Sonia Johnson, Equal Rights Activist in 1936
Sonia Ann Johnson, née Harris, was born a fifth-generation Mormon in Malad, Idaho. She graduated from Utah State University, pursuing her M.A. and Ed.D. from Rutgers University after marrying, and through many moves and pregnancies. She taught English at American and foreign universities, working part-time as a teacher while accompanying her husband on overseas jobs. The family returned to the U.S. in 1976, buying a house in Virginia, one of the states that had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. Johnson became such an ardent supporter of the ERA that she was excommunicated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1979. She exposed the role of the wealthy Mormon Church in sabotaging passage of the ERA. She went on a 37-day hunger strike in the Illinois statehouse in 1982 during the last days of the ERA countdown to symbolize how “women hunger for justice.”
Johnson ran on a feminist ticket for U.S. president in 1984 as the candidate of the Citizens Party, becoming the first third-party candidate to qualify for primary matching funds. In countless speeches, she pointed out, “Nobody’s ever fought a revolution for women.” She wrote eloquently of her experiences in From Housewife to Heretic (1981). When a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution asked if she had acquired any non-Mormon habits, “alluding, I’m sure, to smoking and drinking,” she replied: “Yes, in fact I have. I have acquired the habit of free thought.”
Johnson began speaking out in support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1977 and co-founded, with three other women, an organization called Mormons for ERA. National exposure occurred with her 1978 testimony in front of the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights, and she continued speaking and promoting the ERA and denouncing the LDS Church’s opposition to the amendment.
The LDS church began disciplinary proceedings against Johnson after she delivered a scathing speech entitled “Patriarchal Panic: Sexual Politics in the Mormon Church” at a meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA) in New York City in September 1979. Johnson denounced allegedly immoral and illegal nationwide lobbying efforts by the LDS Church to prevent passage of the ERA.
Because the speech drew national media attention, leaders in Johnson’s local Virginia congregation, including Stake President Earl J. Roueche, immediately began excommunication proceedings. A December 1979 excommunication letter claimed that Sonia Johnson was charged with a variety of misdeeds, including hindering the worldwide missionary program, damaging internal Mormon social programs, and teaching false doctrine. Her husband divorced her in October 1979, two months before the trial; she attributes his decision to “some kind of mid-life crisis.”