The Women of Peoples Temple

by Catherine Abbott

(This article is adapted from a chapter in Catherine Abbott’s master’s thesis at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Catherine Abbott is a regular contributor to this site. Her full collection of articles is here. She may be reached at catherineabbott@yahoo.com.)

Jim Jones’ radical beliefs were almost always all-inclusive. He questioned the Bible, espoused socialism and communism over capitalism, and fought for minorities and the underprivileged in society. There was one major exception to Jones’ radical ideology: women’s rights. This is notable, especially in light of the percentage of Peoples Temple members who were women. At least one study estimates that almost twice as many women as men lived in Jonestown, with black women making up 45% of the group and white women about 13%.[1]

Jones’ relationship with women was a complicated one. Women did possess some power as secretaries in Peoples Temple, but these leadership positions were not extended to all women members of Peoples Temple. Some women pursued sexual relationships with Jones, perhaps giving them more power as well. However, Jones publicly humiliated women members of Peoples Temple during community meetings through beatings and other exploitations.

When Jones did speak about women in his sermons, he used them as weapons in his assault upon the Bible and biblical teachings rather than as figures deserving of dignity in a campaign for their rights. In a 1974 address, Jones spoke about the treatment of women outside of Peoples Temple:

And this very day, this very day, you women are treated, not like a whole piece of shit – men are treated at least like a whole piece of shit – but women are treated like a little side shit. The big shit show goes for the man. You say, well, why are women still not able to make as much wages? Women [have] the same jobs and make half the pay… We need women to be free, women just cannot even get free, they can work just as hard… Who [do] you blame for it? You blame your Bible. You can blame your Bible, you can blame your Skygod. Because a woman has never accounted for nothing but a little side shit. She’s never been anything. She’s never amounted to anything. Woman’s supposed to’ve been the fault of man’s fall. Poor damn fool.[2]

Jones continues this talk by recounting the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, mocking the story by referring to Lucifer as “Lucifart,” and asserting, “God was a liar. The snake told the truth.”[3] He connects the Fall of Man to the current position of the oppressed, and proclaims himself God:

That’s what the Book says. And because Adam ate the apple that his good wife brought him, he must work from that day forward and earn his bread by the toil and sweat of his brow. He had to be a nigger from that day forward, because he ate an apple that his good wife brought to him. Now why have we listened to this shit?… I feel like tearin’ this mess up… I bet you one thing, I may be just an ol’ shit God, but I’m going to tell you. I’m the only God there is.[4]

At first this address appears to be an endorsement of women’s rights, not only in Peoples Temple but in society as a whole. However, Jones’ glimmer of radical ideology regarding women’s rights in this speech quickly turns into an indictment of the Bible. Jones calls himself God and implores his congregation to follow him rather than the biblical “Skygod,” showing his disdain for Christianity.

This call to follow Jones as God could be viewed as a new beginning for women in Peoples Temple. Some women had power within the group, but Jones used sex to draw many women into his fold. A few women, including Carolyn Layton, became Jones’ secretaries or board leaders. In letters to her parents, Carolyn writes that her tasks in Jonestown included educational training about socialism and organizational tasks.[5] She also played an integral role as a member of the Planning Commission.[6] However, as Mary Maaga writes, “It is difficult to determine how much of an influence Carolyn Layton had on the specific decisions that were made by Jim Jones and the inner circle of Peoples Temple.”[7]

Some of the power women had – including Carolyn – came through personal relationships with Jim Jones. Her ten-year sexual relationship with Jones resulted in the birth of their son, Jim-Jon (Kimo), in 1975. As former Temple member Grace Stoen said in an interview, Carolyn truly loved Jones, and that for her, “power didn’t mean much. Love was what motivated her.”[8]

Carolyn was not the only woman Jones pursued. Grace recalls that Jones complimented his women followers’ looks, making them feel “valued and beautiful.” She also claims that Jones used sex to “draw people in and make them feel special.” However, Grace is unclear in the interview whether Jones purposefully used this tactic to “increas[e] [women’s] commitment to the movement and loyalty to him personally.”[9]

