Barbara B. Smith, general president of the Relief Society, was called into the Church's Special Affairs office soon after assuming her responsibilities in 1974. The leaders told her that it was appropriate for her to oppose the ERA if she felt so inclined. Committee members had gathered information on how best to defeat the ERA and suggested a direction. Her much publicized speech in December 1974 at the University of Utah suggested that the ERA was not the way to improve women's position. The amendment was too broad, too vague, too threatening. In January 1975, the "Church News" section of the Deseret News published an unsigned editorial opposing the ERA. State legislators interpreted the editorial as an official stand, whereas the Church stressed that members had "free agency" to decide for themselves. In 1975, pro-ratification Utah legislators switched sides to defeat the ERA fifty-four to twenty-one. When, in 1976, thirty-four states had ratified, and only four more were needed for passage, the Church began work against the ERA. Idaho rescinded ratification after a strong speech by an LDS leader.
In June 1977, grass-roots Church members were mobilized at the International Women's Year meeting. An IWY meeting was organized in every state, and in Utah, each congregational Relief Society recruited ten women to attend the conference. Some delegates were told to vote according to their conscience; others were specifically instructed to oppose the ERA. Organizers, expecting 3,000 women to attend, were nonplussed by 13,000. The Utah delegates shouted at others and voted down all national proposals. Some faithful Mormon women felt humiliated and betrayed by this behavior and defected, and the Church took some severe media hits. Barbara Smith later said that the Relief Society had been used by the far right. Some LDS women organized Mormons in support of the ERA. The Virginia group was particularly strong and became increasingly confrontational. Their audacious highpoint was hiring a plane to fly a banner over the location of General Conference, the semi-annual, Church-wide meeting in Salt Lake City. "Mother in Heaven Supports the ERA," read the banner, declaring two feminist issues. The outspoken leader Sonia Johnson polarized her listeners. In one speech she said, "The very violence with which the brethren attacked an amendment which would give women human status in the Constitution abruptly opened the eyes of thousands of us to the true source of our danger and our anger." Johnson was summoned to a disciplinary hearing in November 1979 and excommunicated for "evil speaking of the Lord's anointed." She was told that her attacks against the Church and its leaders had damaged such programs as temple attendance, the welfare program, family home evening, genealogy, and especially missionary work.
Are Mormonism and feminism at odds? Many Mormons think so. Others, who consider themselves both good Mormons and good feminists, do not. In one survey, more than half of Church members supported the content of the Equal Rights Amendment, when that content was not identified for them as the ERA, even after the First Presidency statements. In 1982, the ERA was defeated. Mormon activity had been instrumental, though not decisive, in the campaign. The controversy showed the determination of the Church to act on issues deemed threatening, mobilizing members to spend time, energy, and money. Mormon women were actively involved in politics, many for the first time. They wrote letters, organized, and demonstrated. The hierarchy successfully planned and directed a vast campaign across the nation, lobbying effectively. But some believing Mormons were dismayed by what seemed subterfuge and misrepresentation, hidden aims and actions. By fighting against the ERA, the Church seemed to be reversing its pro-feminist, nineteenth-century style.
In 1975, early in the process, Elouise Bell, an English professor at Brigham Young University and a moderate, had urged the benefits of feminism. Let it not be said that BYU or the Latter-day Saint people stood on the sidelines while great and needed social reforms were taking place in the twentieth century. . . . To all those in the BYU community, I extend the challenge to examine the issues of feminism, to make decisions about them individually on the basis of reason and the light of truth within you, to welcome a new day when women can hold on to all that is traditionally fine and right and God-given and God-ordained and to encompass as well new alternatives, new options, greater fulfillment of potential, and an ever-increasing responsibility and desire and willingness to do our share in building the kingdom of God. Just four years later in 1979, a group of feminist Mormon women claiming to represent a "sizeable minority" of LDS women wrote to Spencer W. Kimball, then president of the Church, in a different tone.
Dear President Kimball:
Suddenly many devoted Mormon women are being treated like apostates. . . . We desperately need to know whether, after serious consider ation, soul-searching, and prayer, you . . . find us unworthy, a minority open to attack, and ultimately expendable. . . . If not, can the word get out that Mormon feminists are not to be subjected to intimidation, rejection for Church assignments, loss of employment, and psychological excommunication? . . . We are women who love the Lord, the gospel, and the Church; we have served, tithed, and raised righteous children in Zion. We plead for the opportunity to continue to do so. Mormon feminism has not been stamped out, but it has certainly receded since its high point in the 1980s. Groups have continued to meet outside of Church networks. They have gathered for discussion and activity. Some have met monthly, and several well-established groups have met annually for weekend retreats or revivals.
For comparison, there is the huge, official Relief Society, a sprawling women's organization with a chapter in each congregation. In pioneer times the Relief Society women met in their own buildings, heavily involved in large economic efforts like grain saving, silk manufacture, and home industry. Through the 1950s the groups met on weekdays to study homemaking skills, history, and literature. The women quilted, preserved food, and nursed the sick. Each woman, serving as a "visiting teacher," met monthly with a few other women assigned to them, keeping tabs on their spiritual and economic welfare.
Although visiting teaching remains a central Relief Society program, most of the larger activities have ceased. Since 1980, Relief Society has been an hour-long Sunday meeting with prayers, songs, and a short lesson. A monthly, evening, "enrichment" meeting teaches some homemaking skills, but the focus is now on the doctrinal message taught during worship services. A visit to one of these Relief Societies shows the organization in action. This New York City Relief Society meets at 9 A.M., the first third of the block of Sunday church meetings. Attendance is thin at first, but by 9:15 the room is full. The Relief Society president, a vibrant young mother of three, teaches a lesson on visiting teaching. Most sisters there "visit and teach" several women, some who attend church, others who don't, and has women who visit and teach her. The Relief Society aims to visit every member monthly but usually falls short. The president praises the good work being done, avoiding statistics. She admits that many sisters are tired of visiting teaching. She knows some of her listeners don't visit at all, that some visit as a matter of duty, and that few are enthusiastic. She used to be bored by the program herself. She urges the sisters to pray for direction and help because "charity never faileth."