Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Book Review: From Housewife to Heretic

A Fair Trade Book

Title: From Housewife to Heretic
Author: Sonia Johnson
Date: 1981
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0-385-17493-4
Length: 406 pages
Quote: “We are concerned...that women’s struggle for equal rights and responsibilities...is viewed as contrary to religious values.”
Orrin Hatch was a young senator, and Sonia Johnson was an unpublished writer, when a politically active friend recruited Johnson and two other women to organize “Mormons for E.R.A.” Feminist organizations were still claiming that only the extreme left wing represented “women”; conservative women, like Phyllis Schlafly, whose lives and work were still consistent reflections of the belief that women are at least equally as valuable as men, were often bullied into identifying themselves as “antifeminist.” Feminist activists were still, however, several years away from group self-destruction by allowing feminism to be identified as something of interest to lesbians. The movement was still primarily for housewives who wanted to reenter the workforce, preferably after the children were in school, on levels of pay and prestige that seemed a little bit “higher” than the student labor jobs most of them had left.
Memo to young women who consider themselves “post-feminist”: This situation has been in no way improved by the exportation of semi-skilled manufacturing and office jobs overseas. The brave effort feminist activists made to market “careers” for married women as a trendy yuppie thing were never more than decoration for the fundamental fact that, for most women, some form of paid employment was a necessity rather than a choice. This is true for more of us now than it was in 1979, and meanwhile, for those of us who’ve been attracted to older, better paid men, the new economic reality is that our husbands are likely to be laid off sooner and rehired later than we are...but that’s a different rant. Back to Sonia Johnson in the Carter Administration.
A national Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was failing to carry the popular vote because too many Americans, including women who wanted Equal Rights Amendments in our state constitutions, didn’t want to give up young women’s exemption from the draft. (For many of us this had nothing to do with the equal value of males and females; personally I think a country that can’t muster an all-volunteer army should reconsider the whole war.) Some feminists, like Johnson, wanted to reject anything that was not a precise counterpart of whatever was being offered to men. Including the reality that Americans whose memories of the Vietnam War were still raw might want to secure equal civil rights for women, via state law, but not risk having young women drafted into unpopular wars. “[I]nsisting that, though men have never had to win their civil rights state by state, women must...[is] very like Lincoln’s advising the slaves to  win their freedom plantation by plantation.”
What this meant for Johnson, and for Hatch, was Mormons in the national news...but in the news as adversaries, whose supporters were slinging mud at each other, rather than as members of a religious group that prefers to be known as a source of common-sense counsel and practical charity.
At the time Johnson was very seriously and radically a Mormon (she’s changed), a devout member of what the rest of the Christian world regard as an heretical splinter sect. She has a lot to tell us about what Mormons preached and practiced. Temple weddings, special underwear, the sexualized folklore and even theology (God is envisioned as being divided into a Father and Mother whose marriage is, furthermore, polygamous), the church’s paid employment of men in a “priesthood” and unpaid exploitation of women in a “relief society,” the belief that departed people are still active in this world, the Anglo-Israelite “history” in the Book of Mormon (where Native Americans are cast as apostate and inferior “Lamanites,” and the less said about Asian and African people the better), “Avenging Angels”...it’s all here. This is not even the faith to which Glenn Beck recently converted, but this is the faith in which Mitt Romney grew up.
Whatever you may think of Johnson’s version of Christian doctrine, you have to respect the sincerity with which she describes her friends and relatives practicing their beliefs. Personally, I’m particularly grateful for the descriptrion of Johnson’s mother’s classic introvert spirituality: “She took as a com­mand the scriptural admonition to pray always...I used to feel as if I was inter­rupting something whenever I wanted to speak to  her, and I was.” The natural tendency of the introvert brain is to carry on an interior “conversation,” wordy or wordless, always focussed on the task to which the introvert feels called, so that other people always are felt to be interrupting something; this is what it’s like when the vocation is prayer.
All churches, all therapy and recovery groups, all professional associations, all college fraternities, even all corporations and social clubs, occasionally turn into examples of certain laws of social psychology. Basically, these laws can be summarized as elaborations on the theme, “People are imperfect, and when people form groups they’re always in bad company.” When members of a group of people are committed to the group, yet they disagree on something they consider important, one law of social psychology is that groups tend to develop cultlike tendencies to venerate the person on one side of the disagreement—usually the one with higher status in the group—and turn against, often harm, the person on the other side. Rarely does the outcast keep enough friends to retain a splinter group. This predictable process is experienced as harrowing by people who expect fellow members of groups to be or become friends merely because they claim to be.