These positions as secretaries or Jones’ sexual partners gave women some power within Peoples Temple, but they certainly were not equals to Jones. No one, neither man nor woman, matched Jones’ power in Peoples Temple. Maaga argues that within Peoples Temple, “there was an opportunity for some women to exercise power and authority beyond what either their gender or educational training would have allowed in mainstream society.”[10] Nevertheless, outside of the group, Jones did not advocate women’s rights the same way he supported equality for minorities, whom he worked hard to elevate in society. Furthermore, the women Jones surrounded himself with were “mostly white, privileged, young people in their twenties and thirties… All were women, all were white. Virtually all were college-educated,” indicating that not all women in Peoples Temple were asked to participate in leadership positions.[11]

Furthermore, while reports have emerged that Jones abused his followers, some of the abuse directed at women was particularly humiliating. In the documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, survivors and former members claim Jones stripped women naked in front of the congregation during community meetings and services:

Juanell Smart, Peoples Temple Member: [One woman] was to be totally naked and she was down to nothing but her skin – not even any shoes on, you know – no bra, no panties, no nothing.

Hue Fortson, Jr., Peoples Temple Member: Then they began to say what her breasts looked like, her stomach, butt, vagina, you name it. Everything they could think of, they were saying. By this time, her face is red, her body’s almost red from embarrassment, and I noticed something. Jones was sitting, looking over his sunglasses, but he had a smile on his face like he’s really enjoying this woman being torn down.[12]

These public humiliations show that Jim Jones did not have respect for women. He degraded several in community meetings, allowing them to be physically abused and stripped down and ridiculed.

As a result, the women of Peoples Temple experienced contradictions in gender roles. A small number of white, educated, young women of Peoples Temple exercised some power in the group as secretaries and organizational leaders, albeit under the direction of Jones. The abuse women suffered should not go unrecognized, for these incidents were indicative of Jones’ attitude toward women. They were to be used for his own pleasure and exploitation.

Women in Peoples Temple Compared to Other Groups

In the realm of religious, political, and racial thought, Jim Jones was a radical. However, in the context of utopian socialist communes and the role of women, his overall treatment of women was a negative one. The communal leaders of Ceresco, Wisconsin, for example, restricted the rights of its women, but did not publicly shame them as did Jones and Peoples Temple members did. Additionally, the women of the Oneida Community and the Shakers had more power within their groups than did the women in Peoples Temple and in Ceresco.

Socialist communes such as the nineteenth-century phalanx in Ceresco, Wisconsin, also grappled with gender issues. As John Savagian writes, women performed the “‘slavish drudgery’ of washing, cooking, keeping up fire, and marketing [in Ceresco]… Men would likewise never have to confront the six-day work week nor toil late into the evening.”[13] Women were promised a higher standing in these utopias than in the greater society, yet they “remain[ed] within their domestic sphere.” These women were in charge of maintaining family in their private sphere of influence, although they had limited power because “there was no home; it was replaced by cramped and shifting personal space, crowded dining halls, and limiting recognition of women’s work.”[14] Savagian also argues that women had little power politically in Ceresco: “Not surprisingly, women, although promised a better life under [Charles] Fourier’s system, were not members of the board of directors.”[15]

The women of Peoples Temple had more power in leadership positions within the group than did the women of Ceresco, Wisconsin. The former had more opportunities for upward mobility than did the latter, for although the women of Peoples Temple were mainly relegated to menial tasks in Jonestown, some became secretaries of Jones’ and had limited power. However, this power was usually reserved for a certain type of woman: white, relatively young, and college-educated. In Ceresco, women did not have these opportunities for leadership positions, instead performing the customary tasks of women, such as housework.

The Oneida Community of New York, founded by John Humphrey Noyes in the 1840s, was a more progressive commune for women. Noyes did not support marriage in the traditional sense, and in lectures given throughout New England, he called for its “abolition or modification.” Within his commune, Noyes instituted “complex marriage,” or the idea that “each woman in the group was the wife of every man and that every man was the husband of each woman.” Those who chose to pair with just one other person were “carefully separated, for permanent unions based upon the exclusive love of one man for one woman were regarded as unsocial and as dangerous to communal interests.”[16] Did this sexual freedom and loosening of restraints on traditional marriage give the women of the Oneida Community more power? On the whole, women had greater autonomy, as most were not bound by marriage.

