Sonia Ann Harris
February 27, 1936
|Occupation||Feminist activist and writer|
|Known for||Supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, excommunicated by LDS Church|
|Spouse(s)||Rick Johnson (divorced)|
|Partner(s)||Jade DeForest (born Jean Tait)|
Sonia Ann Johnson, (née Harris; born February 27, 1936) is an American feminist activist and writer. She was an outspoken supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and in the late 1970s was publicly critical of the position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), of which she was a member, against the proposed amendment. She eventually was excommunicated from the church for her activities. She went on to publish several radical feminist books, ran for president in 1984, and become a popular feminist speaker.
Early life, education, and family
Sonia Ann Harris, born in Malad, Idaho, was a fifth-generation Mormon. She attended Utah State University and married Rick Johnson following graduation. She earned a Master's degree and a Doctor of Education from Rutgers College. She was employed as a part-time teacher of English in universities both in the United States and abroad, following her husband to new places of employment. She had four children during these years. They returned to the United States in 1976.
In 1991, Johnson's mother Ida Harris became worried about her daughter's safety after hearing rumors of Sonia's death and receiving telephone threats against her daughter. Taking the threats to heart, Ida moved to Sonia's Wildfire Community in November, 1991. Six months later, Ida passed away at the age of 86 on Mother's Day, May 10, 1992, with Sonia by her side. Ida was buried in Logan, Utah, but Sonia did not attend the funeral because she had promised her mother not to return to Utah.
LDS Church and ERA
Johnson began speaking out in support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1977 and co-founded, with three other women, an organization called Mormons for ERA. National exposure occurred with her 1978 testimony in front of the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights, and she continued speaking and promoting the ERA and denouncing the LDS Church's opposition to the amendment.
The LDS Church began disciplinary proceedings against Johnson after she delivered a scathing speech entitled "Patriarchal Panic: Sexual Politics in the Mormon Church" at a meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA) in New York City in September 1979. Johnson denounced as immoral and illegal the LDS Church's nationwide lobbying efforts to prevent passage of the ERA.
Because the speech drew national media attention, leaders in Johnson's local Virginia congregation, including stake president Earl J. Roueche, immediately began excommunication proceedings. A December 1979 excommunication letter claimed that Johnson was charged with a variety of misdeeds, including hindering the worldwide missionary program, damaging internal Mormon social programs, and teaching false doctrine. Her husband divorced her in October 1979, two months before the trial. She attributed his decision to "some kind of mid-life crisis."
After her break with the church, Johnson continued promoting the ERA, speaking on television and at numerous functions throughout the country, including the 1980 Democratic National Convention. She also protested venues such as the Republican Party headquarters in Washington, D.C. She and twenty ERA supporters were briefly jailed for chaining themselves to the gate of the Seattle Washington Temple in Bellevue, Washington.
In the summer of 1982, Johnson led seven other women from around the country in a dramatic public hunger strike in Springfield, Illinois. The group targeted Illinois because it was the only Northern industrial state that hadn't ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. During the Women`s Fast for ERA, the feminist activists kept daily vigils in the rotunda of the capitol, but the amendment eventually failed in the Illinois House on June 22. The group broke its 37-day, water-only fast with a round of grape juice.
Citizens Party presidential candidate
Johnson ran in the 1984 presidential election, as the presidential candidate of the U.S. Citizens Party, Pennsylvania's Consumer Party and California's Peace and Freedom Party. Johnson received 72,161 votes (0.08%) finishing fifth. Her running mate for the Citizens Party was Richard Walton and for the Peace and Freedom Party Emma Wong Mar. One of her campaign managers, Mark Dunlea, later wrote a novel about a first female president, Madame President.
Johnson also founded Wildfire, a short-lived separatist commune for women that disbanded in 1993. She published several of her later books under the imprint "Wildfire Books."
Publications and personal views
Johnson became increasingly radicalized, especially against state power, as reflected in the books she published after 1987. They include:
- From Housewife to Heretic (Doubleday, 1981)
- Telling the Truth (pamphlet, Crossing Press, 1987)
- Going Out of Our Minds: The Metaphysics of Liberation (Crossing Press, 1987)
- Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution (Wildfire Books, 1990)
- The Ship that Sailed Into the Living Room: Sex and Intimacy Reconsidered (Wildfire Books, 1991)
- Out of This World: A Fictionalized True-Life Adventure (Wildfire Books, 1993)
- The SisterWitch Conspiracy (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2010)
In Going Out of Our Minds Johnson details the personal and political experiences that turned her against the state, including her run for the Presidency. In the book she rejects the Equal Rights Amendment, the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, equal opportunity laws, and other government benefits because she considers them cooptation by patriarchy.
In Wildfire Johnson elaborates on her beliefs and answers her many critics in and out of the feminist movement. Her bottom line argument is that state violence is male violence and that women relate to the male-dominated state much as women relate to battering husbands who alternately abuse and reward their wives to keep them under control. She compares both relationships to the Stockholm syndrome in which hostages develop an emotional attachment to their captors.
In chapter three of Wildfire, entitled "The Great Divorce," Johnson writes: "I have heard women involved in male politics say about our political system almost the same words I have heard battered women use about their abusers: 'Of course our government isn't perfect, but where is there a better one? With all its faults, it is still the best system (husband) in the world.' Like a battered wife, they never think to ask the really relevant questions: who said we needed a husband, or a husband-state, at all?"
During this time Johnson also declared herself a lesbian and began a relationship with a woman. After ending that relationship, she wrote in The Ship that Sailed Into the Living Room that even relationships between female couples are a dangerous patriarchal trap, because "two is the ideal number for inequality, for sadism, for the reproduction of patriarchy", and that relationships are "slave Ships" (a concept from which she derived the title of the book).
"Nearly four years after I began my rebellion against relation/sex/slave Ships," she wrote, "experience and my Wise Old Woman are telling me that sex as we know it is a patriarchal construct and has no rightful, natural place in our lives, no authentic function or ways. Synonymous with hierarchy/control, sex is engineered as part of the siege against our wholeness and power."
In The SisterWitch Conspiracy, Johnson imagines a world in which men do not exist at all, inspired by her belief that "as long as men were on the planet, neither peace nor justice would ever be possible."
As of 2007, Johnson lived in New Mexico with partner Jade DeForest, where they ran Casa Feminista, a hotel catering to feminist women. She was also a featured speaker at the 2007 Feminist Hullabaloo activist gathering.
By 1992, Johnson had stopped identifying as a lesbian. In January 2019, Johnson clarified that she was "disillusioned" about men, but "had never had sexual feelings for women." Nonetheless, she has made the choice to dedicate her attention to women because she finds men to be "boring" and "predictable" and "not as wonderful as women."
- "Archives West: Sonia Johnson papers, 1958–1983". archiveswest.orbiscascade.org. Retrieved June 19, 2018.
- The Sonia Johnson Papers Biographical Sketch, University of Utah Marriott Library Special collection.
- Sonia Johnson, In the Battle for the E.R.A., a Mormon Feminist Waits for the Balloon to Go Up, People Magazine, December 29, 1980.
- "THREAT KEPT FEMINIST AWAY FROM MOM'S UTAH BURIAL". Deseret News. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
- Thorne, Alison (1992). "Sonia Johnson Fears for Her Life". Salt Lake Tribune. Salt Lake City.
- Sonia Johnson, Ed.D. Patriarchal Panic: Sexual Politics in the Mormon Church, paper presented as chair of Mormons for ERA at the American Psychological Association Meetings, New York City, September 1, 1979. Online reprint by Recovery from Mormonism (Exmormon.org)
- "Sonia Johnson". awpc.cattcenter.iastate.edu (Archives of Women's Political Communication). Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, Iowa State University.
- Sillitoe, Linda, "Church Politics and Sonia Johnson: The Central Conundrum", Sunstone Magazine, Issue No: 19, January–February, 1980.
- Stack, Peggy Fletcher. "40 years after her Mormon excommunication, ERA firebrand Sonia Johnson salutes today's 'wonderful' women, says men 'bore' her". sltrib.com. The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved January 18, 2019.
- Woulfe, Molly (August 14, 1988). "A LESSON FROM A RADICAL FAST". ChicagoTribune.com. Chicago Tribune.
- Mansfield, Stephanie (June 25, 1982). "Coming Home After the ERA Fast". Washington Post.
- Magnuson, Karen M. (May 27, 1982). "The leader of a hunger strike for the Equal Rights Amendment said Thursday..." UPI.com. United Press International.
- "1984 Presidential General Election Results". uselectionatlas.org. Retrieved December 5, 2008.
- Freeman, Jo (2007). "The Women Who Ran for President". JoFreeman.com.
- "Presidential and Vice-presidential Candidates". www.peaceandfreedom.org. Archived from the original on January 7, 2009. Retrieved December 5, 2008.
- "Green Party New York » Blog Archive » Former Chair Dunlea Publishes Green Political Novel". www.web.gpnys.com. Retrieved December 5, 2008.
- Johnson, Sonia. The Ship That Sailed into the Living Room: Sex and Intimacy Reconsidered. Wildfire Books, September 1991.
- McCollum, Charles, "Looking for Sonia Johnson, a 'ghost' from Logan's past", The Herald Journal," Logan, UT, July 11, 2010.
- Sonia Johnson; Jade DeForest; Connie Rose. "Casa Feminista". Archived from the original on November 22, 2007. Retrieved March 28, 2014.
- Seelhoff, Cheryl Lindsey (June 2007). "A Feminist Hullabaloo : The Historic Reunion of the Wild Sisters". off our backs. Archived from the original on July 24, 2019.
- Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, Chapter 17 "Sonia Johnson: Mormonism's Feminist Heretic," (University of Illinois Press, 1998)
- Majorie Hyer, "Mormon Bishop Excommunicates Woman Who Is Supporting ERA," Washington Post, December 6, 1979, p. A1.
- Bradford, Mary L. (Summer 1981). "All on Fire: An Interview with Sonia Johnson". Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. 14 (2): 27–47. Archived from the original on June 13, 2011.
- Sonia Johnson Papers at University of Utah Library Collection website.
- Sonia Johnson photograph collection of LDS-related and other ERA demonstrations at University of Utah Library website.
- Report on 2007 Feminist Hullabaloo (with photographs).