reviews – Pedestals and Podiums
A history professor at the University of Utah and author of the award-winning book Four Zinas, Bradley offers a thorough, sensitive account of Mormon-dominated Utah’s bitterly explosive International Women’s Year (IWY) conference in 1977 and the ensuing battle over the Equal Rights Amendment. Her research draws from rich and plentiful archives and extensive oral history interviews with LDS women who lived through these turbulent events. Bradley herself attended the IWY conference in Utah, which was a catalyzing event for her own consciousness as a woman, so she writes with the rigor of a scholar but the insight of a firsthand participant in the event she chronicles. A skilled historian and excellent writer (she even makes lists of participants at conferences sound interesting), Bradley’s personal bias in favor of the ERA is present but muted. She remains largely evenhanded in portraying both sides of a charged altercation between LDS authority figures and women struggling to balance their faith and devotion to their religion with their political convictions as feminists. Her book is a vital chapter in Mormon history, American political history, and women’s history. It will also strike a powerful chord with anyone who has felt torn between religious authority and personal conviction.
Utah Historical Quarterly, Marjorie J. Spruill
Martha Sonntag Bradley’s Pedestals & Podiums is an important and interesting book for many reasons. Most importantly, it sheds light on one of the great questions of late twentieth-century politics that despite much discussion may never be fully answered: why did the proposed Equal Rights Amendment fail to be ratified? The author also clearly illuminates the major role of the LDS (Mormon) church in preventing ratification not only in Utah but throughout the nation.
Bradley argues that LDS leaders, encouraged by Phyllis Schlafly and other non-Mormon leaders of the Right, urged Mormon women to turn out in massive numbers to defend traditional gender roles during the state’s International Women’s Conference in 1977 and, afterwards, to continue their activism against the perceived threat to God, country, and family that feminism and the ERA represented. Bradley provides detailed evidence to demonstrate the crucial role that the church played, particularly in the years between 1977 and the amendment’s June 1982 expiration date—the years in which ERA proponents struggled to secure the last few states needed for ratification.
The stories Bradley recounts of Mormons for ERA leader Sonia Johnson’s excommunication and of Mormon Judge Marion J. Callister’s refusal to recuse himself from the case on the constitutionality of rescission were very public and fairly well know. Yet Bradley’s audience will probably be surprised by her detailed accounts of the LDS role in defeating the amendment in states where there were relatively few Mormons. Though the LDS leaders actively encouraged Mormons to contribute both time and money to these defeats, church leaders encouraged their followers to make these contributions as individuals rather than as Mormons. According to Bradley, many Mormons on both sides of the ERA issue were disturbed that the church paid no heed to the principle of separation of church and state while at the same time attempting to conceal the heavy LDS involvement.
In addition, Pedestals & Podiums is important and interesting for the insights it provides into the complex history of the LDS in relation to American politics as well as women’s rights. Readers less familiar with the church’s history and values might be quick to assume that its opposition to the ERA and intolerance of Mormon women who supported it was in keeping with its traditions. Bradley, however, clearly admires the ideals and history of the LDS and sees the church leadership’s actions during the ratification struggle as a departure both from its historic support for women’s rights and for freedom of conscience in regard to politics. Reviewing the history of the Mormon church’s relationship with the women’s rights movements, Bradley is clearly proud of the church’s (and thus Utah’s) historic role in championing woman suffrage decades before it was adopted nationally. She is also proud of the activism of the Relief Society, a women’s organization within the LDS church, which had done its good work with considerable independence since its origins in the nineteenth century. Clearly she and other ERA supporters in the LDS church—a small minority—felt betrayed as well as horrified when the male leadership began to reign in the Relief Society, adopt an increasingly political role as they entered the fight against the ERA, and demand unquestioning support from their followers.
Not the least of her contributions, Bradley provides an impressive example of a historian who has been directly involved in the events she describes, struggling to understand and explain them while striving to be fair and accurate in presenting the ideas and actions of her erstwhile opponents. For example, Bradley defends the arch conservative Utah delegation to the national IWY conference in Houston, Texas, as erroneously and unfairly “stigmatized” by national feminists as allies of the Ku Klux Klan. It is the male leadership of the LDS church, not the women they led, that Bradley blames most for creating an atmosphere in which Mormon feminists have had to fear ostracism or even excommunication. Clearly Bradley regrets that the movement for women’s rights led to this bitter struggle within the LDS community and the nation over gender policies that left the church and the nation deeply polarized. Yet ironically, Bradley’s books—while accusing and convicting the church of contributing mightily to the defeat of the ERA—is at the same time providing a defense of the true values and earlier historic role of the LDS church as she sees them.
Western Historical Quarterly, Jennifer L. Holland
In Pedestals and Podiums, Martha Sonntag Bradley offers a deeply researched history of a decade of social activism (1972-1982). In her study of the participation of Utah women and the Mormon Church in the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) debate, Bradley takes pains to show both sides of the ERA story. She argues that both pro-ERA and anti-ERA activists in Utah believed deeply that this fight “mattered,” but that different “cognitive schema” divided proponents and opponents (p. 446). Anti-ERA forces, with the help of the Mormon Church, eventually triumphed with a rhetoric that blended traditional womanhood, conservative religiosity, and fear of social change. In this expansive monograph, Bradley convinces readers that both local activism and Mormon opposition are crucial aspects of any history of the ERA.
