not in Primary anymore

book review: from housewife to heretic by sonia johnson


I approached From Housewife to Heretic with trepidation.  I had not heard any details about Sonia Johnson except that she was a Mormon feminist excommunicated in the 1980’s (In retrospect, it is sad that I have been part of this movement for several years and did not know her story).  I primarily was interested in Sonia Johnson’s critique of the Mormon Church. Additionally, as I have seen more posts on disciplinary hearings and bishops taking temple recommends, I wanted to hear details of her excommunication.  I did not realize what a critical person she is in the history of Mormon feminism until I was several chapters in.

Sonia Johnson begins her story just prior to her excommunication when her husband tricked her into an unfavorable divorce.  She makes no mention of any religious tensions in her life, just his betrayal.  This little clip is set up as a foreshadowing of how men in her life would also belittle and betray her.

Johnson then takes you back to her fairly typical Mormon upbringing.  She attended Utah State studying education.  After also recently reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, it was particularly interesting to see the similarities Friedan’s description of American college women in the 1950’s alongside Johnson experiencing it.  Career ambitions for women did not exist; college was a stepping stone to marriage.[i] 

She also describes the dating situation for Mormon women in the 1950’s.  On her first date with her future (ex) husband, Johnson relays shock that he brought the lunch saying “No Mormon boy I knew would invite a girl on a picnic and bring the lunch himself!  It was always assumed that if a young man deigned to lend you his company, it behooved you to show proper gratitude by bringing the food.”[ii]   She had met Rick Johnson at Utah State in an education seminar.  He was from Wisconsin and not a member of the Mormon Church (which partially explained why he would consider making a picnic lunch).  After his conversion to Mormonism, they were married and eventually sealed to one another in the temple.

Sonia Johnson moved into the housewife stage of her life.  Over the next fifteen years, she had four children.  Early on she obtained a Master’s and Ed.D. from Rutgers University.  For a lot of her life, she taught at the university level part time.  Her husband also pursued advanced education, obtaining a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology.  He moved their family around the world for various posts.  While Johnson’s career came second to her husband’s, Rick was very supportive of her obtaining advanced education and working.

Then, after forty-two years of living her life, Sonia Johnson ‘woke up.’

As she became more aware of the dominance of men, through friends and research into the feminism, Johnson became primed for her feminist awakening.  Rick and Sonia experienced this priming process together, reading literature together and discussing the realities of sexism.  She felt a deep despair in her life and fervently asked God what the origin of her despair was.  Her answer came clear in her own voice, “Patriarchy is a sham.”[iii] 

It was during this time that the Virginia, where Johnson was living, became a battle ground for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).   In the spring of 1978, Johnson’s stake president spoke at a fireside about the Mormon Church’s position of the ERA.  Johnson anticipated an intellectual argument for the Church’s stance but instead, her stake president came unprepared, stopping at a 7-11 to buy a “…C-grade Reader’s Digest” for his source of information.  That was the moment (literally, as she tells it) that she felt so angry and insulted that this man would not even take the time to prepare a real thought provoking talk on an important human rights issue (for women) that her she had an instant revelation of how she had been treated less than her entire life because she was a woman.  It was the moment she became aware of the male dominated society around her, especially in the Mormon Church.

After her awakening, Johnson and three of her good friends founded a group called Mormons for ERA that politically protested the Mormon Church’s opposition to the amendment.  Her position in the group resulted in her speaking at a Congressional hearing for extending the time limit for ratification of the ERA amendment and, later, speaking at women’s conferences across the United States.  She became very vocal in opposing the Mormon Church’s patriarchy.  In the book she never attacked the doctrine of the Mormon Church. 

The Mormon Church, however, spent a great deal of time, money, and energy attacking the ERA.  In addition to sending out a letter to be read over the pulpit, the local leaders also had small meetings with local women, instructing them to vehemently oppose the amendment.  They went as far as to set apart women and give them official callings to go out and fight the ERA, although from Johnson’s account, the men only set apart these women in secret and were hesitant to make such a political matter that religious.

