Faculty of Humanities
University of Amsterdam

Research: Dr. Manon Hedenborg White

Female Authority and Agency in a Male-Led New Religion

Power through Closeness? Female Authority and Agency in a Male-Led New Religion

This three-year project, funded by the Swedish Research Council, analyses patterns of female religious authority and agency at different stages of religious emergence. As a case study, the project utilises the biographies of four women — all followers of the religion Thelema, founded by the British occultist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947): Leah Hirsig (1883–1975), Jane Wolfe (1875–1958), Phyllis Seckler (1917–2004), and Marjorie Cameron (1922–1995). Emerging religious movements have often been more amenable to female authority than more established ditto, and many of the occult orders of the fin-de-siècle offered considerable opportunities for female leadership. To a large extent, this was also true of Thelema, and a number of Crowley’s key disciples were women. Hirsig co-founded (with Crowley) an Abbey of Thelema at Cefalù, Sicily, in 1920. Over the next few years, she assisted Crowley in the production of several key texts and instructed magical students of her own. Wolfe joined Crowley and Hirsig at the Abbey in 1920, and later played a central role in spreading Thelema to the U.S.. There, she also became acquainted with Phyllis Seckler, an ardent Thelemite who would play a key role in the re-establishment of the initiatory fraternity Ordo Templi Orientis after Crowley’s death, and the artist Marjorie Cameron — formerly the romantic and magical partner of the rocket scientist and Thelemite John Whiteside Parsons (1914–1952). Cameron’s visionary art and enigmatic persona made her an icon of the 1960s Los Angeles avantgarde. In different ways, these four women played important roles in the development and growth of Thelema over the twentieth century. The project will draw on theories of gender combined with Max Weber’s tripartite typology of authority to analyse the role of women in the development of Thelema from a small, loosely organised charismatic movement to one counting thousands of adherents worldwide today. The project seeks to contribute to understandings of authority at different stages of religious emergence by proposing a supplementary category to Weber’s model: proximal authority, that is, authority ascribed to or enacted by a person based on their (real or perceived) closeness to a leader. Based on archival research — with sources consisting mainly of unpublished diaries and correspondence — the project will result in several peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters, a condensed monograph, conference papers, and public lectures.