Using extensive archival records and oral interviews, Bradley provides an encyclopedic account of the Mormon campaign against the ERA, something no scholar before her has attempted. In the first half of the book, Bradley sets the stage for the contentious International Women’s Year (IWY) conference in Utah in 1977. She looks back to the suffrage activism of nineteenth-century Mormons, excavating early Mormon conceptions of justice, gender, and equality. Drawing parallels between nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mormon activism, Bradley examines the intellectual frameworks that prompted Utah women on each side of the ERA debate to take action.
In the second half of her book, Bradley follows activists on both sides of the issue into the climatic IWY conference. In her narrative, Mormon women, compelled by church opposition to the ERA, overwhelmed each session, angrily countering all IWY proposals and demonstrating the depth of Mormon anti-ERA sentiment. Bradley argues, from this conference, church leaders “learned how to mobilize an inexperienced but devoted mass of foot soldiers in a holy war against feminism” (p. 222). Stressing the significance of the Utah story to a broader history of second-wave feminism, Bradley makes a strong case that the Mormon Church turned the political tides against the ERA in key states around the country.
The greatest strength of Bradley’s narrative is variety of activist voices heard. Unlike other histories of feminism and anti-feminism, Phyllis Schlafly and Bella Abzug only play minor roles, while local proponents and opponents—such as Jan Tyler, Barbara Smith, and Irene Fisher—take center stage. Through these voices, Bradley explains why the ERA propelled housewives, teachers, businesswomen, and professional activists to action. In the oral interviews she conducted for this project, Bradley has left future historians a trove of rich historical material, now archived as the “IWY Project” at Brigham Young University.
While Pedestals and Podiums demonstrates Bradley’s intimate knowledge of the subject, her analysis often falters. After a thorough chapter on the national IWY conference, Bradley concludes that Mormons made alliances with extremist groups, such as the KKK, to defeat the ERA in an “end-justifies-the-means approach,” without offering any evidence that such feminist accusations were anything more than political rhetoric (p. 279). In another chapter, Bradley argues that anti-ERA activists privileged “emotion” in their arguments, while pro-ERA activists used “reason” (p. 122). Calling a political perspective “emotional” hinders Bradley’s broader intellectual project of understanding conservative women’s activism, rather than dismissing it. Nonetheless, Bradley’s contribution to the historiography of both Mormon women and second-wave feminism is unprecedented and substantial.
BYU Studies, Andrea G. Radke-Moss
The story of the modern battle over the Equal Rights Amendment from its 1970 passage by Congress to its ultimate defeat in 1982 is an important one in the history of American women. Inextricably linked to this fight were Mormon members and leaders, who represented the mobilization of religious organizations against its passage. It can be argued that, next to Phyllis Schlafly’s Stop ERA movement, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints exhibited the strongest voice to defeat ratification. In spite of the church’s official stance against the amendment, a significant number of Mormon women supported ERA. Pedestals and Podiums is the story of Mormon women and leaders against ERA who confronted their pro-ERA Mormon sisters. In the telling, Bradley has explored some of the emotional, political, and religious damage during the ERA movement that still lingers close to the surface of Mormon society. Bradley has provided an important contribution to women’s history, political history, and the New Mormon History. This work is a riveting and well-researched volume that I recommend as a must-read for any student or professor interested in the history of Latter-day Saint women.
Although Bradley herself is an admitted feminist and ERA supporter, she has sought to tell this story with balance and fairness to both sides, especially in representing each camp’s realistic perceptions of the ERA. She suggests that proponents and resisters alike drew upon historical Mormon women as examples to support and justify their points of view, and thus “women on both sides of the battle over the ERA believed they were fighting for a better world for all women” (2). Still, the prolonged ratification effort highlighted opposing ideologies such that Mormon women found themselves divided. Pro-ERA women feared for the failure of women’s equality if the ERA was not passed, while those opposed feared that its ratification would lead to the destruction of stable families and traditional motherhood. The divisions were so pronounced that
Feminists [were] pitted against homemakers, Mormons against Mormons, conservatives against liberals, heterosexual marriage against homosexual union. These dichotomies were seemingly irreconcilable. Demonized by ideas or labels that burned like cattle brands, feminism was the catch-all for modern society’s woes, the scapegoat for citizens who were apprehensive about what the next change would be. Women struggled to decide for themselves who they were in the context of a new world they did not recognize and almost certainly did not trust. (81)
Bradley’s research is exhaustive; she culled material from participants’ interviews, personal writings, newspaper editorials, official LDS Church statements, church leaders’ talks, transcripts of radio and television programs, official documents and voting records of numerous women’s organizations, International Women’s Year meetings, and the U.S. Congressional Record. The actors include pro-ERA Sonia Johnson, Algie Baliff, Teddie Wood, and Jan Tyler, as well as Mormons opposed to ERA like General Relief Society President Barbara Smith, Senators Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch, Beverly Campbell, and a long list of Mormon apostles, regional representatives, stake presidents, and bishops. Still, even in the amassing of so many events, personalities, and details, Bradley’s narrative never loses its punch, especially when she directly quotes those involved. Aside from a few laborious and wordy sentences, most of Bradley’s writing is succinct, ironic, and catchy.
