Sex, Gender and Female Empowerment: Recovering a Positive Perspective on Jonestown

(This article is adapted from the introduction to a senior honors thesis on women in Jonestown, written as fulfillment of a graduation requirement in Religion at Williams College in Massachusetts.)

In the immediate aftermath of the deaths in Jonestown in November 1978, newspaper and broadcast media set the tone for framing discussion of the tragedy in terms of horror, delusion, and failure, thus influencing both the general public’s conception of Jonestown and Jonestown scholarship. Through the utilization of cult/brainwashing terminology, the media drew a hard line between Jonestown and mainstream society, placing Peoples Temple beyond understanding or meaningful intellectual pursuit. Meanwhile, scholars have responded to media representations with attempts to provide a more holistic understanding of Jonestown and why Peoples Temple ended the way it did. For example, John Hall’s book, Gone from the Promised Land, attacks widely-held notions of Jim Jones as a supremely responsible, “Hitler-like” executioner. Hall attempts to overturn simplistic views of Jonestown by exploring the social processes by which Peoples Temple emerged. Judith Weightman takes up a similar project in her book, Making Sense of the Jonestown Suicides: A Sociological History of Peoples Temple. Here, Weightman utilizes a sociological approach to provide a more nuanced understanding of how Peoples Temple was constructed and how it functioned.

Both Hall and Weightman’s projects push away from initial representations of Jonestown as insanity beyond comprehension, hoping to show that attempts to understand Jonestown are both worthwhile and extremely valuable. However, even these efforts show signs of cult/brainwashing terminology, as well as the general misconception that Jonestown may only function as an example of what not to do. Both Hall and Weightman generally focus on what went wrong and try to identify warning signs for the future. Overwhelmingly, the primary sources and events naturally point scholars in this direction. Yet, reading against the grain uncovers a side to Jonestown rarely explored—a side that returns us to why Peoples Temple became so popular to begin with and a more complete answer to why Temple members remained committed to the end.

Viewing Jonestown in terms of female experience can provide one such lens. To this day, Temple women acclaim Jonestown for the opportunities and equality it provided them. However, in light of media representations and scholarly discussions of Jonestown, the beliefs and practices of Jonestown seem to have in fact perpetuated gender inequality in the same ways as the rest of society. This contradiction suggests a far more complicated dynamic than Jonestown women, the media, or most scholars have been willing to explore.

Mary McCormick Maaga, the author of Hearing the Voices of Jonestown, suggests that this gulf between media and scholarship’s portrayal and the accounts of lived experiences regarding gender and sexuality in Jonestown may stem from gaps in the dominant analytical framework that have been created and employed by the sociological study of new religious movements.[1] She argues that the current framework is constructed in such a way that the experiences of women in Peoples Temple simply do not fit. Meaningful analysis of Jonestown cannot be completed using an analytical framework in which the experiences of women are either discounted, explained away or missing completely. In order to provide new space for such analysis, Maaga puts forth an alternative framework that takes female accounts of Jonestown life seriously. With such a framework, we see an entirely new side to Jonestown—a side that we can learn from in a positive way—a side that considers Jonestown not only as the cause of 918 deaths but also as a place built on dreams of justice and equality and hopes of a better future. Accounting for the inability of previous analytic structures to fully encapsulate the motivations and experiences of Jonestown women creates new possibilities that provide a far more complete account of how gender and sexuality truly functioned to both attract and bind women to the Jonestown community.

Maaga identifies three issues as particularly harmful to a meaningful discussion of gender and sexuality in Jonestown. The first is the presentation of the people of Jonestown as “brainwashed” members of a “cult.” The second form of erasure occurs when sole responsibility for Jonestown is placed on Jim Jones, the group’s charismatic male leader. The third and final short circuit to meaningful analysis is the tendency to associate suicide with insanity, failing to recognize the sacrifice and martyrdom that can be associated with such acts.

Maaga’s framework also pushes back on the ingrained assumptions of prevailing analytics, reinstating power in Jonestown women. While I agree that these assumptions are certainly being made, and that recognizing power and agency in the voices of these women is an important project, I argue that it is equally important that we not ignore the possibility that Jones was in fact manipulating at least some women he slept with. Regardless of whether the above assumptions are made in Jonestown analysis, the power dynamic between Jim Jones and any of his followers inherently skews any sexual encounter that may occur between them. As Bernadette Brooten argues, there is a difference between consent and meaningful consent. Sexual relationships based on meaningful consent occur when there is absolutely “no form of pressure, whether economic, familial, social, or political.”[2] Equality between partners need not be perfect, but the power dynamic between Jones and the women among his followers, especially the women who were vying for power within the community, certainly complicates notions of female consent.

Indeed, it is incredibly important to consider both Maaga and Brooten’s viewpoints. Maaga’s project is an important one as various forms of erasure have certainly occurred. That being said, her conlusions can be pushed too far. Equally harmful erasure occurs when women are awarded more power and agency in a situation than they actually possessed. Placing full responsibility on Jones in every situation is a detrimental distortion of the truth. However, failing to acknowledge the gravity of Jones’ part in each relationship would be equally detrimental. I am not arguing for one stance or the other—Maaga or Brooten’s. Both scholars raise incredibly crucial points that, when combined, allow for the complexities of sexual relationships between Jonestown women and Jim Jones to be fully explored in a way that does not risk silencing the women.

Similar to Brooten, Mary Daly suggests another way of viewing relationships between women and Jim Jones that emphasizes Jones’ power and agency in these relationships. Mary Daly refers to this structure of analysis as “feminine complicity.” According to Daly, feminine complicity occurs when a woman achieves outstanding success in a patriarchal structure and therefore, “identifies with the power structure and looks upon a woman who threatens that structure as a threat to herself.”[3] The woman internalizes the patriarchal norms and subsequently begins to act as “patriarchy’s puppet.” While there are aspects of Peoples Temple that Daly’s analysis does not account for, it certainly could help to explain why the women of Jonestown were aware that Jones was exchanging power for sex and yet spoke highly of Jonestown’s administrative structures and the way that Jonestown operated at this time.

Still, pushing in the opposite direction, perhaps as Daly does, has the potential to strip women of their agency by ignoring the ways that at least some women were in fact empowered through patriarchal structures. Even Daly, a feminist, does Jonestown women, and indeed all women, a disservice in her discussion of “feminine complicity.” Similar to the forms of erasure I’ve been discussing, “feminine complicity” is an over-simplification of the situation that fails to take seriously the ways that women were in fact able to accumulate power in Jonestown. Certainly it is critical to acknowledge the ways that women were treated unfairly in their sexual relationships with Jim Jones, but it is equally important not to ignore the ways that women were able to exert power and agency within patriarchal structures.

Indeed, much of Maaga’s work illuminates how previous frameworks of analysis delegitimize the ways that Jonestown’s existence and demise challenged social norms, as well as society’s most valued structures and classifications. These frameworks fail to see Jonestown both as a valuable critique of society as well as a driven attempt to make alternatives a reality. In recognizing and appreciating these two foundational aspects of Jonestown, we open up space for contradictions, such as those surrounding female experience, to unfold. We allow for full exploration of female accounts and the possibility that Jonestown did provide its members with something good and valuable that society should actually strive for even if these goals are not fully realized. Though exposing these complications produces even more unanswered questions, my hope is that with these questions we allow for the possibility of a more nuanced, more complete understanding of not only Jonestown, but other New Religious groups as well.



{1] Maaga, Mary McCormick. Hearing the Voices of Jonestown. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998. 32.

[2] Brooten, Bernadette J., and Jacqueline L. Hazelton. Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

[3] Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father: toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon, 1985.