Ordain Women’s Kate Kelly grapples with LDS Church’s opposition to ERA, her own journey in new book

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been before,” says the author of “Ordinary Equality.”

(Xavi Dussaq/El País) Kate Kelly holds her new book, "Ordinary Equality," which will be released March 29. The book highlights women who fought for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Suddenly, in the middle of their meeting, a woman pulled a plastic container of her spouse’s ashes out of her bag and slammed it on the table, leaving Kate Kelly and Orrin Hatch’s legislative aide stunned.

“Women have been waiting nearly 100 years,” Kelly remembers Helene de Boissiere-Swanson saying, “and in the name of my dead husband, who is here with us today … we must ratify the Equal Rights Amendment!”

That startling moment was “my entrée into the ERA world,” Kelly said in a recent interview. And it’s how Kelly opens her new book, “Ordinary Equality,” available March 29.

“There are people like Helene … who have been continuously fighting for the ERA for decades, and they never gave up,” said Kelly, a feminist, activist and human rights lawyer who lives in Washington, D.C. “Sometimes that quest felt very lonely over the years, when hardly anyone knew about or cared about the ERA. Many people think it died.

“But really,” Kelly said, “there were women all along fighting across the country to resurrect the amendment.”

In her book, Kelly explores the lives and work of a dozen women — whom she calls “the Twelve Apostles of the ERA” — and calls on readers to help get the amendment over the finish line.

The ERA, which was introduced in the 1920s, states: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

In 2020, Virginia became the 38th and final state needed to add it to the U.S. Constitution, decades after Congress passed it in 1972. But legal challenges and debates linger, including over five states that claim to have rescinded their ratification and efforts to remove a deadline for the amendment.

“It’s funny because the ERA is so simple. It’s so straightforward,” Kelly said. “... But the thing that’s making it complicated is all of this procedural rigmarole.”

In the introduction of “Ordinary Equality,” Kelly reflects on her own personal journey with the ERA — from growing up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and hearing about the “bad people” supporting it, including Sonia Johnson, who was ousted from the church in 1979, to eventually being excommunicated herself after founding Ordain Women (a group seeking female ordination to the faith’s all-male priesthood), meeting Johnson and joining the fight to ratify the amendment.

Now, Kelly has teamed up with Nicole LaRue, who designed the 2017 Women’s March on Washington logo and works as the art director for Utah publisher Gibbs Smith, for the art in “Ordinary Equality.” On March 31, the two will be joined by Johnson for a discussion and book launch event at the Clubhouse in Salt Lake City.

The Salt Lake Tribune spoke with Kelly and LaRue earlier this month. The interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

“Ordinary Equality” is available March 29 and can be purchased in person at Under the Umbrella Bookstore, 511 W. 200 South, Suite 120, Salt Lake City, and online through Amazon and other retailers. The book is published by Gibbs Smith.

Why did you write this book? You said it stems from your podcast, of the same name.

Kelly • My entire goal with all of my work is to involve young people in the fight for the ERA. Because anyone born after 1982, when the original time limit expired, probably hasn’t ever heard of it. Or, if they have, it’s explained as a thing of the past. The point of the project is to help young people understand not only is the ERA alive today, but they also can be part of that history.

How did you two come together for the book?

LaRue • Kate reached out to me and said she had a book idea. We have similar stories. She was Mormon. I was Mormon. She’s queer. I’m queer. We’re activist women fighting for the same thing. And to be able to even put that on the book is kind of rocking. It just feels nice to highlight that aspect, to be honest.

Kelly • I talked to several other publishers, and they wanted it to be an academic tone, that’s like 300 pages long and footnoted. And I wanted it to be bright and vibrant and colorful and powerful. I knew that wasn’t going to happen if it’s just some boring book about constitutional law. Kids are not going to read that. So, I reached out to Nicole because I knew she was just so incredibly talented at translating things into visual brilliance.

I wanted the book to also help re-create a visual history of the ERA. Because when a lot of people think about the ERA, it’s like a bunch of white ladies in the 1970s, marching. But the actual image of who has been fighting for the ERA is much more diverse. From the beginning, it was queer people, people of color, specifically Black women, who have been bringing the ERA forward.

“Ordinary Equality” book launch event

When: March 31, 7 p.m.

Where: Clubhouse, 850 E. South Temple St., Salt Lake City.

Cost: $35, includes admission to the in-person event and a copy of “Ordinary Equality.”

More details: https://tinyurl.com/4hursexn.

What does the name “Ordinary Equality” mean?

Kelly • When I originally proposed the name, the podcast producers were like, “That sounds kind of boring.” And I’m like, “Exactly.” I want it to seem so common sense, so practical, so absolutely a no-brainer.

What we’re asking for has been done in the vast majority of other countries in the world. Also, the majority of states believe in the Equal Rights Amendment. So what we’re asking for is nothing radical. It is just ordinary equality.

