Guest Post: Sonia Johnson–Mormon Feminist Role Model or Cautionary Tale?

We’re glad to be the ones to post Kay’s piece, a preview for the panel she’ll be doing at Sunstone (with another Exponent II friend, Paula Goodfellow).

by Kay Gaisford

This is the 30th anniversary year of Sonia Johnson’s excommunication in December 1979. When I mention her to 30-something Mormons, including feminists, I find that responses vary from “I don’t recall ever hearing about her” to “I have negative associations because, although my parents are much more open and accepting than many TBMs, they have little tolerance for people who speak out publicly against the church.”

For readers who know little about Sonia and her excommunication, here’s a brief overview.

Sonia was a fairly average Mormon wife and mother of four (not average in that she earned a EdD while her children were young). Raised in small-town Idaho, after marriage she followed her husband’s job peregrinations and lived a rather vagabond life, a few years in each location. Feminism came very gradually to importance in her thinking. She says in her autobiography, From Housewife to Heretic, (published in 1980) that in 1968, her Palo Alto 2nd Ward bishop, Henry D. Taylor Jr., “watered and cultivated it [the seed of feminism] by reading from the pulpit a priesthood directive sent out by the first president of the church prohibiting women from leading the congregation in prayer in the sacrament meetings of the church from that time forward. Sitting in the audience with baby Marc on my lap, I was stunned. My first reaction…was ‘What have women done to deserve this?’” (That directive was issued in December 1967 and was reversed in September 1978.)

After moving to Virginia in 1976, Sonia’s feminist sensibilities were outraged as she perceived male church leaders directing women to organize and lobby against the ERA. Ironically, of the four “founding mothers” of Mormons for ERA (MERA), she was the one who didn’t have a full-time job and was most available to be the spokesperson for the group. Her forceful rhetoric (sometimes quoted out of context in media reports) alarmed church leaders, leading eventually to her excommunication.

Sonia portrays herself in her autobiography as an earnest, believing Mormon up to age 42, praying earnestly at every point in her life. After hearing her speak in early 1980, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote in her diary,

“Strangely enough, I don’t think she is very political at all. She is disarmingly open, which is undoubtedly what got her in all this trouble. She is also very Mormon in her ability to act on faith. She said she arrived at this position through agonizing prayer and fasting. She simply could not separate her belief in the ERA from her belief in the church.”

For the Sunstone Symposium this August, Paula Goodfellow and I are organizing a panel about Sonia Johnson and the fact that it’s now 30 years since her excommunication in 1979. We’ll take a look at whether she had lasting influence on women in the church—or the church itself. We hope to hear what readers of The Exponent know and think about her. Maybe one or more of the following questions will inspire you to write a response.

1. Do you know very much (and have opinions) about the political events that led to Johnson’s excommunication? Share your opinions about Sonia and her activities during the 1970s and later.
2. Would Mormon feminism be where it is today if Sonia had never acted?
3. In what ways is the church different for feminists today than in 1979?
4. Is church rhetoric about women different today than in the 70s?
5. Are Mormon feminists different today than the 1970s activists?
6. Are women more likely to be activists regarding church issues than men?
7. If you consider yourself a feminist, share some comments on why your thinking led you in that direction, compared to friends or sisters who don’t share your views.

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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55 Responses

  1. Anita says:

    What is a TBM (first paragraph)? And what has happened to Sonia in the past 30 years–did she come back to the church?

  2. Kew says:

    As a 23-year-old, I have never understood the fuss over the ERA. I don’t understand fully what the ERA called for, and why the church was so opposed to it. When I hear about Sonia, it is in references like the one above where I don’t understand why she was excommunicated. To my knowledge, the church isn’t excommunicating those that come out in support of gay marriage rights in current political debates.

  3. Diana says:

    I’m in my early sixties so remember the Sonia Johnson era quite well. At the time I was bothered by her speaking out against the church but on the other hand – have always considered myself a feminist. I’m not sure where that comes from but I was raised in the church well outside of the heart of mormonism in another country. Feminism just felt right to me – in the same way that polygamy doesn’t. I am deeply embarrassed by what happened to Sonia and don’t understand why the church wouldn’t embrace the ERA. Different times, I guess. I’d be very interested to know how she is doing now and what her views are.

  4. Amelia says:

    Anita, I think TBM means True Blue Mormon.

    Some answers to your questions, Kay:

    1. I’ve studied the events surrounding the church and the ERA a bit on my own. I didn’t know anything about Sonia Johnson until well into my adult life. The ERA was simply not something that was discussed in my family or social circle while I was growing up (i’m nearly 34). i respect johnson very much for her actions regarding the ERA and her willingness to stand up and speak out. like the other commenters, i’d very much like to know where she is today.

