Sonia Johnson Quotes in From Housewife to Heretic

From Housewife to Heretic: One woman’s spiritual awakening and her excommunication from the Mormon church 

On Being a Woman:

“At the time our great suffragist foremothers were struggling for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, the antis were saying exactly what they are saying today against legal equality. And so should we, as Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus did in California in the 1980 campaign, lay the moral decay and all problems of society at the feet of voting women? We may laugh. But in fact, patriarchy does just that: lays the blame on women for all evil. And women must stop accepting that blame. It is not evil for women to have justice under the law any more than it is for them to vote. It is evil for them not to be protected in this greatest of all democracies. Like our foremothers, we should carry banners every day at the White House declaring, ‘America is not a democracy. Women do not have liberty here. How long must women wait for liberty?’” (372)

“I am glad to be a woman and have never wished to be a man, but I would certainly like some of the benefits that men enjoy. I would like my work in the home—which society so hypocritically tells me is all-important and then never compensates me for—to be considered of some economic value when my husband dies or leaves me, or when I am old and need social security. When I work outside the home, I would like to make as much money as men make for doing the same work or work of equal value. And I cannot imagine anything more rewarding than to have people presume before I even open my moth that what I am about to say has some value, and when I do say it, to presume that I know what I’m talking about, as people presume about men. For women to be taken seriously would be novel indeed. I would like to help make that a reality” (365-366).


Mormon Womanhood:

“One Mormon woman tells me that she ‘would prefer to do things that are more femine [sic]’….Men are the ones to decide what is ‘feminine.’And—what else is new?- they do it without consulting us. I for one resent that, and refuse to accept their definition. It does  not apply to be or to any woman I admire or respect. We are not weak—physically or mentally, emotionally or spiritually. We do not need to be protected by others, only by the law. We are not incompetent, we are not by nature any more dependent, submissive, unsure, clinging, fearful, manipulative, seductive, childish, than the men we know. We do not need or desire to live vicariously through men and children. None of this describes me or those of my models who are most womanly. The womanly women I know stand up straight and strong on their own two feet, on their own merits, and on their own term. Men no longer define us for ourselves and therefore we are not—thank goodness—‘feminine.’ We are womanly. Let those women who are afraid to grow up, afraid to be human beings, be ‘feminine’ for the men” (366).

“Like many other Mormons, [my mother] could insist on a belief in equality as being a correct, God-ordained principle, and in the neighboring compartment of believe that patriarchy is the only social organization acceptable to God. As long as she held these contradictory ideas in perfect balance, never letting herself see into them both at the same time, she was all right. It was only when something jarred her—like my trial—and she had to face the contradictions that she could not cope. Orwell, in 1984, called it doublethink” (316).

“A clue to basic inequality is that no woman in the entire church, no matter what her position, is ever accorded a title by which to be addressed. Women are all ‘sister,’ up to and including the top female in the structure. There are no titles of respect and deference, for all our ‘exalted’ position. There is no rank. No woman, no matter how learned in the scriptures, no matter how spiritually gifted, can ever rise above ‘sister.’ Not that anybody, male or female, ever should rise above ‘brother’ or ‘sister.’ It seems to me that Christian philosophy is fiercely egalitarian and unhierarchical, and that all this rank business—which is by nature classist and sexist—is un-Christian, perhaps even anti-Christian. But so long as one segment of a society has rank and title, the segment that does not is oppressed. Either everyone should be accorded titles (the same titles for men and women), or no one should. I prefer the latter” (250).

“I wish there were time to talk at length about why the pedestal as a symbol of women’s immobilization and isolation in our male-centered society, more than any other symbol—the gilded cage, the doll’s house—reveals our savage misogyny. Briefly, it is physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually cramped. It is precarious, and a fall is dangerous, if not fatal. It maroons women and keeps us emotionally stranded from one another. And by placing us in the position customarily occupied by statues, it reveals society’s attempt to render us as conveniently nonhuman, mindless, and will-less as works of art” (202).


