Confession: For the past several years, I avoided learning more about Barbara Smith because of her stance on the Equal Rights Amendment. Then I had an epiphany. I’m about to admit how young and inexperienced I am, but it was before my time, and I realized I actually didn’t know anything about it. And sadly, most of the people in my age demographic that I asked about it didn’t know much more. They either hadn’t heard of it, thought the LDS church was against it because it meant everyone would have to use the same bathroom (I heard that one a lot), or were appalled that it couldn’t be passed in our enlightened times. But no one knew what it said, how it was supposed to improve things, or why people would oppose it. I decided it was time to learn about Barbara Smith. A full history of the ERA is out of the scope of this blog, but if you’re interested in learning more, its text can be found here, a good summary of church’s stance on the issue is here, and Wikipedia gave a passable general overview of its history.
Smith is best known as the General Relief Society president that spearheaded the church’s efforts in fighting against the Equal Rights Amendment. She felt that it would hurt women because it would cause them to lose previously gained rights (a stance shared by many labor activists over the years) and didn’t account for the “emotional, physical, or biological difference between the sexes.” She felt the women of the church were crucial in this discussion, and encouraged them to speak for themselves and defend their opinions in a non-combative manner, rather than standing idly by and being cast as oppressed and naïve. She spoke out frequently on the ERA. President Hinckley isn’t the only church leader in recent times that knows how to use modern media. Smith appeared on the Phil Donahue show to talk about the ERA, as well as the role of women in the Mormon church. She also met with the powerful and famous to explain her stance, including Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
I have mixed feelings with the ERA, and simply don’t agree with her stance on women in the military. But I respect Barbara Smith’s courage and persistence in defending her opinions. I have absolute confidence in her love for and belief in women, and know that she worked to try to help them achieve what she saw as equality. Studying Barbara Smith has made me analyze how I measure equality for women. Do I want equality of treatment, or equality of outcome? What is gained and lost by removing gender distinctions? Can you legislate away sexism? Is it better to support a vaguely worded law that could be twisted by both sides of the aisle if I support its intentions? Smith’s courage in defending her opinions has forced me to analyze and take a stand on my own, and I’m grateful for that.
Former Relief Society General President Barbara B. Smith Passes Away, by Lana Groves
Barbara Smith Biographical Sketch