    3-5. i think the key difference between today and the 1970s is that feminism has worked so many changes in our society that most women just take it as a given that they’re equal to men, including in the church (in spite of the potential reasons to believe otherwise). i think as a result of the way feminism has changed society as a whole, both church members and church leaders have modified their rhetoric about women. i also think there was a lot of reactionary response in the church in the 70s against those bra-burning feminists.

    7. this one is interesting. BYU made me feminist. mostly because i got disgusted by all the women who were planning to be wives and mothers. not that i have anything against being either a wife or a mother; just that i was disgusted by the belief that that was the only important thing a woman could do. i imagine my not getting married young had a lot to do with it, too; it gave me a chance to find myself in a way i’m not sure i would have had i married very young. please don’t misread my comment–i’m not condemning young marriages; i have multiple siblings who got married young and i think they made good decisions. i’m simply commenting on my own development as an individual and a feminist.

    just a few thoughts. i may add more later after having a chance to think further on the questions.

  5. Aaron says:

    “strong rhetoric” eh? She had a plane flown over SLC during general conference trailing a pro-ERA message. She told people not to let missionaries in the door until the Church went for the ERA.
    She did not understand much about how to effect change within the Church. Applying public pressure is about the least effective way possible. There’s an old Sunstone essay worth reading by Orson Scott Card in which he talks about effecting change in the Church, and invokes her name, “Walking the Tightrope.”
    My exposure to the ERA came largely through reading history and talking to one of my old employers about it. He had a lengthy paper written up about it which he shared.

  6. Naismith says:

    I read her book and met her in the 1980s, and I am very unimpressed. She blames the church for lots of things that a woman as bright as she claims to be should have known for herself–like when I guy asks for a divorce and says that staying together after the divorce is a proof of true love, run like hell.

    I also applaud the church for excommunicating her for her actions against the church, when there was grounds to excommunicate her for fornication with her not-married husband. That would have been an easy way out for the church if they had wanted to take it.

    She makes some good points–like the string music as prelude music–but it is lost in her lack of personal integrity.

    And to clarify, she earned an EdD not a PhD.

    I think we can find many more worthy role models.

  7. David G. says:

    As I was just a few months old when she was excommunicated, I have no living memory of the ERA controversy. It was not until grad school that I began reading up a bit more on her.

    Several people have asked about ther post-Mormon life. After her excommunication and divorce, she entered into several lesbian relationships and continued writing and giving lectures on the evils of not only marriages to men, but “even relationships between female couples are a dangerous patriarchal trap, because ‘two is the ideal number for inequality, for sadism, for the reproduction of patriarchy’, and that relationships are ‘slave Ships.'” She has also argued that “sex as we know it is a patriarchal construct and has no rightful, natural place in our lives, no authentic function or ways. Synonymous with hierarchy/control, sex is engineered as part of the siege against our wholeness and power.” (both quotes from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonia_Johnson)

    • Michelle says:

      that’s funny because I know her a little. She is a good friend of a member of my family and she lives with her “partner.” I guess she is not against changing her mind as she “learns” something new, which I think she has always claimed since her break with the Mormon church.

  8. Chris H. says:

    Oh, just an Ed.D. Come on now. Challenging her personal integrity is cheap.

    I read about Johnson in Orrin Hatches biography. At the time (I was 16) Hatch was my hero. Now I am a liberal socialist with feminist sensibilities. I think that the Sonia Johnson example is sort of sad. She really became a bit of a scape goat. She was the Mormon Feminist boogey woman.

    I am only 32, so I do not remember the ERA struggle. But I sometimes relate it to my own very conflicted feelings about Prop. 8. To be honest, I would like to know more about feminists who stayed throught the ERA. I am aware of such books, I should hunt them down.

  9. Treni says:

    Sonia Johnson is far more gadfly than mormon feminist role model. The last I heard of her was in a newspaper article about 10-15 years ago. She had come out as a lesbian and was starting a lesbian commune where the residents would each only do those tasks they personally found to be enjoyable and fulfilling. When it was asked what would happen if no one found cleaning the toilets to their liking she gave some strange answer, I can’t really remember what. Anyway, a short while later there was another story saying her grand experiment hadn’t worked out.

  10. KayG says:

    Thanks for the correction, Naismith.
    Sonia did have an EdD not a PhD.
    Since the reason for my post is to elicit responses from Exponent readers, not to expound on my own opinions, I’ll wait until later to respond.
    Thank you to all who are willing to share your ideas—part of our presentation is to share what feminists today—young and old—think about Sonia and her influence. I’ll share the presentation with you after we give it!