Bradley’s most significant methodological tool is her use of rhetorical analysis to describe how ERA proponents and opponents employed strong language to fight for their respective causes. For instance, Mormons for ERA called actions by those opposed to ERA as anti-woman, blindly following authority, or as supporting what Sonia Johnson unfairly called “savage misogyny” (366). In turn, church leaders often couched their opposition to the ERA by calling it a moral issue worthy of the church’s political intervention. Leaders argued that the ERA would lead to the destruction of the family and motherhood, and the introduction of unacceptable social norms like unisex bathrooms, coed dorms, and a genderless draft. Many women could not reconcile the widely opposing views and found themselves ultimately marginalized.
Bradley’s conclusions in the early chapters indicate that she presumes LDS leaders worked against the ERA mainly because of a cultural motivation to maintain a traditional paradigm within the home. According to Bradley, the ERA battle showed how the “true womanhood” ideology of submission to male authority still held sway in Mormon culture. This is where Bradley takes the most liberty in her argument. While some Mormon leaders may have had a history of making what can be construed as culturally infused statements about the roles of women, many leaders had legitimate and viable legal arguments against the ERA, including the potential loss of protective legislation for divorced women and custody rights for mothers, and the decriminalization of spousal abuse and rape. Indeed, the ERA battle highlighted the dilemma of absolute equality versus protectionist legislation for women.
Bradley further argues that the mostly conservative Mormon leaders also voiced their ERA warnings in terms of the New Right’s fears of socialism, “a Republican distrust of big government,” and the extremism of Vietnam-era protest groups (208). Although Bradley deals extensively with this Cold War-era political context to ERA opposition, she gives far less attention to the potential legalistic results of the ERA than what they deserve, especially considering repeated warnings and discussions about these issues. It is clear that she often holds “ecclesiastical directive” (424) responsible for creating the divisions, marginalizing pro-ERA women through subtle intimidations, and playing on faithful women’s sense of obedience as a call to confront issues they did not understand. Although readers might suspect a tone of distrust and disappointment with many leaders’ actions and statements, still other readers will find that Bradley convincingly argues that some leaders advocated strong political and financial influence over groups against ERA.
This rhetorical, political, and religious battle of ideologies between feminists and traditional Mormon women came to a culmination at the 1977 International Women’s Year meeting in Salt Lake City. Bradley describes how thousands of Mormon women were mobilized by their local church leaders to oppose the ERA and address other women’s issues at the conference. She argues that because women were invited in church meetings to attend the IWY conference, many participants implicitly received direction from “‘the Brethren’ at church headquarters” (189). The church’s influence was apparent as 13,800 men and women entered the Salt Palace—more than the total attendance at similar IWY conferences in California or New York. The results were disruptive to the IWY agenda as well as to the civility of the conference itself, and Bradley places most of the blame on the behavior of Mormon attendees. Bradley describes legions of women who, in the words of one attendee, understood that they were “to vote no on practically everything” even though some had not received proper education on vital issues (190). In their attempts to defeat progressive feminism they even voted against less politicized issues like education and sexual assault defense for young women. Some attendees even resorted to boos, hisses, shouting, and interrupting speakers (198-201).
Bradley confesses that “there were times when it was impossible for me to research this book due to the force of the story, the aborted dreams and pain, which seemed to slap me in the face and knock me to my knees” (444). The reader may feel this pain with her, especially during her descriptions of abusive and rude behaviors. In spite of her feminist sympathies, Bradley displays balance in describing both sides of many heated events and issues. Though the author’s hurt is still palpably close to the surface when discussing the IWY conference, she offers a larger context to this event, describing how earlier state IWY conventions in Colorado and Idaho had blatantly marginalized Mormon women, so the faithful Mormon delegates entered the Utah conference prepared to act in a self-protective manner.
Bradley admits that pro-ERA activists casually dismissed the very legitimate fears felt by conservative Mormon women of the pro-abortion, pro-homosexual, anti-marriage agenda of the 1970s radical feminist movement. At the same time, she sometimes portrays the arguments of the anti-ERA groups as irrational and uninformed. Although her tone in describing Mormons for ERA suggests admiration for their cause, she still admits that they often alienated their potential audience through confrontational letters, marches, flying banners, and chaining themselves at sacred Mormon sites like temples. Bradley feels a shared frustration with pro-ERA groups never getting an audience with church authorities who might have softened their stance, but she also concedes that “Mormons for ERA was the more radical in spirit and staked out its position in a way that all but precluded an objective examination of issues” (373). Finally, Bradley’s sympathetic portrayal of Sonia Johnson’s famous excommunication ends with a cautionary tale of Johnson’s divorce and eventual retreat “to a lesbian commune in a secluded area of New Mexico.” Bradley summarizes: “For some, the unraveling of her former life touched chords of sympathy, but for others, it was the fulfillment of authoritative warnings about feminism and the predictions about what befell the enemies of the church” (368).