Who are some of your favorite women in the book?

Kelly • I love all of them so much, but I am particularly enamored with Crystal Eastman. She is someone many people have not heard of, but everyone should know. She is the co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and a co-author of the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1920, she gave a speech where she proclaimed many things should be part of the feminist program, which is what she called it. One of them was voluntary motherhood. She specifically mentioned equal pay, equal employment opportunities. This is a woman who was just vastly ahead of her time and lived actually a very short life, but, in that life, accomplished an incredible amount.

LaRue • I really love Pauli Murray, a founder of the National Organization for Women who supported the ERA’s benefits for Black women. I’m super cool with her style. It’s really fantastic. It’s quite androgynous, and I think it’s really bold and really brave, more so for them, at the time. I think people have the expectation of a woman looking like a woman, and I don’t want to. I don’t want to look like a man. But I just want to look like me. And I think that’s what Pauli Murray was doing. She has a fascinating story.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Artist Nicole LaRue in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. LaRue designed the logo for the Women's March on Washington in 2017. She also created the art for the book "Ordinary Equality," which becomes available March 29.

How does your personal experience fit into this history of women fighting for the ERA?

Kelly • I see my work as a drop in the ocean or a link in a very long chain of people who have recognized for decades and centuries that women’s equality is of paramount importance. I definitely stand on their shoulders, and I look to them for inspiration and even ideas. These women were talking about things in the 1920s that we still haven’t achieved today.

You sprinkled humor and pop culture references, including Elle Woods from the movie “Legally Blonde,” into the book. Why?

Kelly • I want these women and queer people to seem real because they are real. And that’s part of the reason I chose to refer to them by their first names. That’s the reason that I use a lot of contemporary references. I want, especially young women, to understand that these were just ordinary people who made an extraordinary impact on the world. But they’re just like you.

Who is the intended audience for the book?

Kelly • The subject matter is mature. If you’re like me when I was in middle school, obsessed with all things women and fascinated by uncovering women’s stories in history, then I think it’d be interesting for middle schoolers all the way up to adults.

How did you approach the art?

LaRue • The funny part of that is I had to make up the art, right? I couldn’t get portraits of most of these women. But it was really important to portray them in the book, so you have a face to connect the story to. I’ve always kind of done a bit of collage. So, I combined three or four images and changed things up. It was a fun process and just bolder than I am, usually, in my art.

(Gibbs Smith Publishing) "Ordinary Equality," written by Kate Kelly, with art from Nicole LaRue, is out March 29. The book highlights women who have fought for the Equal Rights Amendment.

How did you learn about the women?

Kelly • As I started looking into the history of the Equal Rights Amendment, I was absolutely shocked. Because I’m a feminist, and I consume a lot of media about women, but there are lots of characters in this story that I had never even heard of. I had never heard of Crystal Eastman, Martha Wright Griffiths or Barbara Jordan. It was just fascinating to read about their stories and the things that they were saying decades ago that even seem progressive for today.

You included Phyllis Schlafly, who famously fought against the ERA. Why?

Kelly • For many reasons. My mother and my grandmother also fought against the ERA. So, I have both an interest in and a fascination with the women who also fought against their own equality.

The people who voted against the ERA and defeated it, ultimately, in the 1980s were all men. I wanted to help people understand that while Schlafly is seen as the spokesperson for the anti-ERA movement, at the end of the day, inherent in the problem is that she did not actually even have the power to do so.

What’s the current status of the ERA?

Kelly • We’re closer than we’ve ever been before. The process of amending the Constitution can take a long time. In the case of the 27th Amendment, it took over 200 years. Our Constitution is very hard to amend. In the story of the ERA, it has been a long time, but we are on the precipice, at any given point. We have met the constitutional requirements. The question remains, how will the ERA be recognized as having those 38 ratifications and as being the 28th Amendment?

Are you hopeful that Utah will ever ratify the ERA? Is there more reception now?

Kelly • There is a high hurdle in Utah, and the primary hurdle is the Mormon church’s historic opposition to the ERA. I talk about that in the book. In the 1970s, the Mormon church banded with other groups to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment, and there are lots of examples of that. Mormons were very engaged and active.

Also, with Utah often labeled as the worst state for women, it’s going to be hard to get the ERA ratified in Utah, even though it’s wildly popular among people. You have this clash between the historical opposition of the Mormon church with the will of the people.

Still, ever the optimist, I will say yes. Because women are starting to have a greater voice, because women are getting elected to more positions of power, because people understand that something has to be done in order to take Utah from the worst state for women to a place of equity and inclusion.

What does the ERA mean to you?

LaRue • The ERA, to me, is everything. It’s my entire being, as a woman, as a queer person, always on the outside kind of a situation.

Kelly • That my fundamental worth and equality, which I know exists, is recognized in our most foundational document.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.