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: www.equalrightsamendment.org
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?
- Check out the official ERA website, background and current initiatives here: www.equalrightsamendment.org
- Sign the Change.org petition to let Congress know that we haven’t forgotten about the ERA: http://www.change.org/petitions/equal-rights-amendment-sj-res-21-hj-res-69-sj-res-39-and-hj-res-47
- Check out the page dedicated to honoring Sonia at We are Women: http://www.wearewoman.us/2012/04/honoring-sonia-johnson-former-mormon.html