Still maintaining in the end that “those on both sides thought they were doing what was right for the world … [and that] they were on the right side of a good fight,” Bradley reminds readers that “it remains for us to decide if their vision of the future was well advised” (448). Regardless of where readers’ sympathies lie after reading this volume, perhaps Bradley’s greatest contribution comes down to an important and timely suggestion for all Mormon women: In an almost buried statement by first-year law student Margaret Woodworth in 1978, Bradley quotes, “There needs to me more mutual respect between [women] on their individual choices. … Women should not make judgments against each other. In many respects we need to be more sisterly toward each other” (418). ERA or no ERA, this hope still remains.
John Whitmer Historical Journal, Laura Compton
It has been thirty years since the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declared the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution a moral issue. That’s just enough time for a generation of young people to grow up not knowing how divisive times were for Mormon women and how church leadership and actions contributed to that division. It’s also apparently been enough time for the women and men who were involved in the conflict to step back just enough to share their thoughts, feelings, and papers with historian Martha Sonntag Bradley in her book, Pedestals and Podiums.
The ERA question alone would be enough to fill one book, but Pedestals and Podiums also addresses the International Women’s Year conferences held in and around 1977. While there is certainly enough information on each issue to warrant two separate volumes, combining the two together provides both context and continuity to help readers understand the milieu in which Utah women (and in broader context, all LDS women and men) began reshaping women’s roles in the 1970s and 80s.
In Pedestals and Podiums, Bradley combines her skills as historian, writer, and teacher with her own insights gained as a young mother during the relatively turbulent women’s movement in Utah and describes how she came face-to-face with the movement. Like many members of the LDS Relief Society, she found herself in Salt Lake City one warm summer weekend when the state held its IWY conference in 1977.
Bradley identified that day as a “stunning, shocking, and stupefying day … I felt as if I had stumbled, then found a precarious new balance standing on a narrow bridge with dangerous drops on either side” (vii). The conference and its fallout started her thinking about women’s issues and examining her own thoughts about the ERA, among other things. Bradley recognized that the conference had a “profound impact” on her life, and in addition to providing the dry facts surrounding the women’s movement this book describes why the conference and subsequent ERA battle affected her, and many other women, the same way.
As Bradley unwinds the tangled web of events that unfolded between 1972 and 1983, she takes time in each chapter to review some of the important foundational information set forth in detail in the early chapters of the book. On a single front-to-back read-through, this makes the book a bit repetitive at times, but for researchers interested in a particular topic, time period, or single event described in a chapter or two, the recapitulation of important background themes is convenient and memory-jogging.
Pedestals and Podiums represents Bradley’s successful effort to balance the stories of the pro- and anti-ERA camps and gives the reader a good set of tools from which to follow her final admonition:
A careful examination of the ways women have worked for or against equality, particularly their activity for and against the Equal Rights Amendment, suggests that those on both sides thought they were doing what was right for the world and were engaged in what would really matter in the long run, that they were on the right side of a good fight. They believed their choices would be the best for succeeding generations. It remains for us to decide if their vision of the future was well advised (448).
Bradley’s thoughtful insights and parsing of arguments on both sides of the issue help the reader to understand why some arguments were quite effective while others failed miserably. She also navigates the waters of history and in-fighting that sometimes strengthened, sometimes divided various groups involved with the ERA fight and clearly identifies and describes how church involvement muddied the political waters just enough so that it was not always clear whether messages about so-called moral issues were coming from the pulpit or from an over-the-back-fence casual conversion.
The chronological organization of the book’s themes is a sometimes awkward framework for the complex interactions between the main subjects—the ERA fight and the IWY conferences. The linear layout creates a kind of doughnut with the ERA surrounding the story of the IWY conferences, but it also highlights the way both fights were handled by the LDS Church, showing similarities and differences between the way the church leaders worked with members in various regions of the country as leaders learned from previous successes and mistakes. Because the women’s rights movements were so entwined, however, Bradley’s organization is probably the best way to illustrate the complexity of the subjects at hand.
After a very personal and thought-provoking introduction, Pedestals and Podiums begins by examining the nineteenth-century LDS views of women’s rights. As Bradley points out, both opponents and proponents of the ERA relied on arguments by nineteenth-century Mormon women to prove their points: “In both cases, questions were raised about the differences between men and women, the need for women to be protected by law, and the appropriate roles of women” (25). Several examples of early LDS female involvement in the women’s suffrage movement and in social reform efforts, along with descriptions of early Relief Society leaders and the respect they received from their male counterparts, demonstrate to readers why these women from an earlier era were so important during the women’s rights movement of the twentieth century.
Whether the reality of the nineteenth-century women’s lives matched the twentieth-century image they evoked mattered little. The stories about their predecessors provided common ground for Mormon women, offering them powerful and, for them, believable role models. More importantly, these role models sanctioned both domesticity and full involvement as activists in working for women’s betterment. Whatever path an LDS woman chose, her pioneer foremothers had set the standard to follow (26).