  11. E says:

    I read her book years ago, and have occasionally read other profiles/interviews of her since. I agree with Naihsmith, I really can’t work up any sympathy for her. Everything is so self-serving, profiles written by others invariably take her claim to perfect orthodoxy at face value and distort the story in order to portray her as a victim. The reasons for her excommunication were certainly much more than just because she supported the ERA. And I think her lifestyle immediately afterward demonstrates that her supposed faithfulness was more about creating a useful image than anything else.

  12. Chris H. says:

    Looks like my last comment got axed in moderation. I think that she was made a scapegoat. However, I also respect her for being willing to take on that role (this is not to say that I agree with all she had to say).

    I like to think that I would have supported the ERA, though I am not sure if it came up in nursery or not.

    I think we should be careful not to judge her motives during ERA based on her later activities. I just do not think it is fair.

    Just one male feminist’s thoughts.

  13. javelin19 says:

    It wasn’t that long ago, mid 1990s, that a mormon male could be excommunicated just for saying he was gay. He didn’t have to be in a relationship. Heck, at BYU-Hawaii in 1994 my science professor said that AIDS could only be spread by a man. He felt it was impossible for a woman to also infect others with AIDS through sexual activity. Go back to the 1970s and it is clear to see how a woman with a voice would be a thorn to mormon leaders.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m a little young to have had very direct experience with her (I was just coming off my mission in 1979).
    At the time I was against the ERA, accepting Rex Lee’s arguments that it wasn’t necessary due to the 14th amendment,
    and that you don’t mess with the Constitution unnecessarily. (Ironically, those same arguments lead me to
    reject the proposed marriage amendment.) If the ERA came up today, I would probably be in favor of it; I have gotten
    more liberal over time.

    My impression of Sonia was that she seemed very naive to me. And the strange turns her life took after the excommunication
    didn’t really do much to sustain her point of view among rank and file Mormons.

    I do have a story about her. When I was in law school at the University of Illinois in the 80s (post excommunication),
    she came and spoke on campus. Several other LDS and I went to hear her speak. It was in a classroom sized room; I’d guess there were
    maybe 50 people present. What I recall was that she was extremely New Agey. At one point she had us all stand up and hold hands 2i5h
    each other; I can’t quite recall, but I think we were supposed to sway back and forth and chant something or other.

    Anyway, I happened to be sitting next to this absolutely gorgeous woman (whom I didn’t know at all), and she was really into it,
    so she took my hand and we did what Sonia asked. So I spent the last part of her presentation holding the hand of a beautiful stranger.

    It was quite bizarre.

  15. kmillecam says:

    1. I don’t know too much other than what I read in Sonia’s book From Housewife to Heretic. I feel very sympathetic to how she felt. It sure feels a lot like how the last year has gone for me with Prop 102 (Prop 8 equivalent in AZ). When politics are discussed in your church meetings it just feels wrong.
    2. I’m not sure about this one. Sonia brought awareness so that is arguably good. But she has also been so demonized that it seems that some Mormon women find it that much easier to dismiss feminism as obviously evil.
    3. I wasn’t born until 1980, but I still think that feminism seems different now compared to what I have heard/read from 1979. I would like to think that Mormon women now feel more like equal partners to men, that they can more readily pursue a career while also having a family (much like men have been doing all along), etc.
    4. I don’t know. Yes and no. It seems the rhetoric from the 70s is staying alive by quotation/remembrance, but it’s at least tempered by newer rhetoric.
    5. I don’t know.
    6. Yes, IMO.
    7. My thinking led me to feminism probably because I grew up with expectations from parents that I was just as smart and athletic as my male counterparts. I expected to go to college, have a career, get married and have kids. I assume that I consider myself a feminist because I see inequality and want to heal it and change it. So I suppose compared to friends and sisters who don’t share my views, I think they do not see inequality. I would argue that I hope they do at some point.

    p.s. Yes Sonia became more and more radical, and a lesbian. But let’s not dismiss everything she did and said in 1979 just because you may disagree with those things. I liked From Housewife to Heretic and recommend it to give perspective on Sonia’s life.

