From Housewives to Protesters: Mormons for the ERA: Not Fitting In
Not Fitting In
ERA supporters faced social and institutional consequences for their activism. The social consequences are difficult to quantify because they are not often specific moments. Rather there are cold shoulders at church or no longer being called on to participate in lessons or LDS Church functions. ERA supporters routinely describe feelings of no longer fitting into the tight-knit Mormon community. Some women elaborate upon these feelings in a Miami Herald story, “Mormonism Swallows You Whole.” Marilee Latta, president of the Utah Equal Rights Coalition, states, “anyone who says there are no pressures on ERA supporters is not speaking the truth . . . the pressures are tremendous.” She goes on to state that “ERA supporters are ostracized by other ward members. They are badgered by employees who happen to be Mormon.” At LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, a faculty member’s wife who supported the ERA refused to be interviewed, noting, “it would cost my husband his job.”
Another woman who spoke to the reporter under the false name of J. P. Neal described how, after attaching a bumper sticker to her car reading, “Another Mormon for ERA,” attendance in her Sunday School class dropped from an average of fifty to sixty people to fewer than six. She recounts one time when she:
was too ill to get out of bed, I couldn’t get anyone to come and heat a can of soup for me. I was shunned by everyone, including the bishop. I had a great sense of fear and aloneness. At that time I believed in the priesthood and wanted a blessing. It was as if I didn’t exist. In short, I was quietly removed because of my politics.
MERA newsletters provided a space for ERA supporters to share their experiences of ostracism within the LDS community through a column titled “Throwing the first stone,” a title taken from the biblical story of Jesus Christ and the adulterous woman. Within the column, MERA members are encouraged to tell stories of the negative consequences they faced as a result their political opinions and activism. In the column, Sonia Johnson shared a few of the letters in her mailbox. One from Art Gibson of Madison, Wisconsin, stated:
you must live a very busy and unhappy life; maybe you can wake up and realize what you have done to your life by being the devil’s advocate. Woman, when are you going to wake up and understand your own problems come from your selfish greed for POWER? May Lucifer continue to enrich you with the curses he has so cunningly entrapped you in.
This letter serves as a sampling of the ostracism Johnson and others report and also highlights her quest for additional power in the Church. The author of this letter defined women who wanted power as selfish and greedy, a common way for men to denigrate women who advocate for a restructuring of power dynamics in society.
A thread throughout the primary sources reveals that ERA supporters feared losing their community and social group. In a Washington Post article, MERA President Sonia Johnson explains that she believes there are thousands of Mormons who support the ERA, however, she suspects many are afraid to speak out because:
It means real ostracism for them in their congregations. You know Mormons. Their church is their social group. We’re a very close bunch of people. It’s a very serious matter if you’re ostracized from your church group. And it’s not just you. Your family, your mothers, your brothers, your sisters, your friends become suspect.
Johnson goes on to explain the repercussions of her activism on not only herself but also her family. She discusses how her “parents’ best friends no longer want to be seen with them.” She reflects that:
It’s pretty sad. My parents are in their 70s. They’ve devoted their whole lives to the church. She (her mother) wishes I didn’t feel as I do, but she doesn’t keep me from trying to do what I have to do . . . She worries that I’ll lose the esteem of my many women friends. She doesn’t want to see me ostracized. She doesn’t want to see my family treated badly.
Many Mormon women felt that they had to balance their desire for change with the likely results of their activism for themselves and also their family members. Due to Mormonism’s strong subcultural identity, increased tensions arose when members challenged the church’s stance on issues such as the ERA. For these women, it was a painful experience to be shunned by their church and friends with whom they had strong relationships. For many, their religion made up an important part of their identity.