The other day I received an e-petition message in my inbox begging the British government to re-think the financial cuts which are targeting domestic violence resources. This week the Independent reports that:
“Almost 19,000 women aged between 15 and 88 sought state help to find emergency housing in 2008-09, showing the previously hidden scale of domestic-violence “migrants” forced out of their homes.
“The study, which will be presented at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference today, found that more then 9,000 women took children with them as they escaped, with 190 mothers fleeing with five children in tow. One in 10 suffered from an addiction, mental-health problem or learning disability; a third came from an ethnic minority. The average distance travelled was 20 miles in search of safety and housing support.”
I tried to sign the e-petition but had some trouble logging in, then some other problems with my password… and then I gave up.
Because, really, what is the point, when the government is trying to show us, in very clear terms, that they regard women with contempt? They are making us beg, and they’re not even going to throw us a crumb. The politicians are not there to help women. Quite the opposite. They want to make sure men don’t lose control of women, and they pass policies to this effect. We need to accept this and move on. We should focus on getting women to see that it’s generally a bad idea to live with men. [Feel free to post your ideas in the comments section …]
So rather than dwell on the impossible situation, I’ve decided to print some extracts from the wonderful Sonia Johnson’s From Housewife To Heretic, as a tribute to the one who got away. I first saw her name in MAry Daly’s Pure Lust and although I’d never heard of her, I thought to myself that if this Johnson is good enough for Mary Daly, then she’s good enough for me.
The book arrived on my doorstep last month fresh out of the year 1980. It is old and yellowing, it smells wonderful. I guess there is no chance of it ever being re-printed. She’s not a theorist like Kate Millett, or a philosopher like Daly, or a polemicist like Andrea Dworkin, but she’s definitely a storyteller, and she tells us the story of how, at the age of 42, she was put on trial (with great media fanfare) and ex-communicated from the Mormon Church for her feminist activism.
Here are some of my favourite passages, in no particular order:
On her husband
(When her husband, Rick, returned from one of his many missionary trips to Liberia, he had apparently had some flash of insight. He informed Sonia that their marital problems were caused by the institution of marriage itself, and therefore it would be better for them to divorce, and to begin their relationship afresh. According to him, it was the piece of paper, the marriage document, that was the cause of the discord)
The idea of divorce, real or imaginary, frightened me, and I told him so. Divorce meant life without Rick in it, and life without Rick in it was inconceivable. He admitted that divorce frightened him also, but assured me that the divorce would not be “real” in an emotional or practical sense, just philosophically; that he loved me and would still be as committed to our relationship as ever–growing ever more so– and that our deciding to stay and work together even when we both secretly knew we were not legally bound to do so anymore would prove and strengthen our love for each other.
I finally agreed to this “fake” divorce, partly because he was very tender and persuasive, but partly also because the health of our marriage had always been solely my province– a heavy responsibility that for a long time I had deeply resented bearing alone. I was delighted and relieved to see him interested enough at last to carry his share. Let me not to the true minding of marriage admit impediment, I thought to myself.
In fact, he had taken the initiative in other, smaller, ways since he had come home. For one thing, he had moved into his own bedroom so, he explained, our sleeping together would be a deliberate choice, not just a habit. We had been apart for six months at that time and were both accustomed to sleeping alone, so I did not object, though I felt a pang of rejection. But I reminded myself that he was doing it for us, and that I should feel glad that he was consciously directing his attention to a partnership we had both always expected to last not just a lifetime but forever.
As time went on, I remember thinking he must care about us a great deal to be spending so much time doing research in the library about such things as property settlements and out-of-country divorces, to be paying a lawyer for consultation, to be so actively and persistently taking charge of our marriage remodeling. And I was confident of the outcome. With both of us now taking marital matters in hand, how could we fail? I had great faith in the Rick-Sonia team. So far, we had not failed at anything we had set our combined wills to. (p.18)
Well, I suppose you’ve guessed by now, but the bastard was actually divorcing her. And she, as insightful and smart as she was, refused to see the boiling frog that was her marriage, so steeped she was in the patriarchal mindbindings. She never admits it, but I suspect it was another woman.
On her education
“I became pregnant with Kari sometime during my doctoral course work, and again suffered miserably from nausea. One morning in my philosophy of education course, having taken two anti-nausea pills instead of one, I suddenly felt sickeningly faint. As soon as I got outside the classroom door, I did faint. When I came to on the hall, I dragged myself into the lavatory, and gratefully fainted again, there on the dirty floor; I didn’t care how dirty it was. I just wanted to lose consciousness in some semblance of privacy. So I did, on and off for over an hour–wake up, faint again. When I finally got home, I was so frightened by the experience that I threw the anti-nausea pills down the toilet. At least when I vomited I was conscious.