  16. CatherineWO says:

    Before I answer your very thought-provoking questions, I want to recommend the book _Pedestals and Podiums_ by Martha Sonntag Bradley. I know it has been referenced on this site before. It is not only a thorough rendering of the whole ERA/LDS Church experience, it is also very well written–a very good read.
    As for your questions:
    1. I was newly married and starting to raise a family during this time period. I remember receiving a copy of the pamphlet the Church published about the ERA (I still have it) and being very disturbed by it. Everyone I knew (with the possible exception of my mother, who was too far away for a live conversation) seemed to so fully support the Church’s possition that I never felt comfortable expressing my questions until years later. Mostly, I just felt hurt and unsettled by it.
    My most concrete memory of Sonia Johnson was when she chained herself to the fence of the Seattle temple during the open house or dedication in 1979. She was arrested, but released, and she and some other women were marching with signs on the public sidewalk in front of the temple when my husband and I attended one of the dedication sessions. I remember feeling embarrassed, on two counts. One, for them, that they were making a spectacle of an event that I deemed to be so sacred. And two, for the Church, that had taken a stand that portrayed all Mormons as sexist. I felt very sad about the whole thing.
    2. Sonia was not the only LDS woman to speak up in favor of the ERA. I think some of her actions put Mormon feminism back instead of forwards, while others were trying to make real progress. And I have to agree that in many ways, I think she was very naive.
    3. We have the internet, so we are better able to connect to each other. In 1979, we were very isolated from each other.
    4. Very much so. I would like to see it go futher beyon rhetoric, but rhetoric is a start.
    5. Yes. My observation is that young Mormon feminists today are much more willing to speak up, in forums like this one and in church meetings. Also, there are more men in the mix, and, since they have the authority, that’s the only way really change will be affected.
    6. I’m not sure on that one. Probably.
    7. My mother was a feminist, though I don’t recall her ever giving herself that title. She and my dad had the most egalitarian relationship of any couple I knew in the 50s and 60s. She also had a keen understanding for minorities and a drive for social justice.

  17. JB says:

    I am 37 years old. I was about 8 or 9 during the ERA fight, and was very alert to the Church’s stance on it. I read From Housewife to Heretic at a feminist reading group led by Cecilia Konchar Farr during the early 1990s at BYU, and it was startling. There are things she says about the nature of patriarchy and the fact that within a patriarchy the public exercise of authority by women is heresy that is still true in our tradition. I am saddened sometimes when I read Mormon feminist blogs and find so much forgetting among women my age and younger, so much innocence about the depth and difficulty of our Mormon feminist history. To understand who we are as Mormon women and feminists we have to be very clear and honest about the ground we have lost and the difficulties feminists have always encountered in our tradition. Sonia is part of that.

  18. newt says:

    1. Do you know very much (and have opinions) about the political events that led to Johnson’s excommunication? Share your opinions about Sonia and her activities during the 1970s and later.
    I found out about the whole ERA thing a year or so ago (I was born in 1984, and my parents did not convert until two years later, so I had no first- or even second-hand background with the issue). I recently read the article “The ERA Is a Moral Issue”: The Mormon Church, LDS Women, and the Defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment by Neil J. Young. This was my first introduction to Sonia Johnson. The article is a little bit chilling, for those who haven’t read it, but I did also think the author was somewhat harsh about church members’ and leaders’ motivations. I imagine she could have been perhaps a bit more diplomatic, but on some level I can admire her courage in standing up for what she believed to be right.

    2. Would Mormon feminism be where it is today if Sonia had never acted?
    While I’m not certain about the impact of Johnson specifically, I do believe that the LDS feminists who came before us, whether they were excommunicated or not, DID shake things up, and I think that feminism in general has impacted the ideas taught by the church. I think that the church is very influenced by outside cultural forces. Not that this is a good thing or a bad thing. It just is. We like to see the church in a vacuum, but it’s not. How could it be?

    3. In what ways is the church different for feminists today than in 1979?
    4. Is church rhetoric about women different today than in the 70s?

    Yes, the rhetoric about women does seem to have changed, at least from what I can gather. The church appears to be trying to embrace more rhetoric on equality, less on wifely submission and things like that (while it continues to hold onto the remnants of a patriarchal system…? Sometimes sort of makes my brain hurt.)

    5. Are Mormon feminists different today than the 1970s activists?
    I would say yes. I would say there are more of us, but that we are wary. I think there was a type of optimism in earlier decades. I think people are wary about excommunication, though, because it happened to many women who spoke out. However, I think, whether it’s welcomed or not, there is a quietly growing tide of Mormon feminists. Maybe that was how it was in the 1970s, how could I know? We are positive in our way, too, because we have seen changes in the rhetoric, and, based on readings of past Ensign articles, it does seem that the concept of marriage has evolved. But perhaps we, Mormon feminists today, are frustrated by the double-speak, the acknowledgment of patriarchy with the one hand and the embracing of equality with the other.

    6. Are women more likely to be activists regarding church issues than men?
    Not sure I could say either way. It does seem to me that women who struggle with this sort of issue are more likely to stay in the church than the men who struggle with similar issues. That is my experience.

    7. If you consider yourself a feminist, share some comments on why your thinking led you in that direction, compared to friends or sisters who don’t share your views.
    Of my sisters, 2 have ceased attending LDS services, and one is only 16, believes men and women are equal but really wants to fit in at church and do things the “right way.” I guess I have, on some level, selected my LDS friends based on whether or not they are feminist. I think it was a combination of my Boston, MA upbringing and my parents that led me to my current feminist worldview. I guess it was what I was taught, and it made sense to me.

