An Unlikely Partnership? Orrin Hatch and the Founding of National Women?s History Month, Part 2

By March 23, 2016

Photo Courtesy of U.S. Senate Historical Office Sen. Orrin Hatch speaks at one of his first Senate hearings. Right from the start, he was active on labor and judicial issues.

Photo Courtesy of U.S. Senate Historical Office
Sen. Orrin Hatch speaks at one of his first Senate hearings. From SL Tribune

This is part 2 in a 3 part series about Women’s History Week/Month and Orrin Hatch.
The late 1970s and early 1980s was a time of transformative change for the women?s movement and American women?s political activism in general. From well-known feminists like Betty Friedan, who fought for the passage of the amendment, to Phyllis Schlafly, whose STOPERA campaign innervated once politically apathetic women to political action, the campaign for and against the Equal Rights Amendment demonstrated the power of women?s political mobilization to sway the American public opinion.

At the same time, many of the women who were on the frontline of support for the ERA also were also interested in creating a nationwide women?s history week. The history of the early days organizing for National Women?s History Month can be found at this blog post from 2013. To provide a quick background, here is a quick excerpt (MacGregor refers to Molly MacGregor, founder of the National Women?s History Project):

“In 1978, the commission in Sonoma County started a week in March dedicated to women?s history. The week containing March 8th was chosen for that event as the date was and still is International Women?s Day. During the summer of the following year, MacGregor participated, along with other women leaders of organizations for women and girls, in a women?s history institute led by the historian Gerda Lerner at Sarah Lawrence College. As part of her application to the institute, MacGregor sent along information about the women?s history week in Sonoma County. The women involved in the institute decided to begin similar celebrations in their communities and initiate an effort to have the week nationally recognized. The first signs of success arrived in 1980 when President Carter issued a the first Presidential Proclamation declaring the week of March 8, 1980 as National Women?s History Week.”

The first proclamation that was set forth by President Carter was merely one step in the larger legislative process of ending up with National Women?s History Month in 1987. The next step explored in the first part of the series, then Representative/now Senator  Barbara Mikulski and Senator Orrin Hatch cosponsored a resolution to make the week a permanent part of the American calendar in 1981. Many news articles about the partnership remarked that it showed a ?bipartisan? support for women?s history.

1981 was also the penultimate year for this chapter in the history of the Equal Rights Amendment. By 1981, the LDS Church leadership and influential membership had come out against the ratification of the amendment and Sonia Johnson had been excommunicated. In a 2014 post about the history of women?s excommunication from the LDS church, Amanda HK, Kris, and Andrea explored the reasons for Johnson?s excommunication.

“On December 1, 1979, Johnson was excommunicated for apostasy. She was told that she had been excommunicated for accusing the church of misogyny when it taught that ?exaltation can be gained only through the love that results in the eternal bonding of man and woman? and for telling investigators not to listen to Mormon missionaries until the church changed its position on the ERA.”

A particularly explosive moment in the battle surrounding the ERA ratification, the church?s involvement, and both Orrin Hatch?s and Sonia Johnson?s public lives occurred in 1978 when Johnson testified before a Congressional hearing about extending the ratification period for the amendment. Johnson was one of several religious leaders and activists called to testify. Orrin Hatch was already known for making bold statements about Democrats and feminists amongst others earlier in his career. He led some of the questioning during the Congressional hearings which led to an infamous, heated exchange between the two. Johnson found herself in the middle of a media storm and faced excommunication in the following year. A 2012 New York Times article recalled one of the controversial exchanges: ?Utah Senator Orrin Hatch. Hatch demanded that Johnson recognize that ?nearly 100 percent of Mormon women oppose the Equal Rights Amendment.? ?Oh my goodness,? Johnson lashed back. ?I don?t have to admit that. It simply isn?t true.?”  In a People Magazine piece from a few days after her 1979 excommunication, Johnson recalled her exchange with Senator Hatch:

“‘He really lit into me,’ Johnson remembers. ‘Aides were tugging at each arm and passing him notes to cool it.’ Though startled by the outburst, she was grateful for the publicity that followed.’Orrin Hatch is really responsible for our group becoming a national organization,’ she says.”

Hatch probably did not appreciate the assertion that his lively display of opposition led to the momentum of Johnson’s group. His status as an outspoken critic of the ERA had been long established. And while he did not shy away from controversial statements, the question begs to be asked: was part of his motivation to co-sponsor the 1980 resolution for Women?s History Week a way to soften his image?

During the midst of this particularly explosive political moments, at which featured much tension between pro-ERA activists and ERA critics in American history, supporting an assumedly innocuous and bipartisan effort like Women?s History Week might signal a temporary ?truce? between those on both sides of the ERA debate. Of course, it can be argued that women?s history was not a political issue. However, at this  moment, it was part of a much larger trend that recognized women?s contributions in different fields, industries, and social movements.

Hatch?s partnership with then Representative Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat, is also curious. Mikulski was an advocate for the passage of the ERA. In 2012, as a senator, she cosponsored a bill with others to reintroduce the amendment for ratification.

In the next and final part of this series, I will explore the relationship between Hatch and Mikulski.

Article filed under Politics Women's History


  1. Really enjoying these posts. Thanks, NKR!

    Comment by J Stuart — March 25, 2016 @ 11:14 am

  2. Fascinating, Natalie.

    Comment by Ben P — March 26, 2016 @ 7:45 am

  3. Good stuff!

    Comment by Jeff T — March 26, 2016 @ 11:20 pm


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