ERA: The Present

This picture was taken at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, home to Alice Paul and the early suffragettes, during the 40th anniversary on March 22, 2012 of the March 22, 1972 passage of the ERA through Congress. I was so inspired by this program that I decided to create a series of posts dedicated to the ERA’s past, present, and future. In the first post I gave some background information on the equal rights amendment, in this post I will outline my personal journey from knowing nothing about the ERA, to reading From Housewife to Heretic, to becoming a National Council for Women’s Organizations Mormons for ERA Activist! The final post will be dedicated to the future of the ERA and what you can do. Check out the official ERA website for more information:

One of the things about growing up is relearning church history. For over a decade now I have been on a journey, albeit slow and winding, to uncover the real history of my people; the good, the bad, and the ugly. I have never been in a rush and I don’t deign to know any “T”ruth, but I do know that the Sunday School version of the past did not hold up to much scrutiny.

This quixotic quest is how I found my way into the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment). I had read book after book about church history, Joseph Smith, polygamy, ordination and the 1980 Proclamation giving all worthy males the priesthood. Next on my list was the ERA. I was always a feminist by nature and had only a slight interest in drumming up the words of Sonia Johnson and Mormons for ERA from 1970s-mid 1980’s. I assumed I shared their ideology and that nothing would be particularly revealing. In all my research on the ERA including the church’s official stance I had yet to find a compelling argument against supporting this important initiative. The wild card, however, was Sonia Johnson.

Informal inquiries of older family and friends confirmed to me that she had acquired a reputation; one that was vague on details (“She was really excommunicated for other things if you know what I mean”) and strong in opinion (“She was the worst thing that ever happened to the church”). I did not have any formed opinion of her one way or the other and decided to educate myself. I picked up her book, From Housewife to Heretic, for four dollars online and mused that I would read it someday. All it took was one night. One night reading by the light of a bedside lamp and I was hooked. I devoured the book for days. Interestingly, the most shocking think I discovered was not that Sonia was some revolutionary out to harm the church, but that she was so normal; woman just like myself, my mom, half the ladies in my ward. I was shocked by her love of the church and her past as a card-carrying-pioneer-stalk-born-and-bred-ward-organist (both of these things she has since revoked).

While her treatment of patriarchy, men, hierarchy, and sexism is bold I do not think it is inaccurate. My only critique of the book is that she sometimes over generalizes men in the same ways she hates being a foregone conclusion just because she has a vagina. As I read Sonia’s life history late at night all of my own memories of slowing dying by a thousand paper cuts of sexism in the church, from simple dating annoyances to serious mistreatment by church leaders, came flooding back. One by one they had been manageable, ignorable even; small incidences of discrimination and painful collisions with “imperfect” men. But re-experiencing them conglomerated, set my heart on fire.

I related to one incident in particular that she describes in the book. It was at the very beginning of the church’s opposition to the ERA. Sonia and her friends did not understand the churches political involvement in the issue, let alone their opposition to it. She had been reading, researching and trying to receive a spiritual guidance that church leaders were inspired in this decision but all of her pleading led right back to the morality of equality and the imperative to fight for it. Yet, she wasn’t hard hearted. She wanted to find a way to value equality and maintain loyalty to the church at the same time. So when it was announced that the Stake President would hold a meeting to explain the church’s opposition to the ERA she invited all of her friends, prayed for guidance and anxiously awaited an inspired merging of her ideals:

“The next Sunday night when the Project Director got up to speak, nine of us Pro-ERA Mormons (in a group of twenty or thirty of the other kind) sat hoping that he would help us understand why our church, The Church of Jesus Christ, had taken what seemed to us such an un-Christianlike stand. But he wasn’t halfway through his first sentence before he had murdered that hope.

He had not, he informed us, prepared anything to say that night. And while he was on his way to the church, he had begun to get a little nervous about this (‘I should think so!’ I whispered to Rick). In the midst of his growing alarm, he suddenly remembered someone’s telling him there was an article about the ERA in the latest Pageant magazine (‘That woman’s magazine,’ he called it, which did little to halt my plummeting estimation…since Pageant, now deservedly defunct, was a C-grade Reader’s Digest). So when a 7-11 store miraculously appeared on the horizon, he had dashed in, bought a Pageant and, while we were having our opening song and prayer, read that article. Now, he announced triumphantly, he was ready to talk to us about the ERA.