  19. Steve says:

    I was baptized a few months before Sonia Johnson’s excommunication, and I have no real first-hand recollections of the incident. What has struck me over the years, however, is that Ms. Johnson is about the only case I can think of in modern times where the church actually engaged in a smear campaign against her. When I compare how the church treated her when compared to more recent high-profile apostates (Chad Hardy, for instance), I can’t help but wonder if the church learned from the experience and benefitted also.

  20. Emily U says:

    1. Do I know very much about Sonia Johnson?
    No, I’m too young.

    2. Would Mormon feminism be where it is today without her?
    I don’t know. It might be in a better place because from what I’ve read in other people’s comments she was a little crazy and gave feminism a bad rap.

    3, 4, & 5. How is feminism/rhetoric different today than in 1979?
    Don’t know.

    6. Are women more likely than men to be activists?
    Depends on the issue. I think women are more likely to speak out about feminism. Mormon feminist blogs have few male commenters, for instance. But I don’t see blogs as activism, exactly. I think women today know that the only way to change the church is from the inside, so their feminism is a quieter version than 1970s feminism perhaps was. But it’s here to stay, and they’re raising their sons with feminist ideas.

    7. Why am I a feminist but not my sisters?
    My father had a bad temper and my mom didn’t stand up to it. Correctly or not, I always attributed that to the father’s patriarchal role in the family. So that primed me to be a feminist. I found feminist friends and professors in college at BYU that helped develop my thoughts on it.

  21. Davis says:

    I just have a few quick comments.

    I remember Sonia Johnson, and in general I think she did more damage than good. I do not think her motivations were about equality in the Gospel. That was just a vehicle for her to get recognition.

    Several people have mentioned that they feel that there are more feminists in the church today than in the 60s and 70s. I defiantly do not think that is the case. Church history is full of groups of forward thinking enlightened women. To think that younger women today are finally trying to move things forward is an insult to those that have gone before them. More young “LDS feminists” need to spend some time learning their own history.

  22. John Mansfield says:

    Since none have mentioned this aspect of
    Ms. Johnson yet, back around ’91 or so,
    her photo was featured on the cover of a
    Santa Fe alternate weekly. Two different
    people who saw it sitting on my apartment
    table thought she was Paul McCartney.

  23. Jana says:

    John:
    I fail to see how your comment is at all relevant to this discussion. Do you want to post a link to a pic of yourself so we can comment on your appearance?

  24. Naismith says:

    Ms. Johnson is about the only case I can think of in modern times where the church actually engaged in a smear campaign against her.

    Can you give an example of the “smear campaign”? I don’t remember that so much.

    The church did take the highly unusual step of releasing the results of her church court, but months later, reluctantly, because she had mischaracterized it.

  25. Kiri Close says:

    Actually, never heard of her. SHAME ON ME!

    I love her already.

  26. Susan W H says:

    I remember it all–and I can’t believe it was 30 years ago. I was busy with law school, family and church, so when California ratified the ERA it wasn’t much of an issue for me. One Sunday the LA Times ran a long article on Mormon Pro-ERA feminists. I was shocked to learn that the LDS church was against it. I knew something had gone on at the IYW convention in Houston, but did not know the Mormon women there were so disruptive. (I was a charter subscriber to Exponent II, but I don’t remember much ERA discussion in that paper.)

    A few weeks later the Sonia Johnson trial exploded on the scene with big headlines nearly every day. I belonged to a couple of women’s professional groups. At a meeting someone brought up the allegation that the LDS church was the chief source behind the anti-ERA movement and was using illegal methods to raise money to support it. After the excommunication I was asked to speak at several meetings of both LDS and non-LDS groups. Although I was openly pro-ERA and wrote letters to the editor as well as speaking up, no one in my ward or stake ever said anything negative to me. (I felt confident that because I was now a lawyer, and after the terrible press over Sonia, the church wasn’t going put me on trial.)

    I also had a chance to speak to Barbara Smith, RS President face to face, and she confirmed that I had the right to disagree with her and the church on the issue. I do know there were rumors of women and some men being excommunicated. I know of women who left the church over the issue, but it is not possible to guess how many. I also met Sonia when she came to our city to speak. I thought she was a sweet, motherly person. One of the most upsetting things about that period was the way some members turned on her, the nastiness, the outright cruelty in the way she was portrayed.

    I don’t know where Mormon feminism is today. I am no longer a member, but I did not leave because of Sonia, or the ERA, although church attitudes towards women was one of the issues.

    At the time of Sonia’s trial, a number of LDS women spoke to me privately, encouraging me, but said they did not dare speak up. Sonia’s trial had a definite chilling effect on the sisters.

