Pedestals and Podiums

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Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and Equal Rights

How and why did Mormon Utah women band together to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, especially given their legacy as women’s rights advocates?

October, 2005

SKU: 1-56085-189-9 Categories: , Tags: , , Author: Martha Sonntag BradleyProduct ID: 1451

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Almost from the beginning, the women’s movement has been divided into two factions–those wanting full equality with men (Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul) and those seeking legal protections for women’s particular needs (Julia Ward Howe, Eleanor Roosevelt). Early Utah leaders such as Relief Society President Emmeline B. Wells walked hand-in-hand with Anthony and other controversial reformers. However, by the 1970s, Mormons had undergone a significant ideological turn to the mainstream, championing women’s unique roles in home and church, and joined other conservatives in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment.

Looking back to the nineteenth century, how committed were Latter-day Saints of their day to women’s rights? LDS President Joseph F. Smith was particularly critical of women who “glory in their enthralled condition and who caress and fondle the very chains and manacles which fetter and enslave them!” The masthead of the church’s female Relief Society periodical, Woman’s Exponent, proudly proclaimed “The Rights of the Women of Zion and the Rights of Women of All Nations!” In leading the LDS sisterhood, Wells said she gleaned inspiration from The Revolution, published by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Fast-forward a century to 1972 and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) by the United States Congress. Within a few years, the LDS Church, allied with Phyllis Schlafly, joined a coalition of the Religious Right and embarked on a campaign against ratification. This was a mostly grassroots campaign waged by thousands of men and women who believed they were engaged in a moral war and that the enemy was feminism itself.

Conjuring up images of unisex bathrooms, homosexuality, the dangers of women in the military, and the divine calling of stay-at-home motherhood—none of which were directly related to equal rights—the LDS campaign began in Utah at church headquarters but importantly was fought across the country in states that had not yet ratified the proposed amendment. In contrast to the enthusiastic partnership of Mormon women and suffragists of an earlier era, fourteen thousand women, the majority of them obedient, determined LDS foot soldiers responding to a call from their Relief Society leaders, attended the 1977 Utah International Women’s Year Conference in Salt Lake City. Their intent was to commandeer the proceedings if necessary to defeat the pro-ERA agenda of the National Commission on the International Women’s Year. Ironically, the conference organizers were mostly LDS women, who were nevertheless branded by their sisters as feminists.

In practice, the church risked much by standing up political action committees around the country and waging a seemingly all-or-nothing campaign. Its strategists, beginning with the dean of the church’s law school at BYU, feared the worst—some going so far as to suggest that the ERA might seriously compromise the church’s legal status and sovereignty of its all-male priesthood. In the wake of such horrors, a take-no-prisoners war of rhetoric and leafleteering raged across the country. In the end, the church exerted a significant, perhaps decisive, impact on the ERA’s unexpected defeat.

Martha Sonntag Bradley is a professor in the College of Architecture and Planning and director of the Honors Program at the University of Utah, where she has received the Distinguished Teaching Award, the Student Choice Award for Excellence in Teaching, the Bennion Center Service Learning Professorship, and the honorary title of University Professor, 1999-2000. She taught previously in the history department at Brigham Young University, where she received a Teaching Excellence Award. She has served as president of the Mormon History Association and co-editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Her many books include Kidnapped from that Land: The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists; Four Zinas: A Story of Mothers and Daughters on the Mormon Frontier; and A History of Kane County.

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6 reviews for Pedestals and Podiums

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.”

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