Johnson spends a great deal of time delving into feminist issues within the Mormon Church.  She draws clear attention to the fact that the phrase “the Priesthood” was being used in the Mormon Church to refer to the men as a whole.  She points out that women in the Mormon Church are only ever referred to as “sisters” and can never be “president” or any other title of authority, even if she is the Relief Society or Young Women’s President.  She fought against the Bishop only allowing women to say the opening prayer, despite the leaders of the church returning that right to women.  She discusses general inequalities and specific issues in her ward.  Johnson also began praying to Heavenly Mother and developed a personal relationship with Her much like she’d had with Heavenly Father. 

Eventually, the leaders of the church decided she had gone too far.  Her Bishop was told to hold a disciplinary court for her excommunication.  Johnson reports many deceptions involved in the proceedings, including the Bishop allowing her more time, but then claiming otherwise to other individuals on the court and attempting to force her to do it earlier and unprepared.  She also said no clear charges were levelled at her and even when she went to the Stake President to attempt reconciliation afterwards, he didn’t know what they had been.  Johnson called up many witnesses, but ended up not using many of them when it became clear that this court was not a judicial court, but an act required for her to be excommunicated.  That seemed to be the outcome no matter what she did.  All of these ongoing proceedings occurred just after her husband had divorced her.  To add to the drama, the media was heavily involved in reporting the events.

But when the dust cleared and it became clear she would not be allowed her membership back, she felt happier and freer than she had before and was at peace with her decisions to fight for women and continued to do so.

Sonia Johnson impressed me with her determination and honesty.  It seems she wrote this book wanting to get her voice out there and to counteract the letters being sent thought the Mormon Church to be read over the pulpit.  I was not alive during these events and neither of my parents were active in the Mormon Church at the time.  I had not realized to what extent the Mormon Church had gone to counteract the ERA.  I had previously thought the Prop8 campaign a one-time thing, but clearly I was wrong. 

Aside from the historical aspect of From Housewife to Heretic, I was also forced to acknowledge many injustices within the Mormon Church I had not considered before.  There are parts that begin to feel rant like and became somewhat less interesting.  While I agreed with most of Johnson’s analysis on the Mormon patriarchy, it was a little too us vs. them at times.  No one likes to be spoken to with disrespect and anger.  It may have been the only way to get anyone to listen at the time, but now finding some common ground may be a more effective way to promote change.  But someone had to do the ranting first and Sonia Johnson did a great job of it. 

I was particularly fond of the banners that she describes Mormons for ERA having flown over General Conference, including an awesome one that read “Mother in Heaven Loves Mormons for ERA.”  I wish I could have seen the reaction to those words.

Sonia Johnson’s story is compelling.  It led me to wonder if how much the culture of the Mormon Church has changed, if at all.  Johnson was a feminist at a time when women in America were reclaiming their individual identities (apart from a man or children) and goals.  Women in America then were in the midst of a transition back to some level of career orientation.  Today, I am working in a physics lab that has as many women as men.  Today, for many American women, working and having a family is a difficult balance, but one many women are attempting.  Today, women’s rights are supported by most Democrats (and ignored by many Republicans).  America has changed in the last thirty years.  But has the Mormon Church?



Additional awesome quotes:

After a story about licking butter off bread (like the rose and cupcake frosting stories):

 “The implications behind this are legion and obvious…I felt, though I could not understand it clearly then, that this denied female sexuality entirely.  It denied that girls kiss boys, too.  It said that they were sexually passive—that boys never had their butter licked off, no matter how many  females they kissed…But most of all, what this said to me was that men are not objects, they are human beings.  Only women are things—roses and bread.  Never in the church do we hear men referred to by analogies that make them objects or anything less than fully human.  Women, like objects are presumed to have been created for men’s use.  We don’t use people; we use things.  Men are the consumers of women.” Pg. 78

I was the authority about my life, about what being female meant to my existence.  I was the one who could speak with understand and truth about myself.  My life was my responsibility, my salvation was my reason for being on earth….This experience gave me a whole different view on authority.” Pg. 95

“These are not the statistics of oppression.  They are the statistics of slavery.  Women are the dispossessed of the earth.” Pg. 111

Johnson describes Mormon women calling her saying “I don’t know what to do.  I love the church; at least I did love it.  And I want to love it.  I don’t want to lose what I had there.  But I don’t know how to hold onto it.  It hurts so much to go to church nowadays that I can barely force myself.” Pg. 152

“I think it is time we stop blaming the demise of the family entirely on women, and look searchingly at the irresponsible way patriarchal society teaches men to behave in human relationships.” Pg. 186

[i] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1977), 143.

