The most famous female cult leaders in the world

Jo Thornely
·Contributor
·6-min read

Trigger Warning: This article discusses cult practises, sexual assault, and suicide

Men outnumber women in positions of power in so many areas of society. That’s changing gradually, but you’ll still find more male CEOs than female.

Religion and crime are the same – the powerful people up the top of most religious organisations have penises, and by a massive ratio blokes are the highest achievers when it comes to thefts, rapes, and murders. Similarly, most cult leaders have been men. But not all.

a group of people standing outside while holding their arms and hands up in the air like a cult
There have been many famous female cult leaders over the years. Photo: Getty

A lot of religions take gender stereotypes as a given, so the idea of a woman in a position of power at the head of a religion doesn’t sit as naturally to a lot of devout believers as it does a man, particularly in the West.

We’re not even close to seeing a female pope. But when you look at cults and the crimes their leaders are most likely to commit, statistically the glass ceiling is a bit more brittle than in mainstream religions.

Certainly some cult leaders have committed rape and sexual assault, and only around one per cent of convicted rapists are women. Some cult leaders murder, but only a tenth of murderers are women.

Almost all cult leaders commit fraud in one way or another by deceiving followers into giving up their money, time, labour and loyalty, and that’s where the numbers are a lot more telling. More than 40 per cent of people convicted for fraud are women. We pull our weight when it comes to pulling one over on people, and that’s where women as cult leaders makes more sense.

Anne Hamilton Byrne and The Family

Australia can be proud/horrified that one of the most notorious lady cult leaders was Australian. Anne Hamilton Byrne was obsessively great at three things: teaching yoga, looking glamorous, and convincing people to give her their children.

Anne Hamilton Byrne
Anne Hamilton Byrne fronted the cult The Family. Photo: Youtube/The Family

Originally starting with yoga classes for well-off Melbourne ladies, from the 60s to the 80s Anne gradually convinced her followers that she was the second coming of Jesus, with a bit of help from LSD that she administered to admirers as part of a kind of initiation.

Spreading well-manicured, influential tentacles into what was then Newhaven psychiatric hospital in Kew, Anne had access to a supply of drugs, followers, and mothers deemed unfit to keep their babies, a combination that culminated in Anne convincing or coercing the parents of fourteen children to let her adopt their kids.

The acquisition of children was not, unfortunately for the children, accompanied by the acquisition of any parenting skill, and the children were kept as virtual prisoners in a house called ‘Kai Lama’ at Lake Eildon in regional Victoria.

Home schooled, underfed, violently punished and given identical outfits and haircuts, photographs and footage of the children do not demonstrate competent or nurturing motherhood.

the family cult
The children were given identical outfits and haircuts. Photo: Youtube/The Family

Teal Swan

The jury is still out on whether Teal Swan, a self-proclaimed ‘spiritual teacher’ and definitely a YouTube phenomenon, is a cult leader.

She has admitted that she has all the spanners in her toolbox to start a cult, but denies that she’s tightened those particular nuts yet, preferring to see herself as an ethical, caring alternative to proper psychological care by professionals who know what they’re talking about.

Teal – a striking woman with a soporific, monotone voice – specialises in suicide. That’s to say, among her expanding grab-bag of new-age theories, recovered memory therapies, and claims that she can sense what all your organs are doing at any given time, she is best known for claiming – mostly through her hundreds of YouTube videos - to be able to provide help for people having suicidal thoughts.

Teal Swan
Teal Swan is a self-proclaimed ‘spiritual teacher’. Photo: Instagram/tealswanofficial

She has not, it’s sad to say, always been successful on that count. The areas she is successful in are what makes her an interesting study in what 21st Century cult leaders might start to look like, though.

Rather than isolating followers in cult compounds, Teal’s admirers are already self-isolating in front of their computers, and she uses search engine optimisation to make sure that people who Google the term ‘suicide’ will find her videos at some point.

She sells an unbelievable amount of merch including hoodies, ‘frequency paintings’, and mediocre calligraphy, plus tickets for retreats, talks and seminars. If this is what new cults look like, there’s a big tie-dye vibe.

Ma Anand Sheela and the Rajneeshees

Technically second-in-charge, Ma Anand Sheela still had a massive amount of power in the Rajneeshees, the massive cult led by the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh headquartered in Oregon in the 1980s.

Taking over the day-to-day running and spokesperson-ship of the group when the Bhagwan underwent a three-year vow of silence, it’s fair to say that Sheela made herself known.

She thrived on attention and power, and particularly liked being provocative and controversial in media interviews, culminating in her now legendary 60 Minutes “tough titties” response to reporter Ian Leslie’s concerns about the cult’s spread in Australia.

Ma Anand Sheela on 60 minutes
Sheela became famous in Australia for her 60 Minutes interview. Photo: Channel Nine

Made up of almost 100 per cent work ethic and sass, Sheela went to extreme lengths to eliminate opposition to the expansion of the Rajneeshee compound, including attempts to rig local elections by poisoning the salad bars of neighbouring towns’ fast food joints.

Coercion, fraud, and attempted murder aside, it’s difficult not to admire Sheela. Carefully, from a distance.

Uriel of Unarius

Not all female cult leaders are about exploitation and death. Some cult leaders, like the head of Unarius, Ruth Norman, are about reincarnation, UFOs, and impeccable costuming.

Sitting somewhere on the spectrum between a brilliant imagination and an undiagnosed mental illness, the absolutely delightful Ruth renamed herself Uriel, the reincarnation of a host of historical celebrities including Confucius and the Mona Lisa.

Running a modestly-sized group out of a shopfront in El Cajon in Southern California, the actual beliefs of Unarians are reasonably interesting – they’re fans of Nikola Tesla’s work, they’re pretty sure an intergalactic federation of aliens is going to land on Earth, and they like theatrically re-enacting experiences they’ve had in their many, many past lives.

Ruth Norman, a.k.a. Uriel. Photo: Unarius Academy of Science
Ruth Norman, a.k.a. Uriel. Photo: Unarius Academy of Science

But where the group, and Ruth, really excelled was in the creation of elaborate costumes for the purpose of the reenactments. It’s impossible to overstate their fabulousness.

One of Uriel’s dresses features a sun-like orange orb radiating from the chest, its skirt dotted with bulging models of the planets she expected visitors from. She always carried a sceptre. She always sat on an ornate golden throne decorated with peacock feathers.

She always looked completely incredible and whatever activity you had planned for yourself after reading this, it should be replaced immediately with a Google image search for her costumes. If women must be leaders of cults, they should look this good.

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