Sonia Johnson. The name echoes across Cache Valley history like the sound of screeching tires in the night.
Don’t look for a neutral response from anyone familiar with this woman who emerged from Logan in the late 1970s to become a leading American feminist, an outspoken LDS Church critic and a third-party U.S. presidential candidate.
Some locals from that era sneer at the mention of her name, some snicker and some come quickly to her defense. People at the perimeter of the conversation tend to perk up and listen in. A quarter of a century after her name was last in the news, Sonia Johnson is still something of a hot-button topic here, though the button is covered with a thick layer of dust.
At the height of her national exposure in 1981, Johnson came back to Logan High School to address social studies classes. Students in those classes had to have permission slips from their parents in order to hear her speak.
What was all the fuss about?
It mostly had to do with Johnson’s activism on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have constitutionally outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex. That activism brought her into direct opposition with her own church, the LDS Church, which actively opposed the amendment.
At one point in the hard-fought, high-profile campaign, Johnson and 20 other ERA supporters wound up in jail after chaining themselves to the gate of a Mormon temple in Bellevue, Wash. Some of her devotees turned it up a notch in a protest at the Ogden temple, where they publicly burned LDS temple garments. Johnson’s activism eventually led to her excommunication from the church.
Five years ago, The Herald Journal did a series of front page articles under the heading “Whatever happened to ...” The purpose of the series was to update readers on the whereabouts and doings of people who’d once made big splashes on the local scene. Having heard of Sonia Johnson, I assigned a reporter to try to locate her.
The effort failed. The reporter tried several avenues to get a phone number, an address, anything. No luck. Even a local relative of Johnson’s didn’t know where she was, and he indicated somewhat brusquely that he wasn’t interested in discussing her, period.
One thing we did find out was that Johnson had at some point lived in a “separatist” women’s commune in New Mexico and had published a couple more books as follow-up to her first controversial work, “From Housewife to Heretic.”
Although the books indicated she was still active intellectually, it seemed as if she had purposely dropped out of sight, kind of like reclusive 1950s author J.D. Salinger.
I hadn’t thought much about her since then until she came up in a conversation I was having the other day. The person I was talking to quickly looked her up on Wikipedia and found a recently updated account of her life and career. It concluded with a note that Johnson is the proprietor of a small resort for women called Casa Feminista in Ojo Caliente, N.M.
“Finally,” I said. “We’ve located Sonia Johnson!”
I decided to call her up myself and ask her for an interview, then report on the conversation in this column. I thought local residents — critics and fans alike — would be interested to find out what she’s up to now, if she ever comes back to Logan and how her perspective has changed after all these years. But the phone number for Casa Feminista was out of service. Foiled again.
More Internet searching uncovered a Webpage for her latest book, an apparently self-published work of fiction titled “The Sisterwitch Conspiracy.” An order form for the book included a personal email address and a street address in Georgia. I sent off notes to her at both locations explaining my intentions, but no response has come.
Finally, last week, I drummed up the courage to phone another relative of Johnson. This relative wasn’t at all put out by the inquiry. She didn’t know Johnson’s whereabouts, but after making a few phone calls she reported back that my elusive column subject is now believed to be living in Costa Rica.
Back to Google. Nothing.
So for the time being I’ve decided to give up the quest. It had already taken up too much of my time.
Still, the mining expedition wasn’t entirely fruitless. Although I can’t answer the question of exactly where Sonia Johnson is geographically, I did find some pretty strong clues as to where she is philosophically at age 74 — some 30 years after she referred to the LDS Church as a “savage misogyny” and the U.S. Constitution as a document that only “ensured freedom for rich white men.”
It appears she has become even more entrenched against what she considers male-dominated institutions in American society — but also men in general.
Read this passage from Johnson on the “The Sisterwitch Conspiracy” homepage, where she explains the genesis of the book:
I remember being on an airplane in the late l980s struggling against an almost overwhelming despair. I had finally admitted to myself that as long as men were on the planet, neither peace nor justice would ever be possible. Since there always had been men (hadn’t there?) and since there always would be men (wouldn’t there?), there was no hope for a better world. I wished fervently that the plane would fall out of the sky right then and spare me the agony of trying to live the rest of my life in such hopelessness.
Looking back, I’m surprised at how thoughtlessly I accepted the assumption that men had always existed and always would. I’m surprised at how, despite my having spent years identifying the false assumptions that make patriarchy possible, on the plane that day I automatically accepted perhaps the single most crucial lie of them all: that men and women share the same origins and the same destiny.
On that note, I guess we’ll close the subject of Sonia Johnson for now. Frankly, I’m not sure Cache Valley will ever hear from her (or of her) again.