That next summer Rick led a group of students to Italy to stay with Italian families while I, eight months pregnant, took Eric home to Utah to finish writing my dissertation. The night of June 24 at about 10 o`clock I wrote, with infinite relief, the last word, and stood up to stretch and exult. Just as I did, I had a contraction, the first. Labour had begun. I smiled to myself at the appropriateness of it. I had just given birth to my dissertation and tomorrow would give birth to (I hoped) my daughter.”(p. 46)
The pills she threw away, incidentally, were probably the anti-nausea pills called Thalydamide produced by a German company to cure morning sickness, which led to thousands of children around the world being born with severe birth defects. It’s possible that when Johnson wrote the book the statistics were not yet public knowledge . (And why pregnancy nausea is called “morning sickness” I have no idea… as it generally continues all day)
I love the fact that her labour began when her mind was ready, as I have had the same experience. My body waited until the practical logistics were organized before allowing me to go into labour.
The build up to the trial
When Senator Hatch spoke to me, his voice changed. He put on his churchman’s voice to me–unctuous, condescending; I was not alone in hearing it. Several people asked me afterwards whether I had noticed. Indeed I had, and had said to myself incredulously at the time, “For heaven’s sake, Sonia. Do you mean to say that men in the church have been speaking to you like that for forty-two years and you’ve never noticed it?” It is incredible how we blind and deafen ourselves so we will not see the truth of how men really feel about us and really treat us. I suppose the only reason I heard it that day was that such a tone was wildly inappropriate in the marble chambers of the Senate Office Building, so out of place that even I, whose ears had become inured to that insufferably patronizing tone from hearing it since birth, was shocked into awareness. This was not church, he was not my spiritual superior in this room, and we was not supposed to be functioning as if he were–that is, as if he were a Mormon male. But he forgot himself and related to me as pompously and arrogantly as he must have related to women in the church all his life, this style came to him with such ease and naturalness.
Though I have heard the churchman’s voice in every service I have attended since the day Orrin Hatch unstopped my ears, I have heard it in many other churches as well, and realize that Mormon men have a corner neither on pomposity nor on the voice that conveys it. The churchman’s voice is a nearly universal speech defect among religious males.
While the revelation of the churchman’s voice was maddening, it also gave me unique power. The senator became a known quantity. I understood at once with whom I had to deal, and that recognition calmed and sharpened me. Hatch, on the other hand, being the sort of patriarchal male who tends to view women as so much alike that one approach will work for all, prepared to assert in his usually successful ways his innate male superiority.
This faulty judgment always gives women the upper hand when dealing with patriarchs, because such men usually have not developed alternative strategies, and are left defenceless and foolish when their stereotypes fail them–as they are increasingly failing them.
“Mrs. Johnson”, he intoned down his shiny Boy Scout nose, “you must admit that nearly one hundred percent of Mormon women oppose the Equal Rights Amendment.” (Here’s where Bayh allowed the Relief Society sisters from Hatch’s ward and stake to applaud and stamp.)
When the tumult subsided, I replied, “Oh my goodness, I don’t have to admit that. It simply isn’t true.”
When one has just spoken in one’s churchman’s voice, one does not expect to be answered back like that and Hatch, chagrined, began his serious work of intimidation and humiliation. Ironically, however, the harder he worked, the more ruffled he himself became and the calmer I felt. We began to have a delightfully brisk dialogue–at least, I enjoyed:
Hatch: I noticed in your letter to the legislature that you had twenty women listed.
Johnson: There were not just women on that list…The point is that numbers of adherents have never proven an issue true or false. You yourself belong to a church of only three million members, which purports to be the only true church in the world. That is a pretty precarious position. I am accustomed to being one of few and right.
Hatch: I notice that you are very self-confident that you are right and everybody else is wrong. I would have to admit that the majority can be wrong, but on the other hand, I have also seen the minority wrong many times. You may well be wrong here, as confident as you are.
Johnson: You may well be wrong here, as confident as you are.
Hatch: That is true, and I am very confident. As a matter of fact, I am very confident that I am right.
Johnson: And so am I.
During this interchange, Hatch began to show signs of ego wear. Repeatedly pulling at his tie, tugging at his sleeves, leaning across the table as if he were preparing to spring at me, he had fended off pleas from his aides who knelt at either side of him (imagine taking oneself so seriously as to have an aide kneeling at one’s either side!), and paid no heed from Senator Bayh who was becoming progressively more alarmed as the Utah senator’s control visibly disintegrated.
Finally the struggling senator lost his composure altogether. It was wonderful. I wish everyone who has worked long hours and years for human rights for women could have been there to see it.
