An Interview with Letha Dawson Scanzoni

By Janene Cates Putman

Janene writes: “In 2019 I had a delightful, enlightening, and inspiring conversation with Letha Dawson Scanzoni, one of the founders of CFT and godmother of the modern Christian feminism movement. Join me as we get a peek into her fascinating life and work and celebrate her achievements.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. My questions below are in bold and identified by my initials, JCP.  Letha’s responses are identified by her initials, LDS.

“There was a spunkiness in me”

JCP: I am thrilled to be interviewing you today. I can’t tell you how excited I am to be able to do this. I’m such a fan of yours and I can’t wait to talk to you today.  I want to start off by asking this: When and how did you realize you were a feminist?

Letha Dawson Scanzoni in 2010
Letha Dawson Scanzoni in 2010

LDS: I can’t remember not being a feminist. I think I was one from the very beginning. I didn’t know the word, but as a little kid I always said, “Girls can do anything boys can do!” And my parents let me think that way; they said you can do whatever you want—with regard to life choices in general. Now, remember, I was born in 1935 and that was not the climate of the times!  I lived through the 1940s and 1950s when women were really restricted in our society. Somehow there was a spunkiness in me that didn’t want to accept those restrictions.

JCP: I LOVE that spunkiness in you!

LDS: Nobody discouraged me about any of that until I got into evangelical/fundamentalist circles in my late teens. Fundamentalist leaders would use scriptures that restricted women, saying that’s what God wanted, but I just kept thinking, “That’s not the God I know.” It just didn’t fit. I had that— you can call it “spunkiness”— that determination. Rather than saying, “I should change” from thinking that way, I felt the world had to change, that society had to change. I don’t know where that came from exactly, but my parents did encourage me with their confidence that I could always do anything. They gave me that kind of self-esteem, I think, because they were not in fundamentalist circles. And it’s too bad that I sound negative here because I got a lot from evangelicalism—especially the importance of a personal relationship with God. But I also found a lot that was very negative and that hindered me from being all I could be.

JCP: How did that affect your faith when you realized that you weren’t wrong, that the movement you were involved in was wrong?

LDS: My faith was above the movement and somehow, I was able to separate that. In their book, Building Bridges, Kendra Weddle and Jann Aldredge-Clanton talk a little bit about my testimony, my story of how, on my own in my bedroom, I surrendered my music, which was the career I had planned to go into, to Christ. And that was so real. That was my faith.

I eventually became disillusioned about much about fundamentalism. People (in fundamentalist circles) talked about God in a personal way so I thought, “Oh, this is a group I want to be with.” They talked about scripture, and I was hungry for that. But then when they started using scripture to keep any group back, I thought, “Something’s wrong here,” and I just couldn’t go along with it. It didn’t affect my faith negatively. I only got a lot of criticism for questioning. I mean, not too many years ago, somebody wrote that I had left the Christian faith to teach immorality. So you just have to ignore that sort of thing.

JCP: Talking about your having to just ignore it sometimes leads me to my next question. Where do you get your bravery and courage of conviction? Earlier in your career, you were a rising star in the evangelical movement, right?

LDS: I had written several books and articles on Christian topics, including some articles for Eternity magazine in the 1960s. There was much talk about a “woman’s place” in society in general as the women’s movement was getting underway, and the fundamentalists were saying women had to be silent and submissive and not be church leaders. In fact, after I wrote an article titled “Woman’s Place: Silence or Service?” about using one’s gifts in the church, a letter that came to Eternity said something like, “Mrs. Scanzoni’s article is a prime reason the Apostle Paul told women to be silent.” I then wrote another article for Eternity magazine on egalitarian marriage!

I’ll tell you where I think what you called “courage” or bravery comes from. As a “spunky kid,” one of my earliest phrases was, “That’s not fair!” about any injustice. I applied that to girls and women and to other marginalized groups. That was my thing: it’s not fair. I think the courage came from asking, “What is just?” People have to know what is just and what is fair. Some have said that the word “righteousness” in Scripture is really— in the New Testament, how the Greeks used it—justice. So that’s it:  wanting fairness for all people, for all groups; that’s where my courage comes from.

“It costs women to be strong…”

JCP: I love that! In your opinion, what keeps so many Christian women from embracing the Christian feminist movement?

LDS: I don’t believe they know anything about the feminist movement. They may know what their leaders have told them about the feminist movement, but that is something altogether different. Rather than seeking out the truth for themselves, they will read the propaganda by people who hate feminism. It costs women to question the status quo of male domination and to stand up and be strong and just and fair and to expect that kind of treatment from men in return. I think that’s the main reason. They’ve bought into the stereotypes that feminists hate marriage, that feminists hate men, and that feminists want to usurp power over men and take over. The idea that women want to take over is reversal. Anytime an oppressed group wants equality, there’s the fear among some people that, “They’re going to come after us and treat us like we treated them!” Women are not trying to be above or below; we are trying to be equal. I think that’s what God requires —women and men are created in the image of God, both women and men.  Surely being in God’s image means both are equal.

I think God doesn’t waste, and the church shouldn’t be wasting talent and blessing. If a woman has an ability to preach or teach and the Holy Spirit has given her a gift for that and yet the church leaders say, “No, no, you can’t use that,” that’s ridiculous! It’s like throwing away food that’s good because I don’t like the picture on the label, without even knowing what’s in it. We must look at wastefulness of talent as being one of the biggest sins of Christians.  The Holy Spirit’s gifts to the church often come in and through women. They shouldn’t be wasted.

JCP: Oh, absolutely! Our pastor is doing a series on spiritual gifts, and he noted that nowhere in the list of spiritual gifts in the New Testament does it say, “These gifts are for men and these gifts are for women.” Scripture says the Holy Spirit gives these gifts to God’s children.

LDS: Right— God doesn’t wrap up spiritual gifts in pink or blue. The gifts are given to us and we are responsible to use them. I think even from childhood, I realized— I heard it in Sunday school —that you “don’t hide your light under a bushel,” and you shouldn’t “bury your talents.” And then, suddenly (as a grown-up woman), you’re supposed to? That doesn’t make sense! A woman can be a really gifted teacher, but she’s told she shouldn’t teach a man or a boy over age 12 because he’s a man and she’d be “usurping authority “over a man? I mean, how many women teachers, or 12-year-old boys, have these critics been around? I think it’s tragic. Such teachings hold the church back; it holds people back. And it’s wasting talent. Women are begging to serve God, and yet some churches are complaining, “We can’t get enough men to go into ministry or serve in other leadership roles” So why not use women? This is changing, but in many denominations, it’s still common.

JCP: I used to tell my dad, who’s a retired Southern Baptist pastor, that when I grew up, I was going to be a pastor, and he would just laugh. My parents were much like yours— even though I grew up in the fundamentalist faith, my parents were very encouraging and said, “There’s nothing that a girl can’t do.” So when I said I was going to grow up and preach, Daddy just laughed; he never said, “Don’t do it.” So even though the faith communities that I grew up in did not encourage girls and women to use their gifts of leadership, my parents were— and still are —encouraging.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni as a child
Letha as a child

LDS: I think that’s often true, unless they are really bogged down by certain teachings, and often it is for the eyes of others and not what they really believe. When they really know this person as an individual, as your parents knew you— because they’ve seen their little girl’s talents and watched her do all these things as a child— they may think, “Well, why couldn’t she?”

And yet, maybe it’s been hard for some evangelical parents to say that. Others may accuse them of being unscriptural. They may say it to their daughter, but, on the other hand, they will write or preach that women should not preach or usurp power over men.

