Food Storage & Other Adventures in Motherhood

Book Review: From Housewife to Heretic: One Woman’s Spiritual Awakening and Her Excommunication from the Mormon Church

by heather

A couple months ago, during the drama surrounding Elaine Dalton and her comment that women should not lobby for their rights, I read someone mention Sonia Johnson and her excommunication for being a feminist and her support of ERA. This really surprised me, the LDS Church doesn’t excommunicate people for thinking differently, or for political activity, especially not for trying to help women to be treated fairly. That’s what I thought and I was wrong. There have been more Mormon women who were excommunicated for holding feminist ideals. Intrigued by Sonia’s story, I decided to read her book. However, it’s out of print, so it took me awhile to get a hold of a copy.

From Housewife to Heretic, tells Sonia Johnson’s story of going from active Mormon housewife to excommunication. She was born in Malad, Idaho and was a fifth-generation Mormon.  At various times she served as a Relief Society President, Primary President, Relief Society teacher, and ward organist. Throughout the book she speaks of her love for Mormon people, her Mormon heritage and the gospel of Jesus Christ. While attending Utah State University she met Rick Johnson and following graduation married him. While her first children were young, she received a Master’s Degree and a Doctor of Education from Rutger’s College. Her husband pursued employment all over the US and abroad and she taught English part-time wherever he worked. She had four children, her last born in Malaysia. The Johnson’s moved back to Virginia in 1976. In 1977, a friend taught her about ERA. Sonia and three other women founded an organization called Mormons for ERA. Because she was the one who spent most of her time at home, while the others women worked full-time, she was the one that was easiest to contact. She was then selected to speak before the US Senate Subcommittee on Civil Rights. During this fateful subcommittee she brought national attention to the fact that in 1968, the LDS First Presidency had banned women from praying in sacrament meeting. She also drew attention to the fact that in some parts of the country LDS wards were breaking state and federal laws by using tax-exempt money, buildings and resources to support anti-ERA political activity.  After this senate hearing Spencer Kimball, the LDS President at the time issued a statement saying that the policy of not letting women pray in sacrament meetings “was not in accord with scripture and could not stand, asserting that women should be allowed to pray in any meeting they attended, both opening and closing prayers.” (This statement is the basis for the allowing women to pray in General Conference movement, which I understand will be actualized this coming weekend.)

During her involvement with ERA support, her husband took a job in Liberia for six months. Shortly after returning he tricked her into signing divorce papers, saying that “it wasn’t for real and it would improve their marriage”. She loved him and trusted him, so she signed them. A few days after she signed them he told her that he meant for the divorce to be real and that he had been having an affair with another woman and was leaving her and the children. Shortly after this shocking revelation she had a meeting with her bishop (although she didn’t talk to him about the divorce, she was too embarrassed and hurt). She said several things that were undiplomatic and surely bruised his ego, but were not grounds for excommunication. After this he decided to hold a church court on her and excommunicate her on charges that she was ‘not keeping the law of consecration’. She was notified of her trial only two days before the scheduled event and was not told what the charges were until then. When the day of the trial came, her friends had alerted the media and they came out in support of her. Because of the pressure of the media, the bishop decided to reschedule the trial and let Johnson bring witnesses to testify in her behalf.

When the second trial came two weeks later, everyone was told that there was a strict timetable and the proceedings were not to exceed an hour and a half. The meeting was held in the stake center with several guards and no lights on. Each witness was given a paper stating that they were not to discuss the ERA or Johnson’s political involvement. Several new charges were brought against her including that she opposed programs in the LDS Church including missionary work and food storage. I personally take offense to that, feminism is not anti-food storage. Her witnesses struggled to testify to these new charges and as was predicted she was eventually excommunicated. Despite her excommunication she continued to attend LDS Church meetings for almost a year because she loved the doctrine and eventually stopped attending because her children refused to attend. They were outraged at the way that their mother had been treated. She loved the LDS Church, and although she may not agreed with all policies, she grieved greatly to leave the LDS Church.

Although I found Sonia’s story to be tragic, I enjoyed this book. She said a lot things that I don’t agree with, but I think that it does people good to hear and read opinions that are not exactly like their own. (In reading summaries of her other later books, she later goes on to write about some really radical ideas.) Sonia had some beautiful ideas about equality. She didn’t believe that women should be made superior to men, just that women and men should be treated fairly. She talked about how she loved her three sons as much as her daughter, and tried desperately to teach them to respect other women. She spoke against social structures that demeaned women. She talked about the evil of oppressing others, how it hurts those who oppress as well as those who are oppressed.

