Sonia Johnson was a fifth-generation Mormon who came into the political sphere when the Mormon Church spoke out against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). An English professor and mother of four, she knew little about it until she became "uneasy" that her church was "opposing something with a name as beautiful as the Equal Rights Amendment." This eventually led Johnson to run for the presidency.
A Utah State University graduate, she married but went on to earn a doctorate from New Jersey’s Rutgers University. Between 1960 and 1976, she taught in various universities as the family moved between Samoa, Nigeria, Malawi, Korea, and Malaysia. They settled in Sterling, Virginia in 1976.
Congress had passed the ERA by the required 2/3 majority in 1972 and sent it on for ratification by the required 3/4 of state legislatures. It was at this stage that the Mormon Church mounted its opposition, a reversal of greater liberalism earlier in its history: Utah women first voted in 1870; the church sponsored delegates to national suffrage conventions; and in 1910 – a decade prior to the 19th Amendment that enfranchised all American women -- the first female state senator was a Utah physician and the fourth wife of a Mormon leader.
Other women who understood this tradition joined Johnson in forming "Mormons for ERA," and in 1978, she testified for the ERA to the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights. She faced immense animosity from the Mormon Church for this – but also a great deal of favorable publicity elsewhere.
Johnson went on a national speaking tour and announced a "genuine Mormon fast," angering church leaders so much that they excommunicated her – generating still more publicity.
ERA opponents successfully stalled it, as Indiana’s 1977 ratification became the 35th of the necessary 38 states. Congress cooperated with feminists by extending the 1979 deadline to 1982, but Republican Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory moved ERA supporter Jimmy Carter out of the White House. Conservatives were in charge; the second deadline passed with no more ratifications; and it was this that motivated Johnson’s 1984 presidential campaign.
Nominated by two minor parties, the U.S. Citizens Party and the Peace and Freedom Party, she was the first third-party candidate to qualify for primary matching funds. It is difficult for third-party candidates to get on primary ballots in most states, however, and Johnson probably would have made her point more successfully had she stayed with the ERA-supporting Democratic Party. Most feminists in 1984 saw Sonia Johnson as akin to Belva Lockwood in 1884: they thought her race unrealistic and excessively personal. Instead they supported former Vice President Walter Mondale, who lost to incumbent Reagan.The Equal Rights Amendment never passed, and Johnson grew cynical about its relevance. In her 1989 book, From Housewife to Heretic, she stated: "Though there was a time when I would have given my life for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), at this point nothing could persuade me to work even two seconds for its passage. We are not going to change the world by getting women included in the constitution—that document which ensured freedom for rich white men. Since the constitution was not designed to work for anyone else, it never has nor can ever be expected to work for women." Johnson founded Wildfire, a separatist commune for women, but it disbanded in 1993.
- Reprinted from NWHM Cyber Exhibit "Women Who Ran for President"
Top row left to right: Teddie Wood, Maida Withers, bottom row left to right: Sonia Johnson, Hazel Rigby. Founding mothers of Mormons for ERA / Special Collections Dept., J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah