mahmud deals with an understudied subject, Freemasonry in Italy, and more than that, the unstudied role of women in this society. Studies of the M words in Italy – primarily referring to Mafia and Massoneria – create an air of expectation, curiosity, and mystery. And there is much for the reader to look forward to.

The monograph is revealing in many regards: technical, theoretical and literarily. To begin with, Mahmud’s reflexive sensitivity takes us into the very heart of anthropology, where the ethnographer does not escape the quotidian fears that tantalize her subjects. By revealing the anxieties that predate fieldwork and the anthropological project itself – one that does not start with fieldwork or cease with the publication of a monograph – Mahmud emphasizes an anthropological project which is as much the product of meticulous theoretical preparation, funding sources, and well-planned strategy, as of emotion and serendipity. With her eloquent prose, the author allows the reader to imagine her as a young student enquiring about a potential doctoral topic, one that would be exciting on the one hand but would allow her to become a better academic on the other. Through this search she reveals her own struggle and co-extensively with her, each doctoral student’s struggle to establish themselves in academia. Her race became a threshold through which Mahmud negotiated inclusiveness in contemporary Italy, thus further exposing the intricacies of relatedness in European settings. Yet, there is a sense of contentment coming out of the pages of this book, a contentment operating as a reminder of the deeply humanistic nature of anthropology and fieldwork.

Gender is the major theoretical topic through which the ethnography is orchestrated and laid out. Mahmud is asking not only about the role of the Freemason women within the masonic lodges, if at all, but most importantly what type of feminism they cultivate and support and the manner that elite women mobilize themselves within circles of power. Class, local elites, and power are questions that tantalize every anthropologist, and with her study Mahmud traces these questions to the heart of their historical production, the European enlightenment. She takes ‘elite’ “not to be a static position on a class ladder but, rather, a set of relations, desires and aesthetics performed within and beyond class lines to conjure a collective identity category, which is then reproduced as if effortlessly through a labor of accumulation and gatekeeping” (p. 15). By thinking of ‘elite’ not as a finalized position but as the product of “labor of accumulation and gatekeeping” she is able to articulate an argument that accounts for Freemason women as “a group of sisters reconstituting themselves into a brotherhood” that is “an illustration of humanism’s formidable capacity to inspire social imaginaries that are rooted in an abstract notion of a political subject” (p. 16). Through “spaces of discretion” contemporary male and female Freemasons engage in concealment and display as they navigate their engendered projects between success and suspicion, secrecy and transparency, the profane and the spiritual, belonging and separation. Being discreet is paramount to Freemasons’ ability to “live amid the profane in a society that largely viewed the lodges negatively by, for instance, negotiating their public presentations or even their self-disclosures among profane family members” (p. 65).

Indeed, similarly to the word ‘mafia’, only the utterance of the word ‘Massoneria’ gives the chills to a great deal of people. By allowing us a glance into the esoteric workings of a powerful fraternal society, Mahmud distances herself from stereotypical accounts of identity and uncritical constructions of difference. Instead she offers a compelling view of Freemasonry as an “ontological category.” This ontology is further unpacked by categories such as “Freemason within,” “a personal set of qualities” that indicates an “inner state of being rather than a transformation learned and practiced” (p. 63).

Becoming Freemasons, Mahmud tells us that female subjects embody an oxymoronic subjectivity. “When their existence was recognized at all, they were accused of simply imitating men’s Freemasonry and of not being “real” Freemasons” (p. 80). Are female Freemasons ‘real’ masons or do they just mimic men? Mahmud explores this question through the problem of “mimicry,” one that is located at the intellectual heart of European political history, conjuring up ideals of freedom and universal fraternity. Tracing this question within the “white upper-classes of masons in early twenty-first century Europe” (p. 81), the author endeavors to show that “the subject-producing logic of the discourse of humanism is internally ambivalent regardless of where it is deployed, even in what might be considered one of its most “authentic” formative sites: European Freemasonry” (p. 81).

This ethnography is a fine critique of Euro-American kinship as we know it, mediated by various degrees of handled abstraction regarding gender, identity, and ultimately, scale. Mahmud argues that the position of female Freemasons is oxymoronic precisely “because of the discursive power of fraternity, a structurally masculine notion defined by its universal promises. The discourse of fraternity in one of the most resilient devices of power, one that the ethnography of Freemasonry ought to expose and to profane” (p. 194). Fraternity, she maintains, is the presupposition of modern democratic governance.

I commend this book not only for academic purposes but for anyone seeking a broader understanding of elites. With her bold ethnography, Mahmud delivers an admirable contribution to a growing literature of provincializing Europe and questioning its normative centrality to discourses presumed to have travelled to other locales. Above all this is a further critique of a tendency to discard ‘ethnographic subjects’ as not poor enough, not suffering enough, not being marginal enough. By asking “What about the unsympathetic subjects of ethnographic studies, whose right-wing or religious views on gender, class, race, sexuality, labor, nationalism, or the military, for instance might push anthropologists to the limits of our own cultural relativism?”(p. 191), I take it to be part of a wider question contemporary anthropology faces, the ‘hierarchization’ of worthy ethnographic subjects. Mahmud takes a bold stance in answering this question by opening up the conditions of research and delivering a deeply humanistic and attractive ethnography about one of the most powerful global fraternities.

 Reviewed by Stavroula Pipyrou, University of St. Andrews

The Brotherhood of Freemason Sisters: Gender, Secrecy, and Fraternity in Italian Masonic Lodges
by Lilith Mahmud
University of Chicago Press
Paperback / 256 pages / 2014
ISBN: 9780226095868

No Comments

No Comments Yet!

No one has left a comment for this post yet!

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *