“It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
– William Shakespeare
Sonia Johnson, like John Dehlin, came from Logan, Utah. And like John Dehlin, she asked a lot of questions and didn’t much care for the church’s answers. Johnson’s issue was the Equal Rights Amendment, and she cited the Church’s opposition to same as evidence of “savage misogyny” in the Mormon hierarchy. She refused to support church leaders and even vocally shouted “No! No! No! E.R.A. says no!” in the Tabernacle when it came time to sustain Spencer W. Kimball as the President of the Church. She gave speeches across the country counseling people to turn away Mormon missionaries until the church reversed its position on the ERA. Finally, when she was excommunicated in December of 1979, the news media reported it as a major story that would generate a tremendous backlash against the LDS Church.
Indeed, excommunication did little or nothing to slow Sonia Johnson down.
She chained herself to the gates of the Seattle Temple to protest the church’s position, and she found herself thrown in jail for her efforts. She ran for President of the United States in 1984 and came in fifth, with over 70,000 votes. (She lost to Ronald Reagan, who got considerably more than 70,000 votes.) She announced she was a lesbian and founded an all-women commune in Arizona. She spoke at a number of radical feminist gatherings and made a name for herself in various academic and feminist communities.
She is still alive today, but no one knows where she is.
Wikipedia says her last known speaking engagement was in 2007, and in 2010, a Logan newspaper tried to do a follow-up, “Where are they now?” story about Johnson and came up short. The reporter of that piece contacted one of Johnson’s relatives, who said they thought Johnson was now living in Costa Rica, but they weren’t sure. My own Google searches have come up empty, too.
This is very different from the 1980s, when national stories about the church often included a quote from Sonia Johnson, who invariably used the occasion to criticize the church of which she was no longer a member. Johnson had every bit the national profile that John Dehlin and Kate Kelly now enjoy, and her arguments were very much in line with what Kate Kelly is now saying to every media outlet that will listen. Yet in Johnson’s case, we now have more than three decades of hindsight to determine what kind of lasting impact her excommunication and subsequent anti-LDS activism has had on the Church at large.
Time has not been kind to Ms. Johnson’s legacy.
The Church has not made the requisite changes to its doctrines and practices that Sonia Johnson demanded, yet it has somehow continued to grow and thrive. The media, once infatuated with Sonia Johnson, have forgotten her entirely, as have the vast majority of current church members, most of whom have likely never heard her name. It’s hard to argue that all the sound and fury she generated all those years ago has signified anything other than nothing, at least as far as Mormonism is concerned.
Understand my purpose here. I am not trying to mock or vilify Sonia Johnson, just as I am not trying to mock or vilify John Dehlin or Kate Kelly or anyone else whose spiritual journey leads them outside the boundaries of the Church. I am, rather, trying to provide some needed perspective. If you think Dehlin’s excommunication is some kind turning point, or that it heralds the inevitable decline of the corrupt Church he has exposed, or that Dehlin’s and/or Kelly’s influence will continue to expand while the Mormon house of cards comes tumbling down…
If you’re of that opinion, you might want to talk to Sonia Johnson about how all that worked out for her.
If you can find her, anyway.