For readers unfamiliar with the long history of the campaign for equal rights in the United States, Bradley’s summary is a good backgrounder. Beginning with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women suffrage in 1920, Bradley outlines the societal struggles, growth, and pressures that meant voting rights for women was really more of a beginning than an end in an effort to grant women legal rights.
The arguments that defined Mormon women’s support of and opposition to the ERA as proposed in the early 1970s were similar to those that showed up in the beginning of the national debate over women’s rights. Should women receive special protection under the law that could, for instance, limit exploitative sweatshop labor or should they compete on a level playing field that did not recognize separate spheres for men and women?
As the debate over woman’s rights progressed through the latter part of the twentieth century, it continued as it had before, not as a trajectory of unimpeded progress but rather like the course of ocean waves, a complex movement forward and falling back, driven by forces not entirely exposed or understood. It followed decades of dramatic social, economic, and political change … In many cases, female activists had succeeded in accomplishing what they set out to do only to discover that hoped-for legal or political advances failed to materialize in social relationships or vice versa (48).
The complexity of the national women’s movement was echoed in the LDS reaction to it. As the nation grew and grappled with the overwhelming social changes brought about between 1940 and 1970, so the Salt Lake-based church outgrew its own status of isolationistic refuge. The LDS Church responded to the social upheaval of the 1960s by intensifying conservative messages to its members. Bradley carefully outlines and documents how the church eventually would speak out against feminism in general and the Equal Rights Amendment in particular over pulpits, in church magazines, and in unsigned editorials in the Church News.
Understood in context, Bradley points out that the LDS leaders’ rhetorical arguments had “cultural, political, and social significance as well as profound weight in the fight against the ERA” (82). Bradley points out that official church statements were
written squarely within emotional norms, using familiar vocabularies and marking boundaries between Mormon and non-Mormon thought with coded language and connotatively freighted terms. The arguments presented instructed women how they should feel, which experiences to value, and which to shun. They portrayed the ERA as a threat to the sacral world and gave instructions on how to combat those threats (83).
A careful reading of Bradley’s summary of rhetorical arguments used by both sides will enlighten any reader trying to parse the highly emotional debates and statements. After discussing the general church position and outlining how it came to define passage of the ERA as a moral rather than a political battle, Bradley sets forth nine major anti-ERA documents presented by the LDS Church and dissects each one, exposing the visceral arguments meant to appeal to generalized fear and emotions.
The rhetoric used by ERA supporters is also examined, though perhaps not as fully. Bradley points out that ERA proponents tended to privilege reason over emotion and therefore were somewhat blindsided by the effectiveness of their opponents’ statements. In a society where social change was creating an avalanche of new thought and action, a significant portion of the country wanted the safety and protection offered by ERA opponents, and those seeking to pass the amendment failed to recognize this need for safety and security.
Not only does Bradley document women’s political coming-of-age, she also documents how the LDS Church became involved in the process, with actions and suggestions that may sound familiar to LDS members of the twenty-first century confronting current political issues such as homosexual marriage and political involvement in general. The patterns and seeds sown by church leaders in the 1970s in general and at state IWY conferences in particular have been brushed off, slightly revamped, and recycled in more recent years.
Church leaders encouraged women to educate themselves on the topics and participate in the state conferences. There was some lack of clarity as to whether people were being “called” by ecclesiastical authority to attend the state conference or whether they were encouraged to attend on their own. Wards organized busloads of women armed with little information other than directions to vote against all provisions on the conference ballot, further muddying the waters. At the same time, church leaders encouraged women and men participating to represent themselves as grass-roots “interested parties” coming together to speak on a topic of importance on their own.
For instance, although Relief Society president Barbara Smith insisted the church had not been involved in trying to influence votes in Utah’s IWY conference, Relief Society members recalled being told that they should “be in attendance at the IWY meetings and to vote according to the teachings of their church … This was followed up by the Relief Society visiting teachers carrying the same message to those on whom they call” (215). Only pressure from national media, in this case the New York Times, convinced official church spokesmen to admit church involvement.
Successful tactics in Utah were encouraged in other states, most notably in Hawaii, where that state already had equal rights provisions in its own constitution, yet LDS anti-ERA conference attendees ensured that Hawaii’s IWY conference would vote down all the national committee recommendations, including equal rights and world peace.
In Virginia, where a fight for ERA ratification was coming to a head, church members inundated state legislators with postcards, phone calls, and letters opposing ERA legislation. Suddenly those legislators found themselves buried in an avalanche of “voter opposition,” unaware that the apparent grassroots opposition was highly organized and motivated by politicians using ecclesiastical connections freely. Again, average church members had a hard time figuring out whether requests for opposition to the legislation were coming from priesthood leaders or from political leaders—often the same men wearing two different hats.
In June 1978, when Congress was considering extending the ratification deadline for the ERA, the LDS communications director for Washington, D.C., passed on to local stake presidents a list of members of Congress who were undecided about the extension. Stake presidents were asked to encourage their congregations to lobby those undecided politicians against extension (334).
