For review, Part 1
The Necessary Conditions for Female Cult Leadership
In the previous section I discussed five features of cult leadership, none of which were gender specific. Thus, the question arises as to why we have yet to see a female cult leader ascend to equal levels of infamy, since none of the five features of cult leadership exclude a woman from such destructive ends.
The initial reaction to the question might be to argue that for a female cult leader to ascend to such prominence she would have to assume traditionally masculine traits, including the ability to organize and control cult members. The chauvinist may argue that women lack the ability to control large masses of people and sway their beliefs, which would account for their noted absence.
Clearly, however, this argument assumes an association between dominance and the ability to organize the masses, as inherently masculine traits, and indecisiveness and subservience as essentially feminine traits. There are, however, countless arguments to the contrary, which depict docile men and dominant women.
A better response may be to suggest that the necessary social conditions haven’t manifested, and thus, there is no perceived social importance or need for her existence. Despite Osama bin Laden’s beliefs, his ideology is followed by his sympathizers, which argue against the indulgences of the Western world. Osama bin Laden, then, will always have sympathizers, provided anti-Western sentiments exist. Thus, an insightful question one must ask should be, “what are the necessary social conditions for a female cult leader to rise to power?”
For example, Osama bin Laden’s rise to power directly coincides with the rise of the United States as a global superpower. Thus, the economic and cultural prosperity of the United States coincided with anti-U.S. sentiments, such that, Osama bin Laden’s increasing global status mirrored the growing opposition to American’s power. Thus, it is important to recognize that Osama bin Laden merely filled a role that was antithetical to Western ideals, a role that anyone may have filled, including a woman. Thus, regarding this article we should attempt to conceptualize the social condition that would preempt the female cult leader.
The deliberate victimization of women within cults is indicative of women’s social subjugation, since women comprise the majority of those victimized both in cults and society. The onset of a female cult leader might signal a desire to change women’s society influence, as the female cult could exercise power within the cult that she could not within society. The more power she has within the cult, the more likely it would be that she would remove herself from society. Eventually, both men and women would become attracted to her counter-culture movement and her membership would grow. It is important, however, that the social conditions are first met.
There are numerous instances of cult leaders removing members from society.
David Koresh and the Branch Davidians constructed a massive compound in
Waco, Texas. Allegedly, Osama bin Laden is hiding in the caves of eastern
Afghanistan. Jim Jones and his members fled to the jungles of Guyana, where 913 people committed mass suicide. Such a voluntary withdrawal from society is a key indicator of the cult leader’s power and the devotees’ obedience. The question remains, however, can a woman attain such influence?
Women have attained such influence. The leader of the Church Universal and
Triumphant, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, has extracted both herself and followers from society. Hue Dang Trinh of the Suma Ching Hai International Association is the leader of a cult with over one million members.
Her organization recently gained international media coverage when former president
Bill Clinton refuses a $600,000.00 donation toward his defense fund.
Clearly, then, the argument that women do not possess the ability to organize the masses is false. Note, I am not suggested that either of these women are violent cult leaders. Nonetheless, they do demonstrate the ability of women to lead large, even international cults.
Secular and Religious Conceptions of a Female Cult Leader
So far I have discussed five features of cult leadership, none of which excluded women from assuming the role the cult leader. I have also suggested that the onset of a female cult leader will be preempted by a perceived sociological need. With the increase of her power and influence, she will slowly withdraw herself and her followers from society. What, then, might trigger a doomsday scenario?
Within secular cults, the female cult leader, capable of orchestrating the most heinous crimes, would probable arise from a contemporary philosophical movement. Though there were allegations that Ayn Rand, founder of philosophical objectivism, was herself a cult leader, allegations that are patently false, it is probable that a woman would emerge from a philosophical movement. The cult would increasingly grow more reclusive as outside forces continued to probe and government interference persisted, which would only fuel further anxiety and paranoia throughout the cult.
Eventually, however, both the cult leader and her followers may choose the only options they have left, committing mass suicide or fighting government officials directly. If the motivation for her rise to power was founded in an opposition to patriarchy, then waging war against systems of patriarchy is necessary for social awareness. Meaning, then, is gained in death.
Within theological discourse, religious eschatology refers to the end of human civilization and the end of world history. Most major world religions including: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism have an eschatological facet of their theology, which warns followers of the end times.
For example, within Christian eschatology there is a branch of theology known as Dispensationalist Premillennialism, which is associated with the aspects of the Christian right. This is not to suggest that all members of the Christian right support Dispensationalist beliefs, which teaches that the Second Coming of Christ, and the ultimate destruction of the world for the remaining nonbelievers, will occur before his thousand-year reign (hence, pre-millennial).
Nevertheless, prior to the reign of Christ, his followers will be persecuted for their beliefs, a sign of his coming. Dispensationalist dogma offers an account of the “end-times” and ultimately the final events of human history, which coincide with the self-sacrifice and suffering of those believers prior to the thousand-year reign of this return.
Some Eastern religions also have an eschatological account of the end times. For the Puranas of the Hindu belief system, prior to the arrival of the Avatar, the world will fall into chaos. The Avatar’s followers will suffer persecution for their beliefs, which will be appeased by the Avatar’s return, which will begin a reign of bliss. It is through suffering that followers of religious eschatology come to enlightenment, which is usually a harmless occurrence. In light of cult practices, however, eschatology can wreak havoc throughout the cult belief system.
Nearly all of the major world religions have some facet of their theology that lends itself to eschatological beliefs, a fact that can easily be misinterpreted by the cult leader in justifying an end time that coincides with the cult’s system of oppression and subordination. The question that remains, then, is how would a female cult leader ascend to power within a cult that ascribed to some aspect of religious eschatology?
Feminist have been ardent critics of the discriminatory practices within many of the major world religions, where even today, women are denied positions of power within the church, where a woman’s right to choice is strictly governed by church hierarchy, where sexual independence often leads to severe punishment and death, where a women’s voices is marginalized by her male peers, and so on.
The ascension of the female cult leader, capable of leading a doomsday cult, based on eschatological beliefs, would surely arise from a neo-religious movement that defines itself in opposition to the discriminatory practices of many world religions. The cult will probably retain the eschatological beliefs of the traditional religion but offer women a greater role of service and prominence. Though the intentions may be noble, in time, the eschatological beliefs, coupled with the charisma and paranoia of the female cult leader will inevitably spell destruction for herself and her cult.
In conclusion then some questions to consider are what are the necessary social conditions that may signal the emergence of the female cult leader? How will a secular doomsday cult vary from a religious doomsday cult? Finally, to what extent will the female cult leader emerge from a countercultural movement?