Book Review: From Housewife to Heretic by Sonia Johnson
Four decades later and Sonia Johnson’s memoir about her feminist awakening, support of the ERA, and excommunication are still very familiar and relevant.
This book has been on my shelf for a few years now. I thought it might open a wound of frustration for me if I read it so I kept putting it off, all while the book spine faded more in the sunlight. I took the plunge into reading it earlier this summer and I was not disappointed.
In short summary, this is a memoir of the few years of her involvement with Mormons for ERA, her divorce that happened simultaneously, and her excommunication.
This book was both reassuring and defeating. On one hand, we are dealing with the same attitudes in 2019 as Mormon feminists were in 1979 and that’s frustrating. On the other hand, the words and experiences felt so familiar that it was like listening to a friend recount and commiserate. Oh Sonia- your brother called you to then talk to your husband about why he can’t rein you in? My brother-in-law once asked, “Why hasn’t McKay (my husband) told you to stop blogging!?” Oh, is Senator Hatch befuddled and aggressive towards you and your ideas? He only stepped down from that same position this year, still working against women’s and LGBT rights. Sonia, you shared some of your hate letters, from “good” Mormon people threatening to harm or kill you. Let us open up our Twitter DMs and we’ll see the same.
I am very impressed by her memory- and having written this just a year or so after the excommunication, it was fresh in her mind. I’m glad she wrote it then and didn’t wait to long- I think time would have affected her spin on it. She was all in the Church and it worked for her, until it didn’t. It’s ironic that the reason that she, of all her Mormon feminist friends, was the one to testify before the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the ERA because she was the one who was a good Mormon stay at home mother and had the time.
I half expected to find her extreme- that was the impression I was given my whole life- but as I read, every action she took followed easily from the one before and nothing seemed out of place at all. Preparing for her remarks before the Senate, she fasted and prayed and worked out her words with the Spirit, just as I would have. Her efforts to make sure her disciplinary meetings/councils were civil and the people supporting her were true supports were right on with how I’ve experienced supporting others.
The writing was easy to read and I felt that if she were blogging today, each page of that book could be a blog post you’d find in the Bloggernacle.
The Relief Society, which began with a glorious voice of what women could be, has gradually been co-opted by the Brethren as a tool to keep women in their place. As Marilyn Warenski put it in Patriarchs and Politics, the Relief Society has become the “sisterhood of the brotherhood.” The women who head it and the other auxiliaries of the church today are titular heads only, essentially without influence or power.Sonia Johnson, From Housewife to Heretic, pg 263
This next quote on her relationship with her mother could be found in any numerous Facebook groups.
She could not understand that one can have a relationship directly with God without the leaders of the church as intermediaries. She could not understand that when the church leaders are angry, God is not necessarily so.Sonia Johnson, From Housewife to Heretic, pg 316
And this feeling, when you feel that God has asked you to do something hard, and will help you.
When I rose from my knees that afternoon, I was not afraid anymore. The dread and recurring panic were gone, and I have never felt them since. I went directly to my desk and wrote the final paragraph: “We [Mormons for ERA] believe that what our early sisters would have wanted, what they would be working for if they were here today, what constitutes the whole loaf with which they would be contented, is ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.” I did not just believe it; I knew it.Sonia Johnson, From Housewife to Heretic, pg 128
From Housewife to Heretic is a very important book for Mormon feminist even today. If you have a chance to get a copy, read it.