This confession, which he seemed to regard as charming, dumbfounded me, and a fury like none I’d ever felt before anywhere for anyone—to say nothing of in church and for a church official—began to boil up inside me. On my recommendation my friends had driven an hour to get to this meeting. In our small pro-ERA group alone, there were three doctorates and three master’s degrees, and Pageant! Really! Pageant magazine. Such an insult, and not only to us. It was a slur on the mind of every person in that room none of whom was feebleminded.

Looking incredulously at the bland, empty smiling face of the Project Director, I knew the answer to the biblical question: ‘which of you, if your child ask for bread, would give her a stone?’ The answer was, ‘My church leaders.’ We had come hungering and thirsting for help, for a reason to believe that the leaders of our church were inspired, for a reason not to have to become renegades. We had come asking for thoughtful answers, for good sense, for concern, for comfort. And he had given us a stone. We had brought him our pain and our longing to believe, and he had given us Pageant.

In all our asking of church leaders since, the women and men of the church who by the thousands are troubled by the church’s anti-female activity have systematically been given stones.

As I watched him I realized that if he had been speaking on an issue that affected his civil rights—men’s human rights—he would have prepared very thoroughly indeed. But like all other leaders of the of the church with whom I have spoken or whose words I have read or heard since, he obviously considered women’s issues so trivial, so peripheral, that he did not feel any need to inform himself about them before going forth to teach and work against them. Women’s problems do not need to be taken seriously. Women must continue to put their needs and desires last for the sake of the kingdom, which belongs to and benefits men. Women’s pain does not matter as long as the institution prospers. In his infinite ignorance and insensitivity and lack of love, the Project Director…stood before us as a true representative of the leaders of the church. It was a heart-stopping revelation. I began to be in serious spiritual pain.

But it accomplished good things. It helped me begin to free myself from the bonds of Mormon leader worship” (Sonia Johnson. 1989. From Housewife to Heretic. Alburquerque, NM: Wildfire Books. Pages 103-104).

This story seared into my heart because in all these years of searching for truth and peace, in honestly seeking answers to religious conundrums and contradictions and trying to find a way to marry my internal moral compass to the political and contemporary values of the correlated church, I have been disappointed time and time again by the very leaders I fasted and prayed would give me the answers and comfort I so desperately sought.

Finishing the book was bittersweet. It was a re-read-the-last-page and savor the moment type of experience, but I did not respond to this book as I expected.  My typical reaction to gender inequality in the church is to be angry, try to make a difference, feel depressed and eventually get discouraged—effectively turning me into a bystander passively complicit in the damage that was happening around me. No. From Housewife to Heretic invigorated me. It lit my passions and gave me a confidence I had not experienced before.

I began sending emails to local and federal women’s organizations, the official equal rights amendment committee and educating myself on the topic. I read legal documents, journal articles and personal narratives about the history, legislation and controversies surrounding the ERA. Much to my surprise and gratitude I became good friends with some of the major players in Washington D.C. working to re-introduce and ratify the ERA in our lifetime. I was invited to the 40th anniversary of the ERA’s passage through congress in 1972 and brimmed with joy as I sat representing Mormons for ERA at the National Council for Women’s Organizations (NCWO) surrounded by senators, congress people and most importantly many of the very same women who had marched in the streets and whose passion and unyielding support for women’s equality I had read about in Sonia’s narrative. I do not know what will happen with the ERA in the future. All I know is that I will be there. On the front lines.

Read through some of my favorite quotes from the book in the previous post entitled “Sonia Johnson Quotes in From Housewife to Heretic or click on the link here. Which one did you relate to the most? Are you surprised more by how much the church has changed or by how little it has changed since Sonia’s day? What are your feelings, questions, thoughts or opinions about the ERA? Will you be on the front lines of the next battle? Why or why not?




  1. From Housewife to Heretic is on its way to me this instant (ordered it a couple of days ago).

    You said you sat representing Mormons for the ERA at the NCWO; are there any remnants of Mormons for the ERA today? A website? Mailing list? Just curious. 🙂

  2. Whoa-man,
    This post just gave me chills. There is so much in that quote that I can identify with. It’s hard when the problems women find in the church are not taken seriously by church leaders.

