A woman's search for faith, identity

From Housewife to Heretic, by Sonia Johnson. New York: Doubleday. 408 pp. $ 14.95.

At a time when the women's-rights movement could use some fervor and renewal, Sonia Johnson just might be its rescuing heroine. She brings to feminism the commitment of a new convert, the tried love of a mother of four, the intelligence of a PhD in education, the patience of a longtime veteran of the laundry room, and the good humor of a woman whose gracious vocabulary often can't express the searing frustration she feels: pushed to an emotional wall one day, all she can yell is, ''You rotten old rascal!''

''From Housewife to Heretic'' is the story of Mrs. Johnson's discovery of feminism in 1976 and her subsequent excommunication from the Mormon church, in 1979, for her feminist beliefs and her work on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

Like many women married in the 1950s, Sonia Johnson wanted nothing more than to keep her husband happy and bear him lots of children. Because she was a devout, fifth-generation Mormon, life revolved around her family and church, with family prayer morning and evening, a weekly family home evening program, four hours of church on Sunday, and auxiliary church instruction and classes throughout the week. As for feminism, she writes: ''I didn't feel hostile toward it; I just wasn't interested . . . I was happy, and I mistakenly thought that only unhappy women were interested in women's rights.''

Then one evening a letter was read to her congregation, explaining the church's opposition to the ERA as a threat to the unity of the family. It left her shaking her head and saying in a loud voice, ''Oh, no! Oh, no!''

The letter apparently touched on deep, undefined doubts. Looking back, Mrs. Johnson says it was a classic example of what feminist Mary Daly calls ''patriarchal reversal,'' the theory that inflated rhetoric about women in a patriarchal institution or society reflects a deliberate attempt to distract women from noticing what is really happening to them in their lives. The more Mrs. Johnson heard about how much the Mormon church loved and consequently wanted to protect its women, the more questions she had about the restrictions placed on women's activities in the church.

From that evening on, Sonia Johnson reluctantly found herself on a path of dissent with the all-male leaders of the Mormon church. She did not disagree with them on any points of religious doctrine, and she still doesn't. But the more need she saw for full economic and civil equality for women, the more committed she became to passage of the ERA. And as she began to organize ERA support among Mormon women, she came into political conflict with her church's active opposition to the ERA.

Sonia Johnson's perception of some of today's most significant social and political issues makes this book an excellent and timely primer on the women's-rights movement. She writes candidly about the ''authoritarian, hierarchical thinking that is prevalent in many churches today, notably those that make up the New Right.'' She says it's time to stop blaming the demise of the family entirely on women and examine instead the ''irresponsible way patriarchal society teaches men to behave in human relationships.'' She points to the millions of dollars and ''obedient constituency'' the Mormon church has thrown behind efforts to block passage of the ERA, and raises fundamental questions about the separation of church and state.

As the story of one woman's search for faith and identity, this book may have even more impact, however. Sonia Johnson describes the ''effort to know God'' as ''the most basic, most important of philosophical struggles,'' and she spends much of the book praying for a better understanding of God.

''We are all taught . . . that God, being male, values maleness much more than he values femaleness,'' she writes of her church's doctrine. ''. . . I made the totally un-unique discovery one day that men had made God in their own image to keep control of women. Why then could not women reorganize heaven and remake God in a way that would, instead of disenfranchising and dehumanizing half the human race, empower everyone, make everyone whole?''

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