However, even knowing someone personally doesn’t always work. A Sunday school teacher or youth leader often will discourage the girls by saying, “You’re going to be a preacher’s wife; that’s what you’ll be.” I mean, at Moody Bible Institute when I was there long ago, one female dean used to stress the importance of hosting tea parties and dressing and acting a certain way as the minister’s wife. I was there studying sacred music and had no interest in throwing tea parties!


JCP:  As you said, it was another time when you were growing up and when you were at Moody. You would expect that more from the 1950s. But there is still so much of that today in our churches in 2019. It can be disheartening for women. What would you say to encourage women in places like that?

LDS: Resist, but do it tactfully. We can turn people off if they think we’re beating up their faith or that we’re not being true to Scripture. I think we need to start where people are. In your case, your dad could see that you had talent and gifts, and you were his daughter, and you were bright, so why couldn’t you be a preacher? But it’s not only about a woman being a pastor; it’s about the dignity and sense of self-worth that women do not get if they are taught that they are second place. And I think that comes through in the church. And so, to encourage them, you need to talk about where they are, what they do believe, and then lead them beyond, I think, somewhat gradually. We have to be careful to respect people’s faith. There are so many things I believed at one point, and I had to really think through to understand them differently.

One of the main things, I think, is to help people learn hermeneutics— the whole idea of how we interpret scripture— and to learn that scripture was written over such a long period of time. The Bible is not a manual; it’s not a rule book; it’s not an instruction guide; it’s not that kind of thing. The Scripture was written in many different literary forms over a long period of time by many different people and in many different cultures. That’s the big point — different cultures and historical periods. Paul talked about adapting to the culture in certain situations, such as whether or not to eat the meat that had been offered to idols in Roman culture. You knew in your heart those idols weren’t real, so why not eat the meat? But if you did, how would it affect others who saw you?  Everything was situational about that, and that is scary to a lot of people. They want Scripture to be very clear: “Why don’t they just tell us what to do?”

So, you have to lead kindly, step by step, and respect people’s faith where it is. I think that sometimes a wake-up call happens in a difficult way —like the reawakening of the Southern Baptists, with the sexual abuse coming to light recently. And waking up to what this means: that by treating women as “less than,” men tend to fall into a system where they think they can do what they want to women and with women. Women are waking up. So sometimes you have to sense when to trumpet a loud wake-up call and when to gradually lead people step by step.

JCP: In Building Bridges, in an interview with one of the authors, you said, “Knowing the contours of the entire Bible helps people see how to deal with social change.” And that’s kind of what you’re talking about with the hermeneutics, dealing with culture as it is, at the point where we live.

LDS: Exactly. The Old Testament was set in an agricultural culture so certain things had to be talked about in a certain way to guide the people; such as, what to do on the Sabbath when work is forbidden. What if an ox or sheep falls into a pit? Do you let it die there if it’s a Sabbath? And yet in the New Testament, some of the people who were rigid (law-keepers) were saying Jesus shouldn’t heal on the Sabbath. Over a period of time, you see the difference between the agricultural way of life and all the seaport cities that the apostles in Acts were going to. Those were different cultures there. Many of the women had jobs like Lydia, a “seller of purple”, and so on. Women working in that way was so different than traditional culture where a woman was doing what her husband or father told her. That’s what I mean. If you don’t get the Bible as a whole and understand historical and cultural circumstances, you can’t see the different ways social change happened then and the ways it still happens now. That’s hard for a lot of Christians to adjust to.

“The dignity of every individual and the worthwhile-ness of human love”

JCP: Well, one of the things that has been hard for Christians to adjust to is the affirming of the LGBTQ community and, in particular, LGBTQ Christians. You got into some deep trouble when you wrote Is the Homosexual my Neighbor? Now I know from having grown up in it, the conservative Christian would answer, “Yes, they are my neighbor; we are to love everyone and that includes the LGBTQ community.” And they would also say, “Because we love them, we must get them away from their sin, so they don’t go to hell.” How would you respond to that?

Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?LDS: Well, that’s a long story. In a way, when I wrote All We’re Meant to Be in 1974 about Christian feminism with Nancy Hardesty, I think more people we’re ready to write us off as not genuine Christians. Then by the time Virginia Mollenkott and I wrote Is the Homosexual my Neighbor? in 1978, I think we were already written off, and some people did not pay attention. But others did.

One thing that both Virginia and I have found over the years is wherever we’ve spoken, there have been LGBTQ people who have come up to us and said, “I was ready to commit suicide and I then read your book.” We’ve heard that over and over again and to me that’s worth everything. Our publisher, Clayton Carlson, of HarperSanFrancisco (now HarperOne), said the same thing —that all these books from various publishers that were coming out in 1978 aimed for evangelicals were anti-gay, and ours was the only positive one that year. He said, if even one gay person is helped to feel acceptable by God, if one person is saved from this fear and anxiety and gains a new sense of self, publishing this was worth it.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t talk about ethics, about standards. But mainly, it’s about the love of two people for each other and an orientation that, the more we learn about scientifically, appears to be a natural part of their being. We couldn’t believe that God would be so unmerciful as to condemn people to hell for their love and commitment to each other. That was one of the main points we wanted to make. And I would still say that we are talking about the dignity of every individual and the worthwhile-ness of human love. That’s what “loving our neighbor as ourselves” means.  I think Kendra and Jann, in their book, Building Bridges, talk a bit about a number of people in the LGBTQ community who told them how much it meant to them to be affirmed through Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?

That topic did not come easily for me. I had to really work through it when I saw the persecution of LGBTQ people in the university town where I lived at the time. (See my Christian Century article, “Conservative Christians and Gay Civil Rights.”) Oh, I had written about it already in a textbook I coauthored. I knew all about the scientific evidence and everything, but how to fit that with my Christian faith was a struggle. I talked about that in the introduction to the book [second edition, 1994]. When Virginia told me she was a lesbian— while we were working on a book on ethics, no less— it really made me think about it in a whole new way: How does this relate to my Christian faith? As a human being, I had cared objectively; as a writer I could teach about it in a textbook. But this was a very different picture—it’s being up-close and personal and knowing and respecting people in their personhood.

JCP: Right. The quote is “proximity is fatal to prejudice.” When you know actual people, it changes your mind and can change your heart, being around people who are different than you are.

LDS: Exactly. In Is the Homosexual my Neighbor? I talked about the “gap.” It gets into what social psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Maybe you’ve heard all kinds of things about any marginalized group, let’s say, because you don’t know anybody within the group. You’ve heard all these stereotypes and so you put this subject for away from your own life—somewhere out there in the abstract. Homosexuality was (at the time of writing the book) way out there for most Christians. Most had no idea how many closeted gay people were in their congregation. That whole topic of homosexuality was far removed, just an abstract that they knew little about. And then a church kid comes to their parents, or a friend comes to you and says they’re gay. What happens is that you either mentally push the person way out there as part of the abstract, or you bring the subject of homosexuality up close because you now see it in the child or friend. That’s how I try to explain it. During that period when you’re trying to decide which way you’re going, can you close the “gap” between the abstract topic and the reality of your child or friend?  it’s a very hard, dissonant time and a lot of parents—and others— go through that.

JCP: And that was difficult for you as a friend to Virginia when she came out to you. That was a difficult time for you to get that straightened out in your own mind, right?

LDS: Oh, yes. That’s why I write about it that way in my part of the book, especially the preface in the 1994 edition. Talking about working through that gap was helpful to Virginia, too, because she was not yet out to anybody else at the time. She said our writing the book together gave her an avenue to talk about it.  I wasn’t going to get rid of the friendship, so I had to look at the topic more in respect to how it related to my Christian faith. I’d been reading Virginia’s materials for a long time. She wrote articles for Christian magazines like Christianity Today and she wrote some very good books, always on how Christians could be intellectual as well as faithful to God and Scripture. Conservative Christians were in a period of time when there was a real strain of anti-intellectualism, so I admired her for bringing these things out and helping Christian education in that way.

