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Conceptualizing the Female Cult Leader, Part 1 of 2

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Osama bin Laden, Charles Manson, Shoko Asahara, Marshall Applewhite, Jim
Jones, and David Koresh were all leaders of extremely violent cults, which have led to the deaths of many innocent people, as cult followers remain loyal to their leaders even unto death. The power of the cult leader to control the lives of cult members is inherent in the cult’s hierarchy.

That hierarchy, moreover, usually results in the victimization of women within the cult, as they occupy the lowest rungs of power within the cult. There have been many studies analyzing the role of women’s victimization in cults and while the analysis of victimization is a common feature of academic analysis, there has been no attempt to conceptualize or anticipate the role of women as leaders of violent cults. Moreover, some would argue that the lack of academic literature regarding female cult leadership, results from the fact that no woman has risen to such levels of infamy as her male counterparts.

Within the sciences, for example, there is a clear distinction between reactionary medicine, on the one hand, and preventative healthcare, on the other. Based on patient symptomatology, a healthcare provider is able to anticipate what diseases may affect the patient’s health and educate the patient about the necessary precautions to prevent illness. Reactionary medicine, then, should be a last resort. Thus, preventative medicine supports increased longevity and a better standard of living if patients are proactive in the healthcare.

Unlike the health sciences, many within the humanities have failed to adopt an anticipatory model. Rather than offering an investigation into the requisite condition for the onset of a female cult leader, researchers describe women’s victimization in cults. Nevertheless, philosophers should conceptualize the necessary conditions for female cult leadership. Such an anticipatory analysis will allow both philosophers and law enforcement officials to identify social and cultural circumstances that may lead to female cult leadership.

Granted, I am not suggesting that female cult leaders have a potential to pose a greater threat than their mail counterparts since this article is not a comparative analysis. Rather, since there are no prominent contemporary female cult leaders, we should not wait for tragedy to strike. In anticipating the onset of the female cult leader, we should have some sense of what such a leadership position would entail.

This article, then, is an attempt to describe the characteristics of cult leadership and the possible role of a female cult leader. It would be careless to assume homogeneity among women, or presuppose a set of circumstances that would speak to the totality of women’s experiences. To do so would homogenize women’s experience, and this is not my intention. Thus, I will offer some insights that may speak to a portion of the population, rather than the entire population as such.

Five Features of the Cult Leadership

There are many traits that cult leaders may be said to possess, and in this article I will discuss five of these traits. I am not suggesting, however, that these traits are exhaustive, but that these traits are generally exhibited by the most dangerous cult leaders.

Since this article is anticipatory in its aim, and before I begin an analysis of the conditions wherein a female cult leader would rise to power, I will first discuss five general characteristics of cult leadership, which are (1) all cults are hierarchical in structure with the cult leader at the apex, (2) cult leaders are often thought to have supernatural abilities, (3) cult leaders are very personable and they have charismatic personalities, (4) the cult leader is a godhead and is revered by members of the cult and (5) the cult’s leaders is typically paranoid and often suffers from delusions of grandeur.

To begin, I am not suggesting that female cult leaders have never existed, as I will offer several examples later in the discussion. I am arguing, however, that a female cult leader has yet to rise to the infamy and violence of her male counterparts. Also one should note the difference between a cult leader and forms of terrorism, as there are substantial differences between a cult and a terrorist faction or “cell”. Typically, cults are not violent and are not motivated by violence, which is not true for terrorist organizations. It may, however, occur that a cult develops into a terrorist organization, like al Qaeda. One should not, then, confuse terrorism with cults.

As mentioned earlier in the article, for religious cults, the leader is often viewed as a deity, with total control over the cult’s social dynamic. This practice, however, subordinates members to the will of the cult’s leader. As a deity, the cult leader requires no justification and the authority that is wielded is totalizing. As an incarnation of god, moreover, the cult leader often professes supernatural abilities and insights that transcend human capability. Thus, the attraction of devotees to their respective cult leaders is often based in their professed divination.

Of all the features a cult leader is said to possess, charisma is arguably the most important. As mentioned earlier in the article, the cult leader is often believed to have superhuman abilities. The attraction between devotees and the cult’s leader is one on reverence and the hope of enlightenment, a feat that is exclusively granted by the cult leader. To attain this level of enlightenment, nonmembers are required to join the cult, which requires them to leave their “former lives” for a new life in the cult.

Another important feature of cult leadership is the reverence one must have for the cult leader. Unlike traditional conceptions of reverence wherein devotees are disconnected from their divinity, the cult leader is accessible and thereby the power to influence their understanding of the world is that much greater. For example, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda have allegedly unearthed the truth behind capitalism and the Western world.

Those refusing to conform to al Qaeda’s beliefs of terror and hate, including other Muslims and followers of the Koran, are direct threats to the viability of their cause. Members of the Heaven’s Gate cult (led by Marshall Applewhite, a man said to possess the truths of immortality) committed mass suicide while hoping to board a spacecraft that trailed the Hale-Bopp comet.

David Koresh and the Branch Davidians discovered the “truths” of the good life in flames that ravaged their compound in Waco, Texas, which led to the deaths of cult members and their children. As absurd as these “truths” may seem, a great many find conform in their search for enlightenment. Nevertheless, enlightenment is only acquired by devotee from their leader.

In the perpetuation of violence, paranoia is a key feature of cult leadership. A double ethic arises, however, because, on the one hand, devotees are encouraged to speak openly and confess their failures to their leader, but on the other hand, are sworn to keep secrets from those of us on the outside. This double standard is an essential aspect of manipulation and confusion. The cult leader receives all information but discloses none.

The leader’s paranoia is then shifted to the cult at large, wherein members self-police other members, all reporting back to the cult leader, thereby bestowing a sense of omniscience on the cult’s leader.

To Continue: Part 2

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About Jason J. Campbell

  • Here is a list of references for those interested on further reading:

    Galanter, Marc. Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion, Second Edition. Oxford University Press, New York. 1999.

    Holderer, Robert W. “The Religious Right: Who are they and why are we the Enemy?” in The English Journal. Vol. 84. No. 5 (Sep. 1995) p. 74-83.

    Lalich, Janja. Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults. University of Califorina Press. Los Angeles. 2004.

    Melton, Gordon J. Encyclopedia of American Religions, 4th ed. (Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1993).

    Milner, Murray Jr. “Hindu Eschatology and the Indiam Caste System: An Example of Structural Reversal” in The Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 52, No. 2 (May, 1993) p. 298-319.

    Palmer, Susan. “Women in the New Religious Movements” in The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements. Oxford University Press. 2004. p. 378-385.

    Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in Our Midst. Jossey Bass Publishers, San Francisco. 1995.

    Schwartz, Theodore. “Cult and Context: The Paranoid Ethos in Melanesia” in Ethos.. Vol. 1 No. 2. Summer 1973. p. 153-174.

    Washington Post. “Unusual Cast of Asian Donors Emerges in DNC Funding Controversy.” The Washington Post. January 27: A8.1997.

  • dino

    Female cult leaders exist historically and in modernity. The two that come to mind first are Ann Lee, who started the Shakers (granted, not violent, but definitely repressive and an ego maniac), as well as JZ Knight, whose manipulative tactics under her delusional pseudo-scientific methods, border on violence in that they encourage addiction, which encourages reactive and thoughtless action.