Most women who run for president experience some degree of notoriety. Certainly this was the case for Sonia Johnson, who ran for president in 1984 as the candidate for the left-wing U.S. Citizen’s Party.
Although Johnson held a Ph.D. in English, she spent much of her adult life as a Mormon housewife with limited involvement in politics. Johnson first came to public attention in the late 1970s, as Americans debated the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Like many feminists of her generation, Johnson and her friends, accompanied by their children, marched on Washington D.C. in the ERA Parade of 1978. Twenty people marched behind a “Mormons for ERA” banner. But their unabashedly pro-ERA stance was in opposition to the position taken by the Church of Latter-Day Saints, then engaged in a full-on campaign against the amendment.1
The church saw the ERA as connected to “moral issues,” particularly abortion, same-sex marriage, and women in the military. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, the church reiterated its strong opposition to the amendment. Johnson, a fifth-generation Mormon, experienced the church’s anti-ERA campaign as a moment of feminist awakening. She said in 1981, “When the Church began to oppose ERA, that changed my life from night to day. Nothing had ever been like that before. I had a very abrupt awakening.”2
Johnson sprung into action. She and three other women co-founded an organization, Mormons for ERA. In August of 1978, Senator Birch Bayh (a Democrat from Indiana) asked Johnson to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights. At the hearing, she engaged in a heated debate with Senator Orrin Hatch, then (and now) a Republican Senator from Utah. Hatch asked her to admit that “nearly one hundred percent of Mormon women oppose the Equal Amendment.” Johnson responded: “I don’t have to admit that. It isn’t true.”
Opinion polls of the time indicate that Mormons did tend to oppose the ERA in greater numbers than other religious groups. According to one poll, 25% of Mormon women and 12.5% of Mormon men supported the amendment.3 Yet, as Johnson said, these numbers were not zero. However, her activism was unacceptable to church authorities. In December of 1979, Johnson was excommunicated without the opportunity to defend herself to church leaders. During that same year, she divorced her husband due to an unrelated conflict. She described the year as emotionally trying.
Johnson turned her feelings of betrayal and despair towards activism. In 1980, Johnson was arrested in Bellevue, Washington for chaining herself to the gate of a Mormon temple during a pro-ERA demonstration. Her public profile continued to expand after excommunication. She received numerous awards, made multiple television appearances, and began work on her autobiography. The work, entitled From Housewife to Heretic, was published in 1981 by Doubleday.
In many ways, Johnson’s presidential campaign was simply a coda to her life as an activist. In the 1984 election, Johnson ran as the candidate for the short-lived U.S. Citizen’s Party, which began in the late 1970s when left-leaning activists became dissatisfied with President Jimmy Carter. Her campaign stood no chance of victory, but made a statement to the country — especially the LDS officials who opposed women assuming leadership positions. Johnson finished fifth, after which she largely retired from public life.
Thirty-two years after Johnson’s campaign, women who run for president are still the victims of vicious attacks. But Johnson also shows us how women can respond to these criticisms through concerted feminist activism.
- Mary L. Bradford, “The Odyssey of Sonia Johnson,” Dialogue 14:2 (Summer 1981): 14-27. Return to text.
- Johnson, as quoted in Bradford, 19. Return to text.
- D. Michael Quinn, “The LDS Church’s Campaign Against the Equal Rights Amendment,” Journal of Mormon History 20:2 (Fall 1994): 85-155, 144-145. Return to text.