The papers, however, reported that Hatch had remained cool and collected throughout, and that Johnson had become over-emotional.
At the Trial, a female witness
“But, ” she continued, coming to the point, “for the past year and a half, I have been able to say to these troubled young women, “If there’s a place in the church for Sonia Johnson, there’s a place for you.” Here she paused for effect and got it. “Bishop Willis,” she asked, “what am I going to say to them if you excommunicate Sonia?”
If she had stopped then, she would have left the prosecutor-judge very unsettled and impressed against his will. But sensing her advantage, she pressed it too far by pleading, “Please don’t turn this into a witch-hunt!”
The conciliatory mood she had established in the room disappeared on the instant. Although I could sense that something had gone amiss, Rick had to explain to me later what it was. “She shouldn’t have reminded those men of witches,” he told me, and went on to explain. “Men are basically very much afraid of the spiritual powers of women; that’s why they try to keep them from discovering them, from using and developing them–cut them off from the priesthood, set themselves up as women’s spiritual leaders. When she said “witch-hunt”, out of the slime of womanfear in their unconscious slithered the specter of women in power over men, and they instantly united against their age-old enemy, woman; woman as mysterious, woman as witch, woman as powerful, woman as god. “I know,” he concluded softly, “because I felt it in myself when she said that word, and I looked up quickly and saw what I was feeling pass simultaneously over the faces of the four men seated before us.”
But that power soon overwhelmed me and to my alarm, I did begin to cry–hard–muddling matters by feeling as if I had to explain why right then to myself as much as Connie. “None of this has ever really belonged to me,” I wept, embarrassed but determined to express if I could the enormity of what I was just realizing. “None of this has ever belonged to women. All the great church architecture, the religious art, music, poetry–Michaelangelo, Mozart, Gerard Manley Hopkins–none of it has ever really belonged to us. As far back as we can see clearly into the past, the church has belonged to men. The worship, the music, the art, the poetry, the architecture–it was all by men for men. I thought it was for me, mine, this heritage, this precious thing we call “Western civilization.” I thought I had a part in it, that it represented me. I have loved it and been so proud.
“But the fact is that I have always been excluded from it, always outside it, always, as all women have. I have no history, I have no heritage, no civilization. Women have not left our mark on this at all; we have never really participated in it, been a part of it. It is as if we have never lived, millions of us, for thousands of years. Where are women’s buildings, women’s books, paintings, poetry, government? Where is our past? Where is our roots?
“It has all been deceit and illusion.”
On her mother
Like many Mormons, my mother has a compartmentalized mind, and never the contents shall meet. In one compartment, Mom knew I had done nothing wrong; that in fact perhaps I had done a difficult and necessary thing for which God would bless me. In another compartment, even though she knew that leaders of the church were doing precisely what I said they were doing and excommunicating me for saying so, she thought I should not reveal their political secrets. God would not like it, because God was president of the Old Boys’ Club. No matter that I was telling the truth; no matter that my life was as free from sin as my mother could possibly wish, no matter that I had been prayerful all my life and even moreso than usual through this entire business. I had to be wrong, because if I weren’t, the leaders were, and not only wrong, but wicked on top of it for excommunicating me, and she could not face that–that they could be wicked. That they could make a mistake, okay–she was wise enough to know that, in one compartment. But that they could be unrighteous–no, she could not accept that.
Late one summer night, three years ago, in the kitchen of my house in Virginia where womanhood finally found and claimed me, for the first time my mother looked squarely at what it had meant in her life to be female. One the farm in Woodruff, she confided, the men came in from their work at dark, ate supper, sat around and talked a little, perhaps, and then went off to bed, while the women, who had been up in the morning before the men, wearily washed the dishes (without soap so the water could be fed to the pigs) and got to bed an hour or two later. I asked her what she thought of her near-perfect father for behaving this way. Her eyes filled with tears and she whispered, “It wasn’t fair.”
Since that night she has regained some of her defenses against recognizing the blatant injustices of such a system, so when I’ve reminded her of what she told me that night, she’s insisted that she hadn’t remembered correctly, and that her father had often helped with the dishes and had not gone to bed leaving the womenfolk still hard at work. But I remember that night in my kitchen and the terrible things that were dawning upon both of us, and I know she remembers what was required of her as a girl. After a bonebreaking day in the fields, she was to drag her exhausted body and her screaming muscles into the kitchen to help the women with the supper and the washing up while the men were allowed–even expected and encouraged–to rest. And despite going to bed two hours later than the men, she had to rise earlier than they did the next morning to begin it all over again. There was no rest for the women–only endless drudgery until the children were reared, and then death.
No, it wasn’t fair, Mama. You were right. It wasn’t fair.