    I am proud of my LDS nieces. They are all getting college educations, and none of them has rushed into marriage. They do interesting activities and seem to be independent thinkers. I don’t know if any one of them would call herself a feminist.

    Obviously I am leaving a lot out of my story. I grew up in the 1950s, and although there was a lot of pressure for girls to act dumb and pretend to be helpless, there was a strong undercurrent of feminism then. No one said feminist–it seemed like a dusty, old-fashioned word. I did have a feminist MIA leader, and supportive male LDS teachers. I’ve thought a lot about why I found feminism so attractive when my equally intelligent friends did not. My closest women friends now are former Mormons who agree with me on these issues.

  27. aerin says:

    I have also read “From Housewife to Heretic”, and I was struck by how difficult it was for Sonja to reconcile her deep faith and ancestry with her beliefs about women’s rights. By her account, she was devastated by her excommunication.

    At the time, if I remember correctly, many religions were exploring these types of issues. I believe there were demonstrations against Roman Catholic churches/parishes and other religions. I could be wrong about that. There were many women’s consciousness raising groups – fights for equal pay, maternity leave, etc.

    One of the differences might be that some other religious faiths became more open about ordaining women, for example.

    I remember hearing about Sonja Johnson with intense dislike and distain, even in the early 90s. I believe she was demonized at the time (and continues to be) because some of her beliefs were too difficult for LDS culture to accept at the time.

    I believe some things have changed. Was there a girls camp program prior to the late 1970s? And sports (basketball and volleyball)? And the young women’s medallions? As supposedly abrasive as she might have been, perhaps she encouraged an inventory of programs for women and the establishment of new programs.

    • Lynda says:

      Yes, there was a Church girls camp program in the 60’s. I went to Camp Liahona in 1962 and ’63 in the San Francisco Bay Area. So we can’t give Sonia credit for that.

  28. mb says:

    I was in my 20s in 1979 and had been aware of feminism within the church for at least 13 years. My mother was a civil rights advocate and a thoughtful feminist as well as a devoted member of the church. The ERA was a good idea in theory, but the legal ramifications of it, given the legal and legislative history of the previous two decades, was less than ideal. I think, in retrospect, that the feminist movement in the U.S. has been much better able to realize its goals through individual legislation over the years than it would have been able to with the proposed amendment.

    Though Sonia’s stand brought her issues into more discussions (arguments) among members of the church, I do not believe that she was a catalyst for the changes that have happened in regards to women in the past three decades. Those changes were already in embryonic stages in the minds and hearts of many members in the 1960s, and were being discussed and started implementation on a number of local fronts in the early 1970s. Now, granted, I cannot speak for the church in general, and I was living in a more liberally minded area of the country, so your experience may have been different than mine, but where I was, Sonia’s ideas were not new.

    As I look at Sonia’s experience, the thing that saddens me was her separation not from Mormonism, but from Christianity. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is right in that she was very Mormon in her commitment to prayer, fasting and standing for what she felt was right. What she lacked was an embracing of Jesus’ principles of peacemaking, patience, long-suffering and humility in her interactions with those, male or female, who did not see what she saw. Those are vital to Christian life. However, at that time, they were anathema to the more visible feminist influences in American society. As she became more strident the controversy she generated hindered the work of men and women in the church where I was who were making headway in equality for men and women there.

    There were other LDS feminists who stayed in the church in that era and continued to peacefully work for equality and enlightenment. They had been working for at least a decade before Sonia started her publicly visible work and continued long after she had departed. If any credit should be given for influence on women and the church, far more should be handed to them than to her.

  29. Kay T says:

    I was a young married mother living in Virginia at the time.

    I was beginning to get my feminist roots and I remember feeling very confused by the Church’s position and the article in the Ensign. I wanted to be a “good” church member but I didn’t agree with the article and the church’s position.

    What distressed me the most is that some wards allowed people to make announcements in Relief Society about signing petitions (we have them out in the hall) and recruiting people to go to the legislature to picket.

    That made it uncomfortable for those of us who were supporting ERA. Luckily our biship was aware and announced that any politicking was to be done outside of the meetings.

    My daughter lives in S. Calif. and I was appalled at the politicking that was going on in church meetings there about Prop. 8.

    One change that Sonia Johnson effected was that up until that time, none of the Women’s organization’s leaders were recognized or sat on the stand at general conference.

    I believe that many of the men and church leaders recognized some of the inequalities. Kudos to them for seeing these things.

  30. Jana says:

    mb:
    I’m curious about these women whose efforts you think should be given credit over Sonia Johnson’s. Can you name some names? Would you be interested in writing a guest post about your experiences?

