“Fasting for Justice”

New York Times article describing the ERA missionary effort in Utah [Click image to enlarge.]
(Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections & Archives, Collection MSS 225, Box 19, Folder 10.)

In the spring of 1981, ERA missionaries began targeting the Salt Lake Valley, seeking to “convert” residents to support ratification of the amendment. The missionaries patterned themselves after the LDS Church’s program and traveled in twos wearing professional dress and knocking on residents’ doors with the hope of sharing their message. ERA missionaries were part of a national campaign and not strictly a MERA initiative. The National Organization for Women (NOW) explained that their aim was to “expose the church hierarchy’s political involvement in opposing constitutional equality for women.”[2] In the call for missionaries, NOW makes it very clear this protest technique directly targeted the LDS Church. They write:

We propose to focus our first project of non-violent protest on one major institution, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon)a religious establishment, a political force, and a multi-billion dollar empire which is systematically blocking ERA ratification in several states including Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Missouri, Virginia and Florida. The Mormon church has officially and actively opposed ERA ratification and the extension and has fought for recession. Therefore, it is time to bring the ERA campaign home to the Mormon Church and to Utah. Each year, the Mormon hierarchy sends male missionaries across the world to preach its word. We must send feminist missionaries to Utah.[3]

NOW published stories from the missionaries who viewed the protest technique as a great success.[4] Local newspapers in Utah printed headlines using LDS language such as “NOW Missionaries Begin Utah Tracting Today.”[5] Tracting is an LDS term which refers to missionaries knocking on doors in the community in an effort to share their gospel message.

Fasting and missionary work are not strictly male rituals in the LDS faith. They are open to both men’s and women’s participation. However, the Church primarily sees missionary work as a male priesthood responsibility. Women are able to serve missions, but at that time they were not able to do so until the age of twenty-one, and it is not considered one of their responsibilities. MERA participation in missionary efforts served as an example of how activists directly entered the male sphere of the LDS Church and fulfilled a role that is typically reserved for LDS men.

[1] “Women’s Fast for Justice” MERA Newsletter 1982. MERA MSS 225, Box 3, Folder 1, USUSCA.
[2] George Raine, “Equal Rights Missionaries in Mormon Country,” New York Times, MERA MSS 225, Box 19, Folder 10, USUSCA.
[3] “ERA: Call to Mission,” MERA MSS 225, Box 16, Folder 2, USUSCA.
[4] “Reflections from ERA Missionaries,” MERA MSS 225, Box 16, Folder 2, USUSCA.
[5] “Now Missionaries Begin Utah Tracting Today” The Herald, May 4, 1981. MERA MSS 225, Box 16, Folder 2, USUSCA.