Le Hir on Allen (2022)

 Allen, James Smith. A Civil Society: The Public Space of Freemason Women in France, 1744-1944. U of Nebraska P, 2022, pp. xxiii + 346, ISBN 978149227782

Freemasonry is often thought of as a mysterious, elusive activity. It also tends to be regarded predominantly, if not exclusively, as a male social practice. From the time of the American Revolution onward, it was associated with the Enlightenment and the modern democracies whose emergence was hard fought for on the battlefields of North America and Europe. Almost half of the officers in the Society of the Cincinnati, created at the end of the American War of Independence, were freemasons. Most generals of the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars were freemasons as well, as the tremendous increase in the number of lodges during the First Empire indicates. The fathers of Alexandre Dumas père and George Sand were two of these high-ranking officers, and both were freemasons.

By focusing on the history of women freemasons in France, James Smith Allen unsettles the imaginary that is commonly associated with the Craft. Through freemasonry, he argues, women were able to create a public space for themselves and thus, in the long run, to contribute not only to the development of civil society in France, but also to their own emancipation. Following a presentation of central concepts and objectives in the introduction, chapter one deals with the various brands of freemasonry extant before the French Revolution. Because the main lodges were for men only, women’s lodges were created by minor orders. The norm in that case were so-called “adoption lodges” like La Candeur, Les Neuf Soeurs, or Saint-Jean d’Ecosse du Contrat Social where “prominent members of the aristocracy” met (176). In Old-Regime France, women masons such as the Princess de Lamballe, the Duchess of Bourbon, the Countess of Polignac, and even the Queen, tended to be associated with the court. In the lodges, these ladies designed their own rituals and organized “ceremonies that were nothing less than grandes fêtes (lavish celebrations)” (25). Giuseppe Basalmo and his young wife Lorenza Feliciani, both masons, evolved in this exclusive high society setting full of intrigue and scandal as the Count and Countess of Cagliostro.

This kind of women’s freemasonry ended with the Revolution of 1789. From 1799 to 1901, the years covered in chapter two, “The Craft’s Long March to Mixed Order,” women found other ways than freemasonry to play an active role in society, as participants in the utopian, humanitarian, socialist, or other workers’ or political movements. In the few instances where the existence of women’s masonry is documented in those years, brethren tended to see their sisters as “a masonic ornament” (65), sadly so, since the women’s movement was gaining momentum at the time. However, with the advent of the Third Republic, freemasonry adjusted once again: as France was moving towards the separation of church and state, the Grand Orient “eliminated the requirement of official reference to the Great Architect of the Universe” (81), thus creating a French masonry distinct from the original Anglo-Saxon model. Women like Maria Deraismes and Louise Michel flocked to this secular, republican masonry, particularly during the Paris Commune. From the end of the century to World War II “women’s masonry and the women’s movement” went hand in hand, so Allen argues in chapter three. New orders and lodges were created, and more importantly mixed lodges, and this despite ongoing resistance from the established Grand Orient and Grande Loge. Madeleine Pelletier, Véra Starkoff, Nelly Roussel, or Marie Bonnevial, who belonged to the middle class, established bridges between freemasonry and the labor movement. Allen provides mini biographies of many interesting “sisters,” women like Suzanne Galland, an advocate of secular education, or Elise Brault, an activist for women’s suffrage.  

Freemasonry was outlawed and disappeared during the Vichy Regime, an episode the author mentions at the beginning of chapter four, “Contesting Imaginaries in Freemason Women,” in pages devoted to freemason imagery. In the eyes of the Vichy regime, as depicted in the 1943 propaganda film Forces Occultes, male masons were part of the “Judeo-masonic conspiracy for world dominion” (129). Women’s freemasonry was ignored, and the mothers, wives, and sisters of freemasons were deemed innocent victims. But negative images of freemasonry can be found much earlier than the Vichy Regime or the time of the Dreyfus Affair, Allen shows. Already in the eighteenth century, Donatien de Sade had expressed his “hostility to the craft” (130) in Histoire de Juliette (1797). A century later, a journalist known as “Léo Taxil” created the character of the freemason devil worshipper Diana Vaugh. Freemason characters and themes can also be found in opera, in Mozart’s Magic Flute, or Gounod’s Queen of Sheba, and in the nineteenth century novel. The Count and Countess of Cagliostro, for instance, appear in several of Alexandre Dumas’ novels, such as Le Collier de la Reine, Ange Pitou, La Comtesse de Charny and Joseph Basalmo. Allen concludes this chapter with a section devoted to George Sand’s Consuelo and La Comtesse de Rudolstadt. Based on his analysis of these works, he underscores the importance that membership in a secret society like freemasonry had in helping French women find “agency and transcendence” (157).

Allen’s book takes a predominately liberal, hence Anglo-Saxon, approach to both civil society and freemasonry. While he is not the only scholar with this bias (he quotes for example, Lucien Jaume in his discussion of French liberalism [14]), Allen’s reluctance to examine French society on its own terms leads him to reject Roger Chartier’s understanding of French freemasonry as a “school for democracy,” for instance (44). It also has the disadvantage of reducing masonry of the Napoleonic era to a simple “support for the regime and the military,” (59) and hence to overlook its wider, and granted, utopian appeal and goal: the establishment of a universal republic. But given the dearth of information on women’s freemasonry, A Civil Society: The Public Space of Freemason Women, is a must read for anyone interested in this topic.

Marie-Pierre Le Hir
The University of Arizona