[ii] Sonia Johnson, From Housewife to Heretic (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1981), 25.

[iii] Ibid, 94.

4 Responses to “book review: from housewife to heretic by sonia johnson”

  1. Josh Johnsen

    I am 3/4 of the way through and decided to google Sonia, and this was one of the first results.

    My mother was jokingly referred to as a “Sonia Johnson” after she asked ward leadership why the girls received so much less money than the boys. This was before I was born right after Sonia chained herself to the temple gates.

    I was blown away at the parallels between the ERA battle and Prop 8. I also was very disappointed at how duplicitous Elder Hinckley and other church officials appeared in the book.

    Great review. Thanks.

  2. Bruce Palmer

    I knew Sonia long before she became a prominent women’s advocate. It was 1973 and my wife and I were attending the English-speaking congregation of the LDS Church in Seoul, Korea where Sonia and Richard and their children also attended. I was in the Army, while Richard was in Korea on a sabbatical from his work, doing research of some kind — or so he told me. Sonia was serving as Relief Society President — the leader of the local Church women’s organization.

    My first contact with her was when my wife came to me on our first Sunday there, immediately after Relief Society meeting, telling me what a gifted president they had — a PhD in English and learned on many subjects. My wife’s initial positive image of Sonia changed dramatically over the next few months as she heard Sonia become increasingly critical of the Church — yet claiming absolute loyalty. I shared my wife’s concern, because when I spoke with her she displayed a distinct air of superiority on virtually any subject she discussed. She criticized aspects of the Temples of the Church, and made it clear that her wisdom was far above that of the Church leadership.

    Other women in the congregation beside my wife were also concerned with her egotism. I wondered how long it would be before her arrogance caused open conflict within the congregation. Shortly after she was released from her calling without fanfare and not long after that Richard and Sonia and their children returned home. My wife and I wondered for some time what became of her, and we were shocked a few years later to learn that she had become openly defiant in the American press against LDS Church leadership.

    Like Sonia, my wife had initially supported the ERA, but unlike Sonia, my wife ultimately considered it a “Pandora’s box” that would unleash many negative consequences on American society. She chose to support the LDS Church leadership in opposing the ERA — not because she wanted to see women suppressed or oppressed, but because she and LDS leaders considered it bad legislation that would lead to the removal of vital protections for women.

    My wife and I had always admired the many LDS women we had met who were gifted with great intellect as well as humility; Sonia had the former, but we had never seen the latter quality in her. Despite Sonia’s arguments to the contrary, in my 50 years since becoming a convert to the Church I have seen that Church leadership at all levels teaches the equality of men and women, as well as distinctness in their primary God-given responsibilities; that in the home they are equal partners, and no husband is living by Church precepts who dominates or rules over his wife. Mormon “Patriarchy” as Sonia describes it is largely a myth — except among Mormons-in-name-only, who do not understand or practice actual LDS doctrine. Since the earliest days of the LDS Church higher education has been encouraged among LDS women, and has never been an impediment to their service in the Church; ironically, the Relief Society in our current LDS congregation in Alabama holds a Ph.D. in English, but is also one of the most compassionate and humble people we have ever met. Emma Smith, wife of the first president of the LDS Church was well educated for her day and an outspoken advocate of women’s rights and opportunities; she served as the first General Relief Society President of the Church, and her service is admired by all LDS women I have met who know her story.

    My wife and I have no rancor toward Sonia Johnson; we simply regret deeply that she chose a path so at odds with the values she claimed to espouse earlier in her life, that she has distorted and misrepresented LDS teachings, and has alienated her from many family members and former friends.

    If she is a martyr, as she would portray herself in her writings and speeches, she is apparently a self-made one.

  3. Anonymous

    Well, leave it to a man to comment negatively. So knowledgable about women’s issues. NOT.
    If you’ve ever tried to foment change, you get labeled as arrogant.
    If you stand your ground, your intractable.
    If you have a spine, you’re prideful.
    If you have an opinion, you’re trouble.
    Bet you didn’t read the book, Bruce.


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