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.