    I just signed the petition and noticed that there are only 1500 signatures with a goal of only 5,000. I’m disappointed that it’s not bigger, but I guess this is just one of those issues that is so controversial it’s hard to revive. What do you think?

    • I think Caroline said it best in her comment below: “duh.” ERA is so off people’s radar. They think it is over and done with. No one knows that some form of it has been brought up in congress SINCE 1923! You heard that right!!! Since 1923! So what is the difference between the ERA in 1923, 1940, 1972, 19995, 2002, and 2012? Not much. At least that is what everyone thinks. Only the truth is that women make up over 52% of the United States population. If we really cared, if we really worked together and if we stopped fighting amongst ourselves 2013 could be the year it happens…..but it is up to us. In a nutshell, I think people just don’t know anything about it.

  3. Who

    Thanks for your hard work and research. There is so much information here and there’s so much to digest to even begin to make a coherent response.

    When I think of ERA I think of Emma Smith. Why? Because she was the first to tell Joseph no, and How did Joseph respond. He had Oliver C. come over and lay his hands on her head to cast out the devil.

    I know this might seem unrelated, but, until current church leaders begin to address what happened to Emma (truthfully) I don’t really see a change even begin to happen

    • Wow. I had never really thought about that incident in connection with current women’s issues in the church but you are right, Diane. This is a huge problem and it has never been addressed properly and everything else comes down to the question: Can women receive their own inspiration and will men (especially men in leadership positions) respect it when they do? Fascinating point. Thank you for sharing!

  4. I was a recent RM when the church brought politics to the pulpit. I wrote letters, I spoke out, I did everything they wanted me to do. In later years I found out what went on in the backrooms outside my view. So when Prop 8 arrived I was prepared. I said no to every request for my involvement.

    • Thank you. It is wonderful to hear your perspective. The truth of the matter is that most of the political action taken on by the church has happened only once in an active member’s lifetime (or at least only once before they become more aware of the underside of things) and so we don’t know what to do when the issue is read from the pulpit. I have countless friends and family who did exactly what was asked during ERA and then prop 8, with gusto, only to feel bad about it later and swear they would not do the same thing again. It is as if the values that have been engrained our entire lives have a hierarchy, the obedience and loyalty responses react so much faster than our loving kindness and intelligence ones. Why is that?

  5. Thank you for this post and for your contagious passion for the ERA. I was not on the frontlines of the ERA fight forty years ago, but I should have been. How I wish the Church had not gotten involved in the opposition. So many times I have wondered how things would have been different had the Church leaders not jumped on that bandwagon. It is good to see a younger generation taking on the ERA battle, but I feel badly that my generation didn’t take care of this the first time around. Thank you for your activism and your inspiration to others. I don’t think there is a lot of enthusiasm for the ERA these days, but there should be. It’s not too late.

  6. Whoa-man,
    Thank you for this post. I’ve read From Housewife to Heretic a couple of times now, and Johnson’s analysis of the institutional Mormon church and its leaders is devastating. I found her writing very powerful, if a bit dramatic at times.

    I love your passion for the ERA. If there’s not much enthusiasm for it in the general public today, I wonder if it’s because it’s such a “duh! of course” issue for most people. Of course women should be written into the constitution and recognized as fully human. Of course they shouldn’t be discriminated against.

    I’m looking forward to your next post on this!

  7. I had the honor of having Laurel Thatcher Ulrich guest lecture one of my courses on Mormonism and the ERA, and what it was like to be a Mormon women during that time. There were several things that stood out to me in her three hour presentation, but one of them was when she explained her surprise and sympathy that Sonia was excommunicated. When a non-member friend asked her if she was worried that it might happen, she said, “Oh no. My church doesn’t excommunicate people on belief.” Another thing that struck me was when a male, non-LDS classmate asked Laurel why she didn’t protest in the same (radical) ways that Sonia did. She again expressed great sympathy, before stating that for her it was best to use spiritual means to influence a spiritual sphere rather than secular means. Some (including the initial questioner) objected. The next week we spoke more about that exchange, and someone pointed out how Laurel still has influence, and her voice is still being heard and making change, when it seemed that Sonia’s wasn’t.

    It could be argued that because of her book, that Sonia IS still having influence (and I think the argument would be correct), but it was at the very least, interesting to think about. Afterwards I tried to read all I could about Sonia and was similarly surprised by her normal-ness. She even looked like an average LDS woman(!)