  31. jks says:

    I was born in 1971. I remember the ERA. My parents (conservative, intelligent, educated, very faithful) said that the church opposed it. I remember them even citing the wording being problematic “on the basis of sex.” So while they supported most of what the ERA was trying to acheive, the actual amendment was open to too much interpretation that would be against what they wanted, so they were against ERA.

  32. kamschron says:

    One of the experiences that she wrote about was a “good Mormon” seduction by a man who apparently thought that he could comply with the law of chastity by having sexual intercourse only with his wife, even if he misbehaved in other ways with other women. (Now that I think about it, I may have heard of an American president with a similar idea.) I have wondered if changes in how the law of chastity is described may have been influenced by Sonia Johnson.

  33. mb says:

    Janna,
    That might be an interesting piece to write. I’ll mull it over and see what I can put together. I’ll need to contact those good women and get their permission to name them. Some of them are rather private people so out of consideration I would need to take the time to do that.

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for the essay, however. My next couple of months are booked pretty solid.

  34. J. Curtis says:

    I followed the Sonia Johnson affair closely and read her book when it came out. I was sympathetic to her and felt the way the Church handled the excommunication was damaging to her and to the Church.
    In her book I, like several others, detected a naivete that led to her later opinions and castigation of the Church–it seemed like she should have known what the reaction to some of her statements and behavior would be but she seemed surprised by the responses.
    I felt like she was used by NOW when they grabbed her to run for president of the organization. They wanted her because of the publicity she had stirred up. I think she later realized that she was being used by them.
    The directions her life took later pretty much precluded her being a role model for believing LDS women. She turned out to be creative in developing a life style that would work for her. I hope it has.
    The church’s role in the ERA movement was very similar to what happened in California with Prop 8 only it was national rather than statewide. My main objection at the time was that the Church kept denying publicly that they were doing what they were doing. I guess it falls into the category of lies for the Lord which I never could agree with.
    Today because of the changes in our society in the last 30 years, many women who are considered mainstream would have been called feminists (which was a really bad word then, worse than now) in those days. I see different approaches to feminism in the church now. Some keep it to themselves. Others are finding a scholarly voice to express their ideas simply because more women have more educational opportunities now. And there is the internet where groups of like mind from all over can communicate and exchange thoughts. I find it fascinating to follow all that is going on.

  35. Noel Johnson says:

    My name is Noel. I am her youngest child.Sonia disowned her disowned me and my siblings in 1992. I have not
    spoken to her since. I would be glad to try and answer any
    answer any questions for which my experience
    would be a worthy source.

    • Michelle says:

      Why did she disown you guys? That is so sad. She is a friend of my grandmothers but I do not know her well.

      • geo schmidt says:

        What has happened to Sonia Johnson? Is she dead or alive? Does she speak to groups? Is she still upset over getting kicked out of Mormonism?

    • Hi, Noel. I came across your comment today when I Googled for Sonia’s name, which I do occasionally. I was a friend of Sonia back in the Mormons for ERA days and remember visiting your home in Sterling, VA on several occasions and meeting you and Eric and Kari. I agreed with with Sonia’s position on the Equal Rights Amendment and opposed her excommunication, but I lost contact with her myself in the early 1980s and have not spoken with her since. I can’t imagine that disowning you was justified, and I’m sure it must have been hurtful when it happened. I’ve been curious over the years to know how you and other members of your family are doing. If you’re ever interested in talking, you can find me on Facebook or Twitter. I hope you’re doing well.

  36. Caroline says:

    Noel, thanks for offering to answer questions. Needless to say, many of us Mormon feminists have been fascinated by her journey, and saddened by the way things were handled back in 1978 and 1979. I don’t know how much you know about your mom these days, but perhaps you can tell us if she’s found peace? Is she happy? Does she have any communication with you or your siblings? Have you and your siblings remained members of the church? How do you view your mom’s ERA activities and her subsequent excommunication?

  37. Sara Kelsheimer says:

    I’m 42 yrs old. I remember Ms. Johnson very very well. My parents discussed her as though she were the anti-Christ but would not answer my questions about her and her opinions. A few years later I tracked down a copy of her book and secreted it away (I would have been seriously punished if I’d been caught with it).

    All I can say is thank you Sonia. I’m incredibly grateful to her for starting my journey toward feminism and away from the church. I am free of all the guilt and all the expectations I could never live up to. I also pulled two of my sisters from the church and into feminism. Again, thank you Sonia – thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • Heather Sather says:

      My best friend’s husband “accidentally” put Sonia’s book on top of their wood stove, burning it. His wife had already brought it over for me to read some parts, saying “We’ve been fooled!” She was right.

      Sonia was both a role model and a cautionary tale. Some of her methods were outrageous but her heart was in the right place. I’m grateful for her!!!

