August 19, 1920 and the Politics of the Mormon Church

Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. . . . The paramount destiny and mission of women is to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.

— Justice Joseph P. Bradley, Bradwell v. State of Illinois 83 US 130: 141 (1872)

Zen stones

Men and women are equal.

Following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which extended suffrage to women on this date (19 August 1920), some believed that the U.S. Constitution should be amended to guarantee full rights for women in all aspects of life, from employment to education to divorce to property ownership. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution was originally written by Alice Paul in 1921 and first proposed in the United States Congress in December 1923. It was promoted by Paul and the National Women’s Party, but opposed by many of their colleagues who had worked to pass the Nineteenth Amendment. The ERA would have eliminated protective legislation which for years reformers had sought for female industrial workers. But Paul was determined that women should be treated as individuals under the law just as men were, not as a class subject to mass governmental regulation. The wording of the proposed ERA was simply:

Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Needless to say, the ERA was not ratified.

Many believed equality was already guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, a belief reinforced in 1963 by the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, which concluded that an equal rights amendment was redundant because of provisions of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. National polls, however, indicated that feminists believed in the necessity of an ERA.

In 1971, the ERA was reintroduced into Congress with the same language as Paul’s original document:

Sec. 1: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Sec. 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Sec. 3: This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

It passed the U.S. Senate and then the House of Representatives, and on 22 March 1972, the proposed 27th Amendment to the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification, getting twenty-two of the necessary thirty-eight state ratifications in that first year. Most of these were states which had already resolved in favor of women’s rights by enacting equal protective labor legislation for men and women. But the pace slowed as opposition began to take its toll — only eight ratifications in 1973, three in 1974, one in 1975, and none in 1976. By 1976, 34 states had ratified the ERA; only four more were needed to make it part of the Constitution.

The attack against the ERA seemed, at times, alarmist and hysterical. Equation of the ERA with sexual permissiveness, abortion, child care, homosexuality, and unisexuality drew the debate away from the constitutional principal of equality to issues of “traditional family values.” But the attack did reflect the fears of many about the changing roles of women and men and about the changing form of the family. There seemed to be danger in equality for the ideological/cultural concept of the father as head and provider, mother as nurturer and manager, and children as replicas into the next generation. Many feared the equality would make women more vulnerable and exposed, that men would feel freer to abandon family responsibilities.

Then the Mormons got involved. The fears of anti-ERA opponents prompted the Mormon Church (male) leadership to join their financial resources, promotional skills, and broad network of members to the anti-ERA movement. In October 1976, the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) issued a statement against the ERA, concerned it “could indeed bring [women] far more restraints and repressions. We fear it will even stifle many God-given feminine instincts.” This denunciation had a nearly immediate impact in Idaho, home to a relatively large Mormon electorate. The Idaho legislature had previously given the ERA the requisite two-thirds approval, but this was undone by a January 1977 referendum in which a popular majority opposed the amendment. In December 1976, the Church leadership urged all stake and mission presidencies to “to join others in efforts to defeat the ERA”, leading to LDS-coordinated efforts against the ERA in twenty-one states.

The LDS Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Next, the Church mobilized Mormons to participate in the state-level International Women’s Year (IWY) conferences taking place around the country. Mormon women in numerous states worked to block pro-ERA resolutions at IWY conferences. The process was top-down, and controlled by the Church’s leadership. In Utah, for example, fourteen thousand Mormons attended the conference, voting down every proposal in the meeting including anti-pornography measures and calls for world peace. In Hawaii, Mormon women received these written instructions: “Report to Traditional Values Van, sign in, pick up dissent forms. Sit together. Stay together to vote. Ask Presidency for help if needed.” At other state conferences, male Mormon coordinators staked out various rooms and informed their compatriots when a particular vote was pending; the Mormon women in attendance then rushed in to participate. This kind of discipline and cohesion allowed Mormon women to dominate conferences in states where their total numbers were quite small. For example, Mormons represented about four percent of the total populations of Washington and Montana, but accounted for half or more of the women attending each state’s IWY gathering. And in both Washington and Montana, every proposed pro-ERA resolution was defeated.

In typical grassroots fashion, ward bishops solicited donations to support the anti-ERA effort, speeches against the amendment were deemed appropriate at all Church meetings, and Church buildings were used as anti-ERA literature distribution centers. Church-sponsored anti-ERA organizations operated in Florida, Nevada, North and South Carolina, Missouri, Illinois and Arizona.

As the official voice of the Church, the Ensign published articles clarifying the Church’s position, speeches about ratification given by Church leaders in different locations, and official policy statements that left no room for misinterpretation. Bishops, stake presidents, teachers, and women read them in classes, and official press packets were distributed widely to local newspapers, television personalities, and other individuals in the media. The First Presidency reaffirmed its opposition to the ERA in a statement dated 24 August 1978 in which it said, “Its deceptively simple language deals with practically every aspect of American life, without considering the possible train of unnatural consequences which could result because of its very vagueness — encouragement of those who seek a unisex society, an increase in the practice of homosexual and lesbian activities, and other concepts which could alter the natural, God-given relationship of men and women.” In March 1980, the Church went all out with the publication of The Church and the Proposed Equal Rights Amendment: A Moral Issue.

Lists of pro-ERA legislators were posted in the hallways of meetinghouses, and even sample letters of opposition one might send to their legislators were posted as well. At Relief Society or Sunday School, petitions were circulated and delivered to state legislators. One petition read in part: “We consider the Equal Rights Amendment a nonpartisan issue and will, in the 1979 elections, vote only for those candidates who oppose ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.” Here, too, the Mormons’ limited numbers belied their ultimate effect: by one estimate, they generated 85 percent of the anti-ERA mail sent in Virginia, where they made up only one percent of the population.

An article by Jessica Longaker entitled, “Mormon Family Values and the Role of Women in LDS,” might help explain why the Mormon Church entered politics to defeat the ERA:

Polygamous marriage is basically essential to Mormon theology. Mormon Doctrine states that God was once a human man, and “He is now a glorified, resurrected Personage having a tangible body of flesh and bones”. As a matter of fact, “all gods first existed as spirits, came to an earth to receive bodies, and then, after having passed through a period of probation on the aforesaid earth, were advanced to the exalted position they now enjoy”. After death, a good Mormon man who has followed a few certain rules is catapulted to this same status and receives his own planet to populate and rule over. To receive this honor, a man must be “married for eternity” in the Mormon temple. This special marriage is binding after death as well as until it.

“Celestial” marriage, as this eternal marriage is often called, is essential for Mormon women. Without being celestially married to a holder of the priesthood, a woman cannot be “saved”. Mary Ettie Smith, a Mormon woman who left the church and Utah in 1856, said that “women do not amount to much in themselves,” and that women in those times were often celestially married to men they had no intention of ever living with, so that they could have a man who would be able to get them into heaven.

(. . .)

Girls and boys are also told that a good and proper Mormon home is a patriarchal one. A handbook written for fourteen year old boys states that, “The patriarchal order is of divine origin and will continue throughout time and eternity”. Husbands conduct family prayers, bless their wives and children, and generally control the household. They also are in charge of “family home evening”, one night per week set aside for family prayer and togetherness. The Mormon belief is that Eve’s roles in life, those of help-meet and child-bearer, set the pattern for all of her daughters. Girls are told that God wants them at home, and boys are never taught to clean up after themselves, since when their mothers stop doing it for them, their wives will take over the job. These ideas, at least, have not changed at all since the nineteenth century.

(. . .)

The Mormon church of today is still clinging to the beliefs of the nineteenth century; ideas which are becoming more outmoded every day. A few women in the Mormon church are trying to make a difference, but they are usually swiftly excommunicated. . . . Feminists are described as “the Pied Pipers of sin who have led women away from the divine role of womanhood down the pathway of error”. Obviously, the Mormon church is not going to alter its views on women in the immediate future. It is questionable whether it is even possible for Mormonism to equalize the roles of men and women, because the oppression of women is so integral to the religion. Men and women cannot truly become equal in the church, for the basic tenets of Mormonism are so fraught with sexism that equality would change the religion beyond recognition.

Some Mormons favored the ERA. Most notably, Sonia Johnson emerged as a pro-ERA Mormon leader, co-founding Mormons for ERA in 1977. She testified in 1978 in support of the ERA before the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, upsetting Mormon Senator Orrin Hatch. Testifying again in August 1979 before the Subcommittee, she asked Hatch how the Church’s statement against the ERA could discuss the “exalted role of woman in our society” while leaving women in a secondary status “where equality does not even pertain. . . . One wonders if the leaders of the church would gladly exchange their sex and become so exalted.” In September 1979, she further raised concerns of Church leaders when she spoke to the American Psychological Association on “Patriarchal Panic: Sexual Politics in the Mormon Church“. The key paragraph of the speech centered on her cause:

But women are not fools. The very violence with which the [Mormon] brethren attacked an amendment which would give women human status in the Constitution abruptly opened the eyes of thousands of us to the true source of our danger and our anger. This open patriarchal panic against our human rights raised consciousness miraculously all over the church as nothing else could have done. And revealing their raw panic at the idea that women might step forward as goddesses-in-the-making with power in a real — not a “sub” or “through men” — sense was the leaders’ critical and mortal error, producing as it did a deafening dissonance between their rhetoric of love and their oppressive, unloving, destructive behavior.

Sonia Johnson

It was in this speech that Johnson crossed the line between equal civil rights and the patriarchal system of the Mormon Church, a border also blurred by the Church by identifying the ERA as a moral issue upon which the Church could take political action (in harmony with the 29 June 1979 statement of the First Presidency which explained that moral issues, so identified by the First Presidency and Council of Twelve, may be “worthy of full institutional involvement”). Later in the “Patriarchal Panic” speech, Johnson said:

The Mormons, a tiny minority, are dedicated to imposing the Prophet’s moral directives upon all Americans, and they may succeed if Americans do not become aware of their methods and goals. Because the organization of the church is marvelously tight, and the obedience of the members marvelously thoroughgoing, potentially thousands of people can be mobilized in a very short time to do–conscientiously–whatever they are told, without more explanation than “the Prophet has spoken.”

But Mormon anti-ERA activity, though organized and directed through the hierarchy of the church from Salt Lake down through regional and local male leaders, is covert activity not openly done in the name of the church. Members are cautioned not to reveal that they are Mormons or organized by the church when they lobby, write letters, donate money, and pass out anti-ERA brochures door to door through whole states. Instead, they are directed to say they are concerned citizens following the dictates of their individual consciences. Since they are, in fact, following the very dictates of the Prophet’s conscience and would revise their own overnight if he were to revise his, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Mormon church began disciplinary proceedings against Sonia Johnson after she delivered the above speech. She was excommunicated from the LDS Church, after a perfunctory Church trial, a little over three months later. It was not her pro-ERA beliefs that caused her conflict with the LDS Church but her opposition to its political activities in relation to the ERA.

While it might be going too far to say that the Mormon Church killed the ERA, it certainly put the amendment on life support. True, Mormons made common cause with conservative Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists in their battle against the ERA, a collaboration that paved the way for the political sector now broadly known as the religious right. But without the Mormon Church’s timely intervention and efficient opposition, the amendment probably would have passed. In any case, it is clear that the network of LDS wards and stakes coalesced into a tax-subsidized political machine, energetically fund-raising and mobilizing campaign volunteers to influence public policy.

Suggested Reading:

  • Sonia Johnson, From Housewife to Heretic: One Woman’s Struggle for Equal Rights and Her Excommunication from the Mormon Church (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983).
  • Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1992).
  • Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
  • Martha Sonntag Bradley, Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and Equal Rights (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2005)
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