    Because of your powerful post, I have a great desire to read her words, and learn even more about the ERA. For now, I plan to be on the front lines with you. 🙂

  8. I felt like Johnson described the first time the church released a letter telling us how to vote. It was on a anti – gay marriage proposition in my state, several years prior to the more publicized California prop. I was surprised that the church was actually directing members how to vote and while I did not like the church’s political involvement, I did not want to oppose the church and was actually hoping they would give me some logical reasons to support their position. Instead, all they gave us were silly sound bites like “protect the sanctity of marriage”. I expressed my frustration to one of my church leaders and he empathized because he had the same concerns during the era push.

  9. I lived through that time, met Johnson in person, and read the book within a few years of its publication. While there certainly are some parts of it that make her appear typical, other bits do not resonate with me at all. Her relationship with her husband was indeed pretty sick, but I do not agree with her assessment that “patriarchy” was to blame for his actions. I cannot imagine that any church leader would support what he did. I don’t know another LDS woman who would, as she did, agree to a “phony” legal divorce (with the idea that they would stay together bound by love and not a piece of paper.)

    I feel a connection with her because we both came to our points of view during 1978. For me, it was passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and hearing the NPR coverage, in which questions were raised about whether it could have been passed if ERA were part of the constitution. Since I was suffering from severe debilitating nausea with my first daughter, I got to thinking about the real differences between men and women, and perhaps the church had a point, after all.

    I was very involved with anti-ERA in the early 1980s, because we moved to a state capitol where it was just a crosstown drive to make a difference. Our church organization was nothing like Johnson describes in the book. I was one of the instigators, with no request or support from male leaders. I think Johnson has some valid points about the excesses, and I might have a different attitude if I had seen such things. But they didn’t happen where I lived. And her point in the book about Mormons being responsible for defeat of the ERA was questionable, in my experience. Mormons played only a small role in our state. Our group of sisters only went to demonstration when we got a call from the local Eagle Forum (Phyllis Shlafly’s group), not from any LDS coordinator at the stake or regional level (never heard of one existing).

    The other thing is that when I met Johnson, she was quick to dismiss me as “brainwashed and naive.” I thought that was sad, because I have always respected that other women could come to a different point of view on such issues, and I never heard President Barbara Smith speak on the issue without expressing great love for others who have different points of view. That was later, on a speaking tour when Johnson was already a lesbian. But I found her lack of sisterly feeling to be unkind and sad.

    I do want equality. I just don’t think that ERA is necessarily the mechanism to get it. I want true equality, that recognizes the talents and contributions of women as being equal to those of men.

    For example, why does the US offer a tax credit for childcare for parents who are employed for pay, but not for parents involved in eldercare? Why is there a tax credit for fuel-efficient cars but not for mothers who breastfeed for a year, since that is best for baby and better for the environment? Why do we offer a GI Bill to help soldiers re-integrate into the civilian workforce, but don’t make such an effort to help full-time parents re-integrate when their children are grown? Why is oil painting considered high art, but quilting merely a craft? Why do we USAmerican not offer maternity leaves of 6 months (paid) or up to 5 years unpaid (guaranteed job) as is found in Western European countries? Why isn’t it mandated that parents have the right to attend university part-time in order to be home with their school-aged children after school, rather than being forced to go full-time?

    Until those kinds of actions are taken, it is not equality in my book, but merely recognizing women who do the same things as men.

    • Naismith, thanks for that extra perspective on that era of the ERA (ha!). It’s always interesting to me to hear the different viewpoints of the people who lived through that.

  10. Where do I find what it was that most Christian Churches were worried about? Which particular amendments made them fear that they would be forced to accept certain things against their religion particularly the Mormon Church. Had a recent discussion about how good Housewife to Heretic was with a friend who was sure that there was something in those amendments that would be terrible for woman. Forced enlistment in the armed forces, shared restrooms? Those kinds of things stick out in my mind as being very silly. Can you guide me to the amendments ask for back in the 70’please?

  11. […] and future. In the first post I gave some background information on the equal rights amendment, in next post I outlined my personal journey from knowing nothing about the ERA, to reading From Hous…This final post will be dedicated to the future of the ERA, why it is so important and what you can […]

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