  38. Sue says:

    I lived through the ERA campaign. Since Dr. Johnson was “only a woman” and not part of the priesthood, her excommunication occurred at the ward level and with a secret trial. The question for 2013 is will the women forming an organization promoting the priesthood for women be excommunicated?

    • Heather Sather says:

      Sue, as I am 64, I lived through the same time, as well as the mass excommunication of Mormon intellectuals that occurred a decade or so later. I, too, worry that women promoting the priesthood for women will suffer a similar fate. Many of those who spoke out about inequities in the church dearly loved it despite its flaws. They weren’t given the choice of staying. I’ll be there are many women of our age who are looking at the current female stirrings in the church and worrying for them. “deja vu all over again.”

  39. Lynda says:

    I lived in Palo Alto in the early 70’s after Sonia had left the area, but I had many friends who remembered her well. While she lived there she was a faithful, believing member. One incident related by a friend supports this. She was sitting in on a missionary discussion with a non-member when a migraine headache began to come on. To have stopped it, she would have had to leave the discussion and taken her medication. She stayed in the discussion so as not to disrupt the spirit, and suffered the consequences.
    Another story related to me is even more revealing. Her father was a bishop during her teenage years in Utah. At a ‘Standards Night” (I think it was called something different in those days) a woman guest speaker in their MIA meeting, used the metaphor of sexual sin being like a nail driven into a board. Repentance may pull out the nail, but the mark would remain on a girl’s soul. I heard this myself in those days–it was supposed to terrify us into virtue. Sonja raised her hand and asked the woman how that could be true given the promise in Isaiah that “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” Her father marched off the stand and took her out of the meeting, apologizing to the speaker and to all present for his daughter’s disrespectful behavior.
    I do not regard myself as a feminist, but I think if I had had such a father, I might be.

    I cherish my membership in Christ’s church, as Sonia once did. I regard the church as one might an imperfect family. Women prayed in General Conference for the first time this month. I am glad my church family can learn and grow with me as we all seek to become more like the Savior. To leave the church for its imperfections seems as foolish as leaving my family for theirs. We are in this together.

    • Heather Sather says:

      Lynda, consider yourself blessed that you have never been severely challenged by the policies and positions of the LDS church. I left in the early 1980s because I could no longer find Christ there. Nor could I find a faith community that was willing to “bear one another’s burdens. I still have sadness but no bitterness. I didn’t leave the church because of its imperfections, but because I could not find the gospel of Christ as exemplified by “love one another as I have loved you” in the Mormon church. For many women, the church in those days was a hostile, even toxic environment for women. I am grateful for Sonia for being brave enough to confront the cruelty toward women that was evident at that time.

    • John says:

      The Mormon church must be a tough place for lesbians. They are dominated by men, and there is no way for them to obtain any compensation.

  40. Christine says:

    I was an 11 year old at the time of the Sonia Johnson, but I was in her ward in Sterling Park. She had actually taught our Sunday School class even. Prior to the ERA disaster I remember her being a good teacher although she gave M&M’s for correct answers and I wasn’t exactly the best at answering questions. Some kids got a lot of M&M’s. I remember her family and the craziness that happened at the time, but the biggest thing I remember about it was when she came to Sacrament Meeting in pants! I remember her and the others wearing the ERA buttons but the pants to Sacrament Meeting really got all of us kids. Fortunately I later left the church, but I would love to know how she is now.

  41. Gwen Sullivan says:

    I was able to hear Sonja Johnson speak at the in Provo, Utah at the Eldredge Center. As I listened to heard speech I could feel the evil coming from this women, and the hatred she felt about men in the church and and about God. She stated, If I could get a hold of God I would kill him, she was in my opinion was taken over by and evil spirit. I recorded her speech and many heard it and I am not making this up. She is truly a misguided women and I hope that she was able to make her way back to the church.

  42. Annabelle Dilworth says:

    To Gwen Sullivan – Could it be possible that what you might have heard was hurt, anger and rage in the voice of Sonia Johnson? Maybe she was hurt by years of only a very narrow acceptance of her humanity; only in the narrow scope of expectations for females of that time in her life? I am the same age as Sonia Johnson and I remember meeting her in a small discussion group about 1979 in Philadelphia, I only remember her seeming struck by what the LDS church seemed to want to hide (such as the homosexuals in their midsts) and what she felt as inequities and yes she did seem a bit naive but people who are eager to embrace fairness (in a childlike kind of innocent way) can seem naive. Seems to me that another kind of help might be more in keeping rather than Sonia returning to a church that did not accept her energies & enthusiasms and I hope she has found that peace and help or sustenance or whatever.

  1. March 27, 2010

    […] memoir, Mormon women, Our Visions, Our Voices, Poetry, RLDS, stories | by EmilyCC, Jessawhy, and Kay Gaisford    There has been such great writing this week generated from the “Our Visions, Our […]

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