JCP: Now where does the command to not bear false witness against your neighbor fit into how Christians relate to the LGBTQ community?

LDS: One of the lies they tell about LGBTQ people is that they shouldn’t be raising children, yet some of them are the best parents you can imagine.

You know, Virginia and I started our book when Anita Bryant had her crusade going on against gays because she said they were after our children to convert them into homosexuals; and, of course, that was one of the biggest lies. In the book, we write that “because the social distance between most people the homosexual community is signally wide, it becomes easy to make sweeping generalizations.” Examples are that all male homosexuals are effeminate; all lesbians are tough and masculine and hate men. Or there’s no such thing as a happy homosexual, so how can they call themselves gay? Or it’s dangerous for homosexuals to work with children. Or lesbian mothers should not be permitted to have custody of their children after a divorce. Or homosexuals are neurotic and immature, and all they ever think about is sex and they’re unable to stay in relationships. Or they are by nature promiscuous; they don’t think about love, only lust. Or they want to destroy the family as an institution, and on and on. These are all lies. Big lies.  The Bible says, “You shall not bear false witness.”

There are people who say, “Yeah but this is special; homosexuality is a special kind of thing separate from anything else that God hates. God calls this an abomination.” Well, apparently those people don’t read all the abominations that are listed. The one I like is in Proverbs:

There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to run into evil, a false witness who pours out lies, and a person who stirs up dissension in the community. (Proverbs 6:16-19, TNIV)

I say that a lot of Christians are doing a lot of such abominations! I once heard Rosemary Ruether say, quoting somebody else, “People who use the Bible to hit people over the head with have to keep it closed.”

JCP: That’s great! I think that as human beings we tend to pick on somebody else whose sin or weakness or propensity is different than ours.

LDS: Right; that’s the “haughty look,” the pride. God has a lot to say about that. By the way, I was quoting from the Today’s New International Version of the Bible, which still uses all male pronouns for God. I do believe God is neither male nor female, that God is both male and female and so it’s just as appropriate to say “her” as “him,” but I was quoting the TNIV there.

JCP: Is there is there an inclusive language translation of the Bible that you like?

Inclusive Bible book coverLDS: I actually read several of them, as many as I can. The Roman Catholic group called Priests for Equality has produced “The Inclusive Bible,” and it’s quite good. But there are some parts in any translation that you just have to adjust to. Some people insist on changing the pronouns all the time, some people some of the time, and some try to keep it neutral and just repeat the word “God,” rather than using pronouns for God. We have a pronoun problem in our language. I recently saw a Swedish film in the film club I go to, and there happened to be a Swedish man there. He said in Sweden, they now use the word “hen” to mean either male or female. It’s a singular pronoun, but it covers both. That’s what we need in English, but we don’t have that, although we sometimes use “they” that way. We have to realize that Scripture is full of descriptions of God as female, too, all through the Scripture, Old and New Testaments, but we’re limited in our English language.

JCP: Yes, we are. And I think that’s part of the problem with English translations that are harmful to women and the interpretations of Scripture that are harmful to women. I think a lot of it falls in into the deficit of the English language to fully convey the ideas of the original languages.

LDS.: I think that’s probably true. And in other passages that sound so negative toward women, you have to know the culture of what’s going on; that’s the other thing. It’s not just pronouns. Some people just want to toss out the whole Bible and say, “It’s just so negative on women.” That’s not true. They haven’t read the whole Bible, obviously, to say that.

“Approach life as an adventure”

JCP: You wrote All We’re Meant to Be with Nancy Hardesty in a time when, if I remember correctly, there were fervent efforts going on to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed. And there were many Christian groups, many Christian women, who were opposed to that.

LDS: That’s exactly right. I’d been writing before that. I was writing on the equality of women and men in the 1960s, and I always said, “I’m going to write a book about this someday.” I was so glad to find Nancy, because I can’t tell you how lonely It was for me