No book discussing the LDS Church and the ERA would be complete without a discussion of Sonia Johnson, her Congressional testimony in front of the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, and the events surrounding her excommunication from the church. Although church leaders have insisted that her excommunication had little, if anything, to do with her opposition to the ERA, actions and other evidence indicated otherwise to many LDS members. Johnson’s excommunication served as a shot across the bow of any other women or men considering supporting the ERA in opposition to the official church stance on the issue.
Despite the excommunication, Mormons for ERA organized several chapters around the country and worked actively, though unsuccessfully to get the amendment ratified.
A case study of the Alice Louise Reynolds forum wraps up the book, reviewing how each of the events discussed earlier affected the women involved in the forum as well as the existence of the forum itself, once the ERA debate became dangerously controversial. The forum was organized in 1977 in the aftermath of the IWY conferences. It provided a place for women of all ages, some newly ignited by the fires of political participation, to “make sense of this new world” (411). One topic of concern for the forum was the church’s involvement in the ERA. Members struggled with he dynamics of doubt, faith, agency, and obedience as related to the ongoing women’s rights movement. Eventually, as members became more and more involved in finding ways to support the ERA, the forum was banned from meeting in its founding location—the Alice Louise Reynolds Room on the BYU campus.
Any history of Mormon feminism during this time period could probably reproduce endless stories of women who struggled with the same issues as the Reynolds Forum. Others during the same period tuned more resolutely for companionship and sisterhood to their Relief Societies … Groups like the Reynolds Forum served a dual function. For women who felt alienated and disenchanted with the institutional church, such groups served as a transitional zone, allowing women to voice their concerns and explore them in a supportive atmosphere even as they continued their trajectory of church activity. For others, such groups were a way of maintaining their commitment to the institutional church and of anchoring their loyalty to the gospel principles of justice and equality. The existence of such groups helped mediate political and spiritual realities in a shared context with other Mormon women (434-35).
As the LDS Church faces a future of “moral issues” such as homosexual marriage rights and spotlighted attention on its politician members (former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, for instance), the church and its members will do well to learn from the concise and complex history presented in Pedestals and Podiums and the women and men who shaped the political atmosphere of the church in the 1870s and 1980s.
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Deborah Farmer Kris
Martha Sonntag Bradley’s Pedestals & Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, & Equal Rights needs a new subtitle. This is the story of LDS women (in and out of Utah), religious authority, and the Equal Rights Amendment. All other historical detail is merely context for this painstakingly researched, riveting accounts of 1970s feminism and the Church’s explosive foray into gender politics.
Bradley begins the story in June 1977 with a personal introductory note. Though she travels back to the nineteenth century and forward to the 1990s, June 1977 is the epicenter for the book, the true climax. An entire chapter is devoted to the events of this month. The scene? The Utah International Women’s Year (IWY) Conference. It was a “moment that forever marked my life—a moment of “‘before’ and ‘after'” (viii). Later, IWY chairwoman Jan Tyler likened the experience to being born again—either to a more radical conservatism or a more radical feminism: “Without exception every woman who was there was radicalized … and it was painful to watch those births that were mishandled” (214).
My mother missed the IWY conference in June 1977. She was in a Utah hospital, recovering from a different kind of birth—mine. Just as Bradley bookends her carefully footnoted history with personal recollections, I could not adequately review this book without doing the same. The ERA is not within my memory, but it helped shape the cultural milieu of my birth and my development as a “next-generation” LDS feminist. I distinctly remember “discovering” the ERA in high school. The adults I questioned told me that while the amendment might sound like a good idea, it would have resulted in coed bathrooms, the drafting of women for military service, and gay marriage. Also, Sonia Johnson was a crazy “extremist” who left her husband to join a lesbian commune. Yes, some women were upset when the Church registered its opposition, but they got over it. Besides, the Church always reserves the right to speak out on “moral issues.”
These conversations intrigued rather than satisfied my curiosity, but my research at the BYU library turned up little more than Rex Lee’s A Lawyer Looks at the ERA, an Ensign article or two, and—quite by accident—Linda Sillitoe’s poem, “an early elegy in lower case,” written upon the death of President Spencer W. Kimball, which ends, “for my brothers’ sake i weep at your death / for my sisters’ i keep my seat as you pass.” The emotion of those lines kept me hunting for more. For fifteen years, I gathered pieces of information, but it took reading Bradley’s compelling book—thirty years to the month after the IWY conference debacle—to piece them together into a coherent narrative.
Bradley’s first chapter reviews the history of Mormon participation in the nineteenth-century woman’s rights movement and describes how women on both sides of the ERA debate used this historical precedent to justify their position. As a stand-alone essay, the chapter is an excellent primer on early LDS female leaders, their fight for suffrage, their defense of polygamy, and the social, academic, and economic accomplishments of the Relief Society. In fact, the Relief Society’s ability to organize women for political battles was a prescient foreshadowing of the massive mobilization of women during the ERA battle. Bradley writes, “By the 1970s, nineteenth-century Mormon women had become icons of mythic strength, expansive roles, and profound spirituality. … Whatever path an LDS woman chose, her pioneer foremothers had set the standard to follow” (26).
