Sonia Johnson's Excommunication by the Mormons Cut the 'Big String' That Held Her Marriage Together
02/11/1980 at 01:00 AM EST
I tell you," sighed Sonia Johnson, "I'm beginning to think that things can't get worse." Less than a month after being excommunicated from the Mormon Church for her support of the Equal Rights Amendment, Sonia, 43, was told by Richard Johnson, her husband of 17 years, that he wanted a divorce. The news was particularly ill-timed; Sonia had just filed an appeal with the church hierarchy in Salt Lake City, and her husband's defection could damage her case. Sonia was dealt a further blow when she learned that her father in Utah had prostate cancer.
"A friend said to me, 'Be glad for your troubles—they strengthen you,' " a rueful Sonia declares. "Well, if that's the truth, I'm going to be so strong they'll have to beat me to death!"
Johnson's troubles began soon after she co-founded Mormons for ERA to oppose the church's covert campaign against the amendment. Her ouster last December nullified her marriage in the eyes of the church, and then Richard, 45, who is also a Mormon, announced he wanted a civil divorce. "I didn't even know what hit me," admits Sonia, who still describes her husband as "a strong feminist and my strongest ally. The ERA," she sighs, "is the only thing that Rick and I still agree on. If that were the problem, we'd still be in good shape."
The Johnsons—plus Eric, 16, Kari, 14, Marc, 11, and Noel, 5—were a close and mobile family. Over the past decade Richard's work as a teacher of statistical research took him to Nigeria, South Korea and Malaysia, and his wife and children willingly followed. They spent 1976 traveling across the country in a van, with Richard and Sonia, a former English professor, visiting school districts to evaluate federally funded programs for the U.S. Office of Education.
When Richard was offered another foreign posting last year, however, Sonia refused, demanding instead that they settle in Virginia at least until the children finished high school. Richard left for six months anyway, setting up a research office in Liberia for the Agency for International Development. "Things were looking bad then," he recalls, "and I went off with the idea that time alone might straighten things out. But I came back just in time for the excommunication proceedings. We never really had a chance to patch things up."
Richard began sleeping in a room over the garage when he was at home and spending two nights a week on the road to teach extension courses for Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Soma, meanwhile, was a big draw on the lecture and rally circuit. "We'd sit down and start talking out our differences," Richard says, "and then the phone would ring." Sonia sadly concurs: "We just kept drifting further apart."
Still, Richard remained at her side throughout the trial. "Somehow the excommunication verdict removed one of the big strings that held us together," he explains. Then VPI denied him tenure after a job review—another shock. "I wanted out," Richard says of the marriage. He has since moved in with a woman he will identify only as a "professional acquaintance." Says Richard of his new romance: "It was completely unexpected. It looks pretty serious now, but it all happened after the decision to split. And I don't know where it's going." Those who know the couple expressed shock at the breakup. "I think Rick just went through a mid-life crisis," observed lawyer Michael Barrett. "The decision to split was a tragic coincidence with the excommunication proceedings."
Relations between the Johnsons remain amicable. "I don't feel any bitterness and neither does he," Sonia insists. When she goes out of town to speak Richard moves back to tend the kids. To help answer the 5,000 letters that have flooded in, he has even programmed a computer to help Sonia draft replies at home.
Not all her news is bad. Membership in Mormons for ERA has doubled since her trial, and she recently signed with a Chicago lecture bureau for a spring tour at $1,000 per appearance. "Obviously, the anti-ERA people are tickled about my ordeal because it proves that the ERA breaks up families," concedes Sonia. "When they point out that feminism is a dangerous thing," she shrugs, "I just say marriage is pretty precarious too."