The Mormon Church and the ERA

August 2005

When I asked my sons, individually, for their first reaction to "E-R-A," they said "Earned Run Average," or the baseball pitcher statistic; the lower the ERA of a pitcher, the better. Indeed, they could have learned about another kind of ERA had they attended July's enlightening presentation about the Equal Rights Amendment by Martha Bradley Ph.D.

To begin, Bradley asserted that she would not say whether the Mormon Church's anti-ERA campaign was wrong. Instead her goals were to understand how the ERA worked, the impact ERA had on women's individual lives, the position of Utah Mormons about the ERA, and the long-term implications of the ERA on the women's movement in general.

First proposed to Congress in December 1923 by Alice Paul and National Women's party, three years after women won the right to vote, the ERA wording 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." ERA was not ratified.

In 1972, 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.

Riding on the heels of the 1960's civil rights movement, ERA passed in 1972 by the Senate and barreled out of Congress, getting twenty-two of the necessary thirty-eight state ratifications. 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.

Despite a more vigorous campaign by supporters, the amendment was again defeated in 1975. By then opposition to ERA had intensified and expanded. By 1977, five states had voted to rescind, and only thirteen additional states had ratified.

In the summer of 198l, National Organization for Women (NOW) even sent missionaries to Utah to go door to door asking Mormons to support the ERA. Despite a time extension to 10 June 1982, ERA did not obtain the thirty-eight states even though national polls consistently showed the majority of Americans in favor of the amendment. Thus in 1982, the fifty-nine-year battle for ERA came to an end, or at least to a rest. According to NOW, since 1985 to the present, ERA had been reintroduced into each session of Congress and held in Committee.

Early anti-ERA organizers included Phyllis Shafley, right wing leader of the Eagle Forum and the coalition STOP ERA, the John Birch Society, and a religious converging of Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Mormons. Pro-ERA advocacy was led by the National Organization of Women and ERAmerica, a coalition of nearly 80 other mainstream organizations.

Opposition against ERA, Bradley pointed out, seemed at times alarmist and hysterical. Dwarfing the constitutional principal of equality, ERA opponents instead targeted "traditional family values" like sexual permissiveness, abortion, childcare, homosexuality, and unisexuality. They claimed the ERA would deny woman's right to be supported by her husband, privacy rights would be overturned, women would be sent into combat, and legal abortions and homosexual marriages would be upheld.

The anti-ERA movement reflected fears about the changing roles of women and men and the changing structure of the family. There was perceived danger in equality for the ideological and cultural concept of the father as head and provider, mother as nurturer and manager, and children as replicas into the next generation. Equality would make women more vulnerable and exposed, and men would feel freer to abandon family responsibilities.

In addition, 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 Utah, the attack against ERA began when the amendment was first considered by the Utah legislature in 1973. The same fears of anti-ERA opponents prompted Mormon Church leaders to join their financial resources, promotional skills and broad network of members to the anti-ERA movement. In 1976, church leaders described ERA as "a moral issue with many disturbing ramifications for women and for the family as individual members as a whole." President Spencer Kimball declared it "would strike at the family, humankind's basic institution."

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. In March 1980, the Church went all out with the publication of The Church and the Proposed Equal Rights Amendment: A Moral Issue.

In the midst of this anti-ERA campaign, active Mormon Sonia Johnson testified in 1978 in support of ERA before the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, upsetting Senator Orrin Hatch. Her feisty testimony caught media attention, and she became a lightening rod for Mormon and other religious supporters of equality. Subsequently though, she was excommunicated from the Mormon Church in December 1979.

Normally the church's position on politics is one of neutrality. Bradley noted, however, the inconsistencies between some public statements of policies and the way church systems and membership were used to sway political opinion about ERA. On the one hand, ward bishoprics instructed members not to use church facilities for political purposes, yet during the fall of 1978, ward newsletters repeatedly called for political participation in fighting the amendment's ratification. The same newsletters told ward members that if they wanted 'to support the Prophet in his opposition to the ERA, they could call or write to their Congressmen. Anti-ERA candidates were scheduled for speeches and advertisements were handed out in church houses. Notices 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."

Many sociologists of religion place the Mormon Church's activities as pivotal in a new coalition of the religious right after their anti-ERA campaign. Women who had never before been involved in politics played a critical role in this new conservative political movement. Developed virtually overnight, they exhibited an impressive ability to raise money and to establish strong organizations that depended on mass grass roots support and tactics that persuaded elected officials.

Why did such resistance erupt to an amendment that sought to remedy injustices long experienced by American women? Why would an organized coalition engage in such a vigorous and exhaustive campaign against ratification? Because ERA represented a symbolic challenge to traditional gender roles that spanned historical boundaries and crossed over religious and cultural lines. This challenge, profound in the way it might alter the lives of men and women, had great potential for creating fear and anxiety.

The campaign, the "right fight," Bradley said, was largely a rhetorical battle fought with words, but words nevertheless with profound impact on the lives of all American women. It was a battle no one won, with still an undecided outcome.

--Sarah Smith


Author's note: For a complete history of ERA in Utah and in the LDS Church, look for Bradley's upcoming book published by Signature Books: Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and the Equal Rights Amendment.

Other helpful references about ERA include Linda Sillitoe and Paul Swenson, "A Moral Issue," Utah Holiday Magazine (January 1980); Rex E. Lee, A Lawyer Looks at the Equal Rights Amendment (1980); Mary Frances Berry, Why ERA Failed (1986); and Joan Hoff-Wilson, ed. Rights of Passage (1986).