Women’s role:

[There has been a lot of discussion about Boyd K Packer’s recent quote “that thing that is of most worth for a woman in this life to live the gospel, to be the wife and the mother of the children of a worthy holder of the priesthood.” I found a quote that is very apropro. It is just a footnote on page 255 and I have included all of Sonia’s commentary and the original manual lesson as well just for context.]

‘”Mormon women are openly taught, as many of their fundamentalist sisters are, that one of their most important duties in this life is to protect and build the egos of their husbands. In fact, the Brethren are so anxious for women to learn this lesson that it turns up everywhere, often in the most inappropriate places. Take, for example, this section from a Motherhood Education lesson in the Relief Society manuel, 1978-79, p. 114: “Question: What can parents do to counteract the influence of harmful television programs? Answer: Exposure to Improper attitudes concerning Male-Female Roles: [original emphasis] The power of genuine and virtuous love can be exemplified for children in the daily habits of consideration and concern between husband and wife. It is especially important for a wife to show loyalty and support to her husband as leader in the family. This patriarchal order is the core of successful life. Elder Boyd K. Packer has suggested ways in which a woman can show this support: ‘He needs to know that he is protecting you. He needs to feel and know that he is the leader in the family. He needs a wife and a sweetheart with whom he can share that love, with whom he can have its full, complete expression. He needs to have a circle, a family circle, with children. This is makes all that he must face out in the world seem worthwhile. He needs to feel dominant. He needs to be the protector. When he feels this, he is a better man. He is a better husband. He is a better employee, a better employer. He is better adjusted and happier in life. He can do better work. He can even be more prosperous….Young sisters, if you take that role from him, the one he needs, you reduce his manhood.’ Thus by being loving, by helping her husband magnify his role and by taking satisfaction in her role, a mother can counteract much of the influence of unwholesome television.” Obviously in the Brethren’s minds, the most harmful thing on television is not violence or sex or the ideas that wealth and fame are the prime goals in life, but the occasional image of a mature woman or a mature man.”‘ (Sonia Johnson. 1989. From Housewife to Heretic. Alburquerque, NM: Wildfire Books. Pages 255-256, footnote)
“One of the hottest-selling books in Mormondom—published by the church—is an unbelievably masochistic, motivating-by-fear-and-guilt little volume entitled Woman’s Divine Destiny, in which the author, Mildred Chandler Austin, has this to say about the wifely role: ‘I once heard a marriage counselor talk about how one should choose a mate as he chooses a shoe: if it isn’t a good fit, it will be painful. If we consider this shoe-to-foot analogy, we can see the husband as being the foot, having to climb the rocky road to exaltation. A bare foot is going to find the path too painful; it needs a comforter, a shoe. When I consider what makes a shoe comfortable, I see more clearly how to be a comforting wife….Those of us playing the role of shoes need to seriously consider what happens to shoes that are painful. They are generally discarded and a more comfortable pair takes their place. Some men are honorable enough to endure the pain of uncomfortable shoes…’But obviously if a woman chooses not to be as comfortable as an old shoe, she risks losing the wonderful privilege of being stomped on day after day, year after year, by that ambitious little foot climbing the rocky road to exaltation. The implication, too, is that women are not climbing that same rocky road and therefore have no need of shoes themselves. Do only men need worry about exaltation? If not, where are women’s comforters? How are we going to reach those rocky heights without shoes of our own? And once again, the analogy for women is a thing, a nonhuman thing, unlike the human foot, which represents men. It is apparently, our ‘divine destiny’ not to be persons but always commodities, and in this case a commodity that is always discarded sometime during its owner’s life, since no shoe is ever comfortable forever” (256-257).


“Many Mormon letters criticized me ‘for bringing the church into this by calling yourselves Mormons for ERA.’ I pointed out to these folks that they had it backward: the church chose politics first and forced us out there into that arena by doing so. They asked me, ‘Why do you have to knock the church?’ and I answered that they church started the fight by knocking women’s rights” (364).

“’How can you care about the church and at the same time talk to the press?’ he asked me uncomprehendingly. In other words, how can you tell the truth about the shoddy business going on in the church when you have been trained from birth to protect the reputation of the church above all else? I told him I figured it was the church leaders’ responsibility to look out for the church’s reputation, and that if church leaders did not want sleazy things known about the organization, they should stop doing them, not try to shut up those of us who were reporting them. I reminded him that I had told nothing but the truth…and nothing but provable facts about the church’s nationwide involvement in anti-ERA politics, and that being quiet in order to protect the church’s reputation was as diminishing to my integrity as being unethical was to the integrity of the church.

He could not understand. As a staunch believer, he probably could not imagine the church leader’s ever going too far for him. Men have such an enormous stake in the Old Boy’s Club. Which is the reason that the crack in the “protect-the-church-no-matter-what” system had to come from women. And explains why women will continue to be in the vanguard, not just in the Mormon church about civil politics, but in all churches’ internal patriarchal politics. Not that there are not Mormon men out there who are livid about the church’s anti-human rights stands and practices. But that women, being outside the system whether they know it or not, have so much less to lose. Nothing to lose, in fact, and everything to gain.” (306).

“This typical patriarchal conviction that women ought to be ‘discreet’ about opposing men whereas men may be as open as they wish in their opposition to women is simply more evidence of the ubiquitous double standard. Politics is a rough game and the church is out there on the field playing rough. In choosing politics, it chose opponents who play for keeps, too. Since the church isn’t wearing white glove in their anti-woman fight, they can hardly expect women to keep theirs on. What in the world to Mormons—and other anti-female religious new Righters—expect women to do? Allow ourselves to be ground into the dust without a whimper? Discreet? I should certainly think not!” (198).

“Because I have personally watched my people, the Mormons—who love women—fight tooth and nail against women’s rights all across this nation, their protestations of ‘love,’ protestations of belief in ‘equality,’ ‘family,’ and ‘life’ therefore strike me as singularly unconvincing. The real question is, what are they doing for women? If they believe in equality, let them organize in even one state, to get even one law through to even one legislature that would give women real protection— the kind men have—with the same Salt Lake-directed, single-minded ferocity they display in their fight against all women’s issues everywhere. Then perhaps I will begin to believe. If they really love women, let them stop fighting battered women’s shelters, day-care centers, planned parenthood, sex education in the schools, rape laws, marital property and divorce laws, ERA—the whole movement for women’s right to life. Then perhaps I will begin to believe. If they really love women, let them stop insisting that, though men have never had to win their civil rights state by state, women must. As Barbara Mikulski has said, it’s very like Lincoln’s advising the slaves to win their freedom plantation by plantation” (188).

“There are over 800 federal statutes that discriminate against women on the basis of sex, according to the United States Civil Rights Comission. If it takes 8 years to change 14 laws [Reagan brags about having changed 14 laws for women in the state of California during his two terms as governor], according to my arithmetic it would take 457 years to change 800 laws. We may be a patient people, but that is ridiculous” (188) (quoting Eleanor Smeal, National NOW times, Oct/Nov 1980).

[story about Stake president arranging a meeting to explain the church’s opposition to the ERA]:

“The next Sunday night when the Projec t 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” (103-104).


  1. Somehow I missed this when it was posted. Thanks for sharing — I felt angry and betrayed when I read this book at age 14, and Sonia’s words still sit in a corner of my brain and speak to me when I’m most frustrated with patriarchy. I’m glad to have the reminder that I’m not alone, and I’m even more glad to see it posted in a public forum. I hope very much that the events of the last few years turn church leaders away from an interest in politics, and that the existence of the Internet makes it unreasonably difficult for her nightmare ever to be repeated.

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