Chapters 2 and 3 provide a brief history of the Equal Rights Amendment and national context for the legal and emotional battles of the 1970s. In particular, Bradley explains the two competing factions that split the women’s movement for generations: those seeking unfettered equality with men versus those fighting for gender-specific legal protection for women. In the fight for the ERA, “two value systems, two world views, two cultures suddenly impacted … [and] nowhere was this description truer than for Mormonism’s women as the national debate over ratification began in 1973” (79). For Church leaders, the one-sentence ERA became a blank slate for fearful projections of what might happen if “radical feminism” took root. It “became a symbol of what was wrong with society” (80), a clarion call to preserve traditional family structure and gender roles.
Bradley expertly describes the new “unexpected alliance between Mormonism and the Religious Right,” including Church leaders’ active collaboration with the John Birch Society and Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum (82). She also examines the difference between a “political issue” and a “moral issue” and how—in the official LDS context—the former becomes the latter (84-93).
In chapter 4, Bradley provides a dispassionate timeline of the Church’s involvement in the ERA by describing in detail nine anti-ERA documents produced between 1974 and 1981, including:
1. A 1974 address by Relief Society General President Barbara B. Smith, acknowledging the “social wrongs against women” but cautioning that “the ERA was the incorrect approach” because it might nullify protectionist laws (94). While the address reflected her opinion, it also contained language quoted directly from the Church’s in-house position statement.
2. A 1975 Church News editorial published at the beginning of Utah’s legislative session, “the first in a series of statements over the next five years that would officially establish the Church’s opinion” against the ERA (97). Just two months before the publication of this editorial, 63 percent of LDS Utahns supported the ERA.
3. A 1976 First Presidency statement, identifying the ERA as a “moral issue” and asking members to join the fight against ratification (99).
4. A 1978 press release published in the Ensign titled “Reaffirmation of the First Presidency’s Position on the ERA” (103).
5. The Church and the Proposed Equal Rights Amendment: A Moral Issue, a 1980 pamphlet distributed to every adult female member of the Church. The back of the pamphlet contained instructions titled “What Mormon Women Can Do.” Suggestions included: “Actively support political candidates who are honest and trustworthy, and who oppose the Equal Rights Amendment” (108).
These documents, along with major addresses by Elder Boyd K. Packer and Ezra Taft Benson left little ambiguity about the Church’s position and expectations of its members.
To Bradley’s great credit, she does not caricature the anti-ERA forces, despite their well-orchestrated campaign. She allows anti-ERA leaders within the Church to speak for themselves, revealing incisive differences in style and substance. Men and women, in particular, seemed to have different methods of speaking with women about this issue. For example, Elders Packer and Benson spoke in terms of good versus evil, issuing dire warnings, raising up the “cult of womanhood” as a standard, and condemning any encroachment upon the traditional power structure. Packer describes the ERA as a “threat to the family” in apocalyptic terms: “Without that, when the floods come, in the end what will really be worth saving?” (151). In a 1981 conference address aimed specifically at the ERA, Elder Benson said, “Homemaking is the highest, most noble, profession to which a woman might aspire. … Support, courage, and strengthen your husband in his responsibility as patriarch in the home. … A woman’s role in a man’s life is to lift him up” (111).
In contrast, President Barbara Smith played “an increasingly difficult role: acknowledging the realities of women’s lives, including some of their unmet needs, while representing the official Church position” (95). For example, when the Ensign asked if someone could be a good Mormon and support the ERA, she replied, “I personally would have difficulty opposing a policy of the First Presidency … [but] I would be unhappy if we tried to limit people who express their sincere beliefs” (153). She later expressed frustration at those with aggressive political agendas who tried to “use the Relief Society” to prey on the fears of women and advance their cause through unsavory means (187; emphasis mine). For example, after the 1977 IWY conference, she registered her strong disapproval of the tone of the conference—a tone that was created by the very LDS women who attended at the specific request of the Church. She accepted, as Relief Society president, some of the blame and said, “Mormon women are generally uninformed about the women’s movement because they don’t see a need to be informed. People were able to play on their feaars and feelings and we saw what comes of it. If people are uninformed, they are easily panicked” (210).
Two other prominent LDS and ERA leaders, Beverly Campbell and Georgia Peterson, are presented as bright, driven women who are more concerned with arguments than fear-mongering. In fact, one of the most salient scenes in the book describes Peterson, a politician and organizer, attending a Conservative Caucus meeting hosted by Dennis Ker, a local bishop who presented himself as having approval from the Church and from Peterson’s group “Let’s Govern Ourselves.” The meeting attracted nearly a thousand women who had been told to attend the upcoming IWY and who were desperately looking for direction. As Ker spoke, Peterson became agitated “to the point that I had the nerve to get up and walk up, uninvited, and take over the microphone.” She told the women, “Look, you don’t need to go in there and be frightened. I mean, this is a meeting of women. You can go in, you can voice your opinion, you can [take a] stand, … and this can be fun. This is the legislative process” (183-84). Later, in the ruckus of the conference, she exhorted the women to “‘Think! Think! You decide what you want! And think! You have a God-given mind. Use it!’ I was totally dismayed that women did not know … what effect they can have on politics and government” (203). Perhaps the most disturbing observation from this book was the readiness of LDS women to act—even act out of character—at the directive of male leadership without examining an issue fully.