The Oneida Community and Peoples Temple present an interesting comparison. Women in Peoples Temple did not have the system of “complex marriage,” yet Jones had sexual relationships with several of his followers. Although the evidence maintains that most of these relationships were consensual, couples in Jonestown had to appear before a Relationships Committee for approval of their cohabitation or marriage. Therefore, the women of Oneida appear to have had greater sexual freedom than the women of Peoples Temple did.

The Shakers are an egalitarian group. Ann Lee Stanley, also known as Mother Ann, left England for America in 1774 to establish the Millennial Church or the United Society or Believers, commonly known as the Shaker Society. The Shakers believe there is a second, “feminine element of God.”[17] They practice celibacy in order to become closer to “perfection and salvation” through purity.[18] The leadership positions of the Shakers are delegated to an equal number of men and women, giving women power within the commune.[19]

Of these four utopian communes I have presented, the Shakers are the most progressive society for women, and the only group of the four still in existence, perhaps because of the egalitarian nature of the organization. In Peoples Temple, Jones became God, the only deity to be worshipped, whereas Shakers believe God has a feminine side as well. Shakers strive to make their leadership positions fairly divided between men and women. Jones was the sole head of Peoples Temple, and although he had secretaries with some power, he did not share the top leadership position.

Celibacy within the Shaker Society is a curious factor. Unlike the women of the Oneida Community, “free love” or “complex marriage” was not practiced, which had given these women some autonomy. Instead, women remained celibate to enhance their purity.[20] This was not the case in Peoples Temple, as Jones was certainly not celibate. According to former Peoples Temple members, including Tim Carter and Hue Fortson, Jones did not restrict his sexual advances to women, propositioning men as well. Joyce Shaw-Houston, another former Peoples Temple member, claims that “Jim said that all of us were homosexuals, everyone except – he was the only heterosexual on the planet. And that the women were all lesbians and the guys were all gay. And so anyone that showed any interest in sex was just compensating.” Deborah Layton recalls, “What he explained each of us, and in sermons, was that sexual relationships were very selfish and took away from the focus of the church – and that was to help others. Jim was not celibate. Nobody knew that until perhaps it was their time to find out. What he spoke from the pulpit wasn’t what he did behind the scenes.”[21] Therefore, Jones did not adhere to the tenets of his group, unlike the Shakers.

Although Jones fought for civil rights for African Americans and other minority groups within the system during his years in Indianapolis and California, he did not focus on women’s rights and was sometimes even misogynistic. This does not diminish his radicalism on the whole, but is important to note. By the last few years of Peoples Temple’s existence, beginning in the mid-1970s, Jones no longer believed in reform from within the system for anyone, including for the minority groups he had worked tirelessly to help in 1950s through the beginning of the 1970s.

Endnotes

[1] Rebecca Moore, The Demographics of Jonestown, accessed October 26, 2015.

[2] The Jonestown Institute, “Q1059-6 Transcript,” accessed September 17, 2015.

[3]Q1059-6 Transcript.”

[4]Q1059-6 Transcript.”

[5] Mary McCormick Maaga, Hearing the Voices of Jonestown (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998), 58.

[6]The Jonestown Memorial List”, anon., accessed September 26, 2015.

[7] Maaga, 58.

[8] Maaga, 66.

[9] Maaga, 56-57, 66.

[10] Maaga, 55-56.

[11] Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People (New York: Dutton, 1982), 157.

[12] American Experience, “Jonestown.”

[13] John Savagian, “Women at Ceresco,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History vol. 83, no. 4 (Summer 2000): 263.

[14] Savagian, 263, 279.

[15] Savagian, 265.

[16] Alice Felt Tyler, Freedom’s Ferment: Phases of American Social History to 1860 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1944), 188-189.

[17] Tyler, 146.

[18] Tyler, 148.

[19] Tyler, 148-149.

[20] Tyler, 150.

[21] American Experience, “Jonestown.”

Last modified on November 14th, 2018.
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