Hatch remains a Mormon, a senator, and a solid opponent of anything he thinks likely to benefit women. Johnson’s next three books detail her retreat into radical left-wing feminism, communalism, and finally a dysfunctional lesbian relationship in which “The Relationship” becomes The Ship That Sailed into the Living Room.
What’s not to love about From Housewife to Heretic is that it was written immediately after Johnson’s excommunication from the Mormon church, while she was still feeling shocked, hurt, and hopeful enough of recovering some social acceptance among old friends, to leave all the details in the book. This makes the second half of From Housewife to Heretic a longer, more detailed report on the church’s process of excommunication, with a formal “trial” and all, than some non-Mormons might want to read. For some readers the long, almost word-for-word, story of Johnson’s excommunication may be helpful, perhaps to provide reassurance that once the group has decided to cast someone out no amount of sincere, ethical, public-spirited behavior will change their decision. For more readers, I think, the ending drags.
Perhaps equally valuable, to a different audience, may be Johnson’s description of how her supportive, lovable husband came to leave her at the same time she was being excommunicated. Rick Johnson is credibly, even affectionately, described as first a man whose wife and children love him because he’s sensitive, and then, also, a man who’s too sensitive to be an ideal husband and father. Anxiety-prone, he withdraws from the noise, the mess, the emotional drama, and the financial burden of four children and an increasingly angry and edgy wife. Perhaps, if they’d had fewer children, Sonia Johnson would have been the woman to whom her husband looked for reassurance when his anxieties were attacking...but they had four, and she had no nurturing energy left. She demanded more attention at just the times when he was withdrawing to keep his panic—or rage—under control. He left. She tells us she’s almost glad he’s gone. Readers who may need both of their incomes to feed and educate their children, and don’t want to subject their children to the miseries of changing addresses and “blending families,” could do worse than to share this personal part of Johnson’s story with each other and talk about ways they can avoid replicating the Johnsons’ divorce.
Inevitably, Johnson reports, political opponents reported her divorce as evidence that her husband was threatened by her feminist activism, while her perception was in fact that he encouraged it. This is ironic, but by now it’s become commonplace: when someone else expresses concern about your independence, as when Johnson was willing to quit college and “Put Husband Through” his degree, but her husband insisted on her finishing her own doctorate...the person’s help may become valuable, and the person may anticipate death or disability rather than abandonment, but it is a way of saying “Don't count on me.”
Worthwhile, also, would be reflection on what Johnson didn’t dare to say, or think, about the divorce. She chastised her ex with the accusation that, as a man seeking a divorce in order to marry another woman, he was wallowing in the benefits of “the patriarchy,” which they’d agreed was such a bad thing. What would happen, in the now proverbial words, if one woman told the truth about...it’s not “the patriarchy” that offers loving arms to a straying, cheating ex-husband; it’s a woman who has never liberated herself far enough to reclaim her personal honor, which seems to be a specialty of right-wing as distinct from left-wing feminists. What would happen if women, first in those consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s and then independently for themselves, let ourselves think, “Regardless of what has or has not been accomplished in the national government, I claim my personal power to help rather than hurt others. I choose not to indulge my hormonal feeelings at the expense of another woman. I will not touch a man who has a living wife.”
How successful is Johnson’s indictment of “the patriarchy” as supplying failed husbands with an endless supply of fresh bedmates? How successful are the charges brought by more “traditional” older women who blamed feminism?  Although Ayn Rand usually gets the credit for writing things that recalled young feminists to a sense of personal honor, Rand avoided writing about this particular aspect of “objective morality.” I’m not sure whether Johnson’s story, or any other older feminist foresister’s story, really tells young women what they need to know about sisterhood and the defense of marriage. Nevertheless, for a Mormon Johnson makes the case against polygamy, or serial monogamy as de facto polygamy,  wonderfully well.
However, her book’s main value to society is probably its inside view of Mormonism. Reading From Housewife to Heretic is probably as close a look at Mormons as you can get without being pressured to give them money. (Then again, consider Glenn Beck's testimony that Mormon "relief societies" still function to help people keep working and say no to welfare. Maybe giving them money is not all bad.)

Although Johnson and partner Jade DeForest seem to have retired, at least from their web site, Google reports that they're still living, so if you buy this book from me Johnson or a charity of her choice gets $1. (This comes out of $5 for the book + $5 shipping; shipping charges can be consolidated if multiple purchases are packed and mailed together.)