Chapters 5 through 9—a full third of the text—are devoted to the Utah IWY Conference, the National IWY Conference, and their aftermaths. Chapter 7, which describes the Utah IWY conference, is the clear climax of the book, and Bradley allows the women who attended to narrate the events in their own words. She notes that, even twenty-five years later, some of her interviewees broke down while describing the events of that month. As a reader, I had to put down the book at one point during the chapter and walk away, stunned at the anger and chaos unleashed by a few thousand Mormon women a few miles from where I lay in a hospital bassinet. The IWY mêlée is jarring for many reasons—the open rudeness and hostility so atypical of LDS women’s gatherings, the mob mentality that seemed to overtake the crowd, the image of men patrolling the perimeters with walkie-talkies to help coordinate voting, the line between feminist and traditionalist which seemed to implode in our Church community in the space of forty-eight hours—creating wounds that have yet to fully heal.
Bradley writes movingly about this loss of trust: A “wide gulf” opened up; and “almost without exception, women on each side felt bitterly mistrustful of women on the other side. Perhaps the greatest casualty of the IWY conference was the feeling of sisterhood with other women. For many Mormon women, ‘sisterhood’ had become a shrinking circle wherein admittance was controlled by politically proper shibboleths” (209).
Chapters 10 through 12 carefully trace the Church’s anti-ERA activism in other states, effectively leading to the death of the amendment. Bradley provides minutes from meetings, explores financial contributions, and erases the fuzzy distinction between “grass-roots” individual efforts by concerned citizens and direct Church-sponsored mobilization. Drawing from the painful—but also effective—results of the Utah IWY conference, the Church “learned how to mobilize an inexperienced but devoted mass of foot soldiers in a holy war against feminism” (222).
Of course, Bradley also describes the efforts of Mormons for ERA (MERA), the success and turmoil of its subgroups, and the excommunication of its president, Sonia Johnson. While she does not dwell on Johnson’s case, she gives a fascinating glimpse into the proceedings of the Church court through the testimony of five witnesses. These witnesses appealed not just for Johnson but for the health of the Church. Ralph Payer, a Mormon psychology professor, told the court: “Those outside the Church either did not care about [Sonia’s speech] or saw it as a positive sign that the Church could accept and tolerate, without repression, a contrary opinion from within. … Damage has been done to the Church’s reputation … by the convening of this trial” (365).
As one who constantly searches for middle ground—something between stewing silently and flying a Mormons-for-ERA banner over the temple—I was particularly grateful that Bradley added one final chapter: a “case study” on the Alice Louise Reynolds Forum. For nearly fifteen years, a group of diverse, educated LDS women met monthly for “personal support, safe opportunities for discussion, and intellectual rigor that led to refined argument” (420). They hosted speakers, grilled local politicians, and wrote to Church leaders about their concern for the eroding boundary between Church and state. In the very first meeting in BYU’s cafeteria, “they focused on how each saw her feminist views intersecting with Church doctrine” (412). From Bradley’s description, the group seemed to mirror the energy and efforts of the women who formed Exponent II in Boston—and, perhaps, the women who are now forming similar discussion and support groups on LDS blogs.
This book is a necessary read for me and for many of my generation. Thirty years after IWY, I have great hope that the conversation about Mormon feminism is resurging. The LDS blogging community—which is increasingly garnering the attention of the mainstream media, academics, and the Church—in many ways resembles the demographics and energy of the women who began Exponent II and the Alice Louise Reynolds Forum. Largely, the women bloggers are in their twenties and thirties. Our blogs differ in specific orientation (motherhood, personal essay, feminism, scholarship); however, the overlap in voices and conversation is enormous, with women from different political and theological perspectives vigorously conversing about the experience of being a Mormon woman. Perhaps these forums are part of the answer to closing the “gulf” of mistrust between LDS feminists and traditionalists that opened up in the wake of IWY and the ERA. Recently, an Exponent II blog discussion touched on the history captured by Bradley’s book. One respondent reflected on the differences between the feminists of her generation and the younger “blogging feminists,” commenting: “Most of the women on feministmormonhousewives and other blogs don’t remember Sonia Johnson, or the September Six, or the International Women’s Year debacle … [T]he younger feminists don’t have the sense of worry about what they say that those of us who remember those times have.”
One of the co-founders of the Exponent blog responded: “While I remember the September Six and have studied Utah’s IWY and the ERA, I didn’t actually have to live through those events. While I keep those events in mind when I write a blog, I think I do feel freer to write what I like because I haven’t had to watch my contemporaries be censored.”
There is danger both in being bound by history and in being ignorant of it. If Mormon feminism wants to have a seat at the table, we need people like Martha Sonntag Bradley who will offer a rich perspective of our own recent history as we seek to build bridges and create a vision for the future.