I Wish Sonia Johnson Were Irrelevant

I recently read Sonia Johnson’s memoir From Housewife to Heretic: One Woman’s Struggle for Equal Rights and Her Excommunication from the Mormon Church. The book made me furious. Captain Marvel in flames mad.

Why? Because forty years after its publication, it is still so relevant. Tophat had a similar experience reading the book in 2019.

Sonia Johnson was a co-founder and president of Mormons for ERA, a national organization that took a stand against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ decision to enter the political fight against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. The Church joined the efforts of Phyllis Schlafly’s STOP ERA campaign, and the right-wing coalition was successful in halting the ERA’s march towards ratification.

For Sonia’s efforts in leading Mormons for ERA and speaking out against the Church’s political meddling, she was excommunicated in December 1979. Her memoir, published in 1981, tells the story of her life leading up to her entry into the ERA fight and the near-simultaneous loss of her marriage and membership in the Church.

Sonia Johnson in 1980, Photo from Salt Lake Tribune

Her insights into the patriarchal structure of the Church are often biting, but I wish they were antiquated. I wish I could read her words and think how nice it is that women today don’t have to fight so hard for a voice in the Church. If only. Sonia describes her excommunication court(s) as a kangaroo court, and it is hard not to see the sad effort of her bishop to maintain authority and a pretense of love while repeatedly lying and manipulating the effort, often against policy guidelines, in order to force the outcome he desired. Or perhaps it was not his desire, but the outcome he was directed to achieve by men higher up in Church leadership.

Sonia had many poignant insights, but I want to highlight one idea she amplifies from feminist philosopher Mary Daly. There is a tendency in patriarchal institutions to uplift women with their words while using the structure of the organization to keep pushing them down. Daly calls this the “patriarchal reversal.” Men will praise women and their goodness and godliness while actively denying them institutional power.

As this rhetoric becomes more and more elevated on the one hand, on the other, in the real world where women actually experience their lives, the lid of oppression is descending at the same rate that the rhetoric is ascending. The language is a deliberate attempt to distract women from noticing what is really happening to them in their lives. It is a deliberate attempt to manipulate our perceptions so we will believe what it benefits men to have us believe.

Sonia Johnson, pg 110

We barely have to glance at transcripts of General Conference to find examples of patriarchal reversal—rhetoric that elevates women, particularly those who fit a very specific mold, while simultaneously denying them a voice or a position with institutional power. This elevated woman is often described as more spiritual, more innately good, more naturally nurturing than men, and it is woman’s very goodness that means she should be denied the “burdens” of leadership that are required to make men good. If men did not have this power and responsibility, how would they rise to the status of women? Despite the exclusion of women at every level in the Church, it would be hard to find a man saying that this is because men believe women to be less capable, competent, and significant. Rather, the rhetoric rises at the same time that the institutional lid pushes down.

If Sonia Johnson were irrelevant today, we wouldn’t see things like what happened at the October 2018 General Conference. In the Women’s Session, President Nelson told the women, “We need you! We need your strength, your conversion, your conviction, your ability to lead, your wisdom, and your voices. We simply cannot gather Israel without you!” Simultaneously, he instituted a new practice wherein three men, the full First Presidency, spoke at the Women’s Session instead of the usual practice of one male speaker. This ultimately decreased the overall speaking time of women in both the Women’s Session and General Conference as a whole. He could have passed the mic to a woman. Instead, he elevated his rhetoric about women at the same time he directed the decrease of time women spent at the pulpit. With the Saturday evening sessions now being eliminated, it is likely that women will get even less time at the pulpit overall.

I’d like the Mormons who insist that male supremacy isn’t a problem in our church to take a good look at the stand. It is filled with men. How many women speak at conference, though they make up over half the population of the church? We know who is valued by behavior, not words.

Sonia Johnson, pg 156

I, and many other Mormon feminists, make the same arguments now that Sonia was publishing in 1981. Yes, some things have changed in that time. But a male bishop can still hold a kangaroo court to excommunicate (or withdrawal the membership of) a woman without any women having a voice or a vote in the process. There is still no system to protect victims of ecclesiastical abuse in the Church. No semblance of equity on the major councils and quorums.

Forty years is a long window to turn elevated rhetoric into meaningful action. But that’s not the purpose of men speaking highly of women in patriarchal institutions. The point is the rhetoric. Words over action. Words over partnership. Yet it is not words that show us who is valued, it is action.

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12 Responses

  1. Mormonish says:

    Bravo. I wish she were irrelevant now, too. We would do well to heed her words and act on them. Until women in the church collectively stand up together and claim their own power, nothing will change. 🙁

  2. Caroline says:

    Great post, Katie. Actions matter way more than words, as Johnson says. Your point about the recent decrease in women’s voices at GC is sobering. Sad that this patriarchal reversal is still happening.

    • Katie Rich says:

      I was so glad to have the term “patriarchal reversal,” because I had certainly noticed the rhetorical strategy. It is sad to see it still.

  3. Mary says:

    It’s also truly disturbing but expected that when changes are made that benefit women (who can witness ordinances, changes in the temple script), they are not celebrated as elevating women. The church tries to sweep changes under the rug and act like nothing has happened. Let’s pretend women always had the right to witness ordinances or always made the same covenants in the temple. But this pattern makes total sense in light of patriarchal structures maintaining their power. I love the “words and not partnership.” I’m still trying to unpack what I experienced as a woman in the church and how horribly wrong some of it has been, even though it’s normalized in the culture. I couldn’t wait around for the church to change, but I root for women who try to make changes.

    • Katie Rich says:

      Yes, I also wish there was room to celebrate changes and recognize it as progress in areas that women have been held back due to sexism.

  4. Susan says:

    Thank you for this reminder. It is is disturbing for me, as a former member of Mormons for ERA, to learn how little progress has been made inside the church in the last 40 years.

    • Katie Rich says:

      Wow, Susan. I’ve been reading several things about Mormons for ERA lately and all the work that they (you!) did. I can only imagine how frustrating it is to see so many of the same battles being fought today.

  5. We need to stop being flattered by words. Words are not enough.

    • Katie Rich says:

      Yes! It is one thing to hear someone recognize and praise the work of an individual or group, and another thing to hear attempts to flatter women in the same categories they are denied authority.

  6. Em says:

    Great post. You’re so right.

  7. Mindy says:

    I can’t believe I have not read this book yet. Thank you for highlighting her words.

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