If the early ’70s were heady days for feminists, the late ’70s were their antithesis—especially in a conservative, patriarchal, religion-dominated state like Utah, where I was teaching child development and family studies at the university. When the legislature was in session, my colleagues and I spent time up at the capitol, lobbying legislators who dismissed the need for day care because “good mothers should be home caring for their children.” Nationally, Roe v. Wade (handed down in 1973) had provoked a backlash, and the Equal Rights Amendment, which had been overwhelmingly passed by Congress in 1972 and quickly ratified by 34 states, had now stalled, just four states short of ratification.
We asked just two questions. The first was whether they supported or opposed the ERA. The second ...
Utah was one of the 16 states on the fence. That rankled most of the students in my advanced undergraduate class on gender roles, which I co-taught with the late (and sadly missed) Shauna Adix, director of the Women’s Studies Center. As a class, we decided to find out why.
The investigation had two parts. In the first, the class traced the history of the ERA in Utah. When first passed by Congress in 1972 and sent to the states for ratification, it seemed uncontroversial and most Utah legislators were sympathetic. But grassroots opposition arose—later demonstrated to be instigated by the John Birch Society—and in its first Utah legislative vote in early 1973, the Amendment was soundly defeated.
Supporters organized and redoubled their efforts, and were optimistic as the next vote approached in early 1975. Again, most legislators expressed support, and a November 1974 poll in the Mormon-owned Deseret News, one of two mainstream Utah newspapers, found that 65% of Utah voters supported ratification.
Then, a bombshell dropped. On January 11, an unsigned editorial against the ERA appeared in the Church News section of the paper, on a page usually reserved for Mormon Church policy statements. Although not labeled “official policy,” very little appeared on that page that the Church Presidency did not support.
If you’re not familiar with Mormon culture, you may not appreciate the impact of such a statement. Mormons, who then made up more than 60% of Utah’s population, are taught that the President of the Church is the Prophet of God and that Church policy, as defined by his words, constitutes divine revelation. “When the prophet speaks, sisters,” declared the president of the Mormon Young Women’s Organization after the editorial appeared, “the debate is over.”
Support for ratification plummeted almost overnight. By the next Deseret News poll in February 1975, fewer than 40% of Utahns favored the Amendment, while 49% opposed it. Significantly, only Mormon respondents showed this dramatic shift; respondents of other religions continued to support it at about a two-to-one margin. Legislative support plunged as well. Typical was one male legislator, who had supported the ERA prior to the editorial, who said, “It is my Church, and as a bishop, I’m not going to vote against its wishes.”
Still, if this new opposition was the result of a careful study of the Amendment and a reasoned examination of its likely effects, it would be hard to quibble. So, in the second part of the class’s investigation, we conducted a survey to probe deeper.
Student volunteers telephoned households at random from the Salt Lake City phone book and asked if voting-age residents would participate in a short survey. (More than 88% said yes, and the resulting sample size was 232.) We asked them just two questions. The first was:
How do you feel about the Equal Rights Amendment—the ERA? Would you say you are in favor of it or are you against it?
Only 33% of our respondents favored the ERA, while 55% opposed it. These results replicated similar polls conducted in Utah since 1975.
The second question was:
I’d like to get your opinion of an amendment which is currently being considered by the legislature, which I’d like to read to you. This amendment says, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” How would you feel about that amendment? Would you be in favor of it or would you be against it?
Astute readers have already realized that the quoted passage is, verbatim, the first (and only substantive) section of the Equal Rights Amendment. Only a few of our respondents (on both sides of the issue) told us that they recognized it. But 69% of them favored the text of the Amendment, in contrast to the 33% who said they favored the Amendment itself. Among respondents who opposed the ERA, over half (53%) favored its text. (This result eerily parallels today’s voters who are unaware that Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are the same thing.)
Respondents’ spontaneous comments repeated a number of misconceptions about the ERA—fake news, if you will—that had already been debunked:
- “I’m against it because it would allow abortion and I’m against that.”
- “I’m for some parts of it but I’m against abortion and gay rights.”
- “I believe women should be feminine.”
- “I want equal pay for equal work but not the restroom business.” (As with transgender rights, opposition often seems to come down to bathrooms.)
- “Women were meant to stay in the home.”
The conclusion was inescapable: opposition to the ERA in Utah was not based on firm knowledge about its content or awareness about its effects, but instead on conjecture, hearsay, and the views of prominent religious organizations. Shauna and I reported on both parts of our investigation in a scholarly paper, published in 1982 in the Women’s Studies International Forum. In the final paragraph we added drolly, “Ignorance of the content of the ERA does not seem to preclude taking a strong public stand on it.”
It turned out to be my parting shot at Utah. Patti and I left the state in 1980 for the greener pastures (and bluer voting patterns) of California. We never looked back.
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.