With big families, women take jobs in anti-ERA Utah

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Despite the strong anti-ERA movement centered in Salt Lake City, women here have entered the work force faster than women nationwide.

It seems that neither the Equal Rights Admendment nor a ''woman's place is in the home'' attitude has much to do with whether women take jobs in this largely Mormon state.

''Women in Utah need to work to make ends meet,'' states Karen Shepard, former social services director for Salt Lake City and now editor of a women's monthly newspaper, Network.

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''Over half the state is Mormon, which means families must pay a tithe to the church (10 percent of income), send children on missions, and store away a year's supply of food. They have more children than the average, and they put more emphasis on higher education. Plus, wealth is a sign of virtue among Mormons,'' she says.

The number of women working here has doubled in the last 10 years to the point where just over half now hold jobs - ironically, at the same time that Mormon officials were leading opposition to the ERA in many states. The percentage of Utah women working is higher than the national average, according to 1980 US census figures. (Also during the 1970s, the percentage of men working actually decreased slightly.)

Just as ironic may be the formation of the state's largest and most politically active women's group, which began in 1978, when the church helped sponsor a pro-family delegation from Utah to the 1977 International Women's Year Convention in Houston.

Now four years old, the Utah Association of Women (UAW), formed mainly of Mormon women, spends most of its effort in support of families by fighting pornography, drugs, lesbianism, and abortion.

By being so active politically, says Ms. Shepard, ''The UAW women are already well on their way to liberation, and they may not even know it. These women are taking matters into their own hands, even more so than their pioneer ancestors. We hope that the association will breed a new type of women.''

The church campaign against the ERA was ''a moment of truth'' for many women here, she says. Active discussions in the home often split mothers and daughters , and the issue reached a peak in 1980 with the the publicized excommunication of pro-ERA Mormon Sonia Johnson.

Today, the church takes the stand that ''the ideal for a family is, and always has been, to have a mother in the home. . . ,'' says Barbara Smith, president of the Relief Society for Mormon women, and only unusual circumstances should force a mother to take a job to provide ''basic needs.''

Last year, about 30 members of the National Organization for Women went door to door in Utah to ''missionize'' people to a pro-ERA point of view. ''It was more a whimsical publicity stunt than anything serious,'' says Ms. Shepard.

With a birthrate twice the nation average, women who work here are more likely to be mothers, says R. Thane Robson, University of Utah economist. ''That means the family income is spread thin, forcing wives to double as breadwinners.''

''Women also have an above-average education in Utah, like most of the residents in this largely Mormon population. They want to have a job,'' he adds.

Once in a job, however, Utah women earn only 54.5 percent of the average male income. That compares with a 60.5 percent figure nationwide. ''Working women were still invisible in Utah,'' says Ms. Shepard.

''The myth was that women were always in the home with five children. People thought only women who had fallen on hard times would work,'' she says. But, she says, the ''myths'' regarding women are still very strong here. ''Women still feel they do not have worth until they have a husband.''

Sex-discrimination suits are almost unheard of in the state. ''Women here are more concerned about whether they are being approved of. They are less willing to asks for promotions,'' finds the Network editor.

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