Feminism says, “Choose you this day who you will serve.” As for me and my house we will serve humankind (which the Bible says is a way to serve God). By refusing to be oppressed we rescue men from the evils of oppressing. By choosing to face and feel the whole truth of our lives and to take our share of the responsibility for doing something about them, we regain our integrity and our health and become glad participants in the life of the planet.

In speaking about her ex-husband she gives another illustration of how the stereotypes of gender roles hurt men:

He, like so many other men of his generation, had not been conditioned to be sensitive to his own and others’ emotions, or deal with them, as females are from the cradle. Since he never understood how to handle personal problems–his, mine, or the kids’–his method of coping was to avoid them, to look the other way as much as possible. He felt out of his element, unskilled, unsure, awkward; and because he felt so helpless, he was always deeply pessimistic, always assuming the worst would happen. This was not useful. Also, never having resolved the acute pains of his own childhood…he had to confront specters of his own past when our children had typical childhood and teenage problems.

She talked about how strict gender roles are a part of society’s problem in regards to the family:

Fathers can’t be decent parents until they see themselves–and society supports them–as nurturing, supportive, warm and loving people first, and successful wage-earners second. Father as a head of house is not a useful concept in parenting. It allows too much distance, too little final responsibility. It puts a heavy and unfair burden on women, which prevents even the strongest and best of us from doing the kind of parenting job we’d like to do–and could do, if men took their share of the responsibility.

Before we can solve society’s ills, we must reorganize parenting. Let the patriarchs of the New Right, who are so concerned about the family, start taking their share of the responsibility as parent, in keeping the family emotionally secure and united and educating other men to do the same instead of blaming women, who are seldom in positions to make policies that would lift pressures from families.

What was most significant (for me) about this book were the conversations it spawned at my house. Of course I, the feminist was interested in reading it, but I was surprised that my husband also picked it up. Here was one of the first conversations about it.

Sexy Husband: “I frustrated with her attitudes toward men.”
Me: “How so?”
SH: “She talks about all of these experiences around her, where the men were so belittling and demeaning to women. Men in the Church aren’t really like that. They don’t really treat women that poorly.”
(For those of you who have seen me do my extreme one eyebrow raise, just know that that was the face I was making.)
Me: “Honey, let’s get a few things straight. You are not like most men, if you were I probably wouldn’t have married you. You have always treated me and the other women around you with respect. You have not noticed their demeaning comments because they were not directed at you. There are sexist men all over the LDS Church. That does not necessarily correlate that the LDS Church is sexist, but there are indisputably sexist members. I grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s and I had many an LDS priesthood leader, neighbor and relative talk to me like I was stupid, by virtue of being female. I was told repeatedly that I was stupid. (Stupid girls don’t graduate with University Honors.) I was taught by my YW leaders that I was responsible for the morality and chastity of the young men around me, as if they didn’t have their own free agency. I was repeatedly made to feel like I was less important because I am female. Now Sonia Johnson grew up in a less progressive era than the one we did, I would not doubt that the experiences she had in the LDS Church in the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s & 70’s were true.”
SH: “Well, now I’m not frustrated with her, I’m angry that the men around her would behave in such an un-Christlike manner.”

Later while I was busy doing something else he came in after he had been reading the book and said “I have to apologize.”
Me: “Oh, what for?”
SH: “You wanted to go to medical school, but you didn’t because we got married and you put me through school.”
Me: “I put you through school twice.”
SH: “Yes, exactly. You put me through school so I could have a career that I don’t even enjoy. But if you had become a pediatrician like you wanted, you would have enjoyed it, you could have helped a lot of people.”
Me: “I still help people, and there are parts of my career that I still enjoy.”
SH: “I want you to go to medical school.”
Me: “What?!”
SH: “This was your dream and you sacrificed it for me, and I don’t think that it was even worth it.”
Me: “We have little kids, I can’t go to medical school.”
SH: “We can make it work. And I can work and put you through school.”
Me: “Medical school is intense, we’re looking at least ten years of school. My kids will only be children once, I don’t want to miss that. But maybe it is a good time to look in to graduate school. I could get a PhD and be a nurse practioner in 3-4 years.”
SH: “I just feel guilty that you have sold yourself short for me.”
Me: “Nonsense. I don’t regret choosing you.”

So the new plan is to start applying to graduate programs, and we will see where that takes us.

3 Responses to “Book Review: From Housewife to Heretic: One Woman’s Spiritual Awakening and Her Excommunication from the Mormon Church”

  1. […] spring, after my husband started reading From Housewife to Heretic by Sonia Johnson, he decided that it was high time that I go after my career dreams. For years I […]

  2. Cindy says:

    I just fell in love with your husband. What a great response once he became aware of your sacrifices for the marriage. And good for you for being able to communicate to him the experiences of women–this development of empathy is the only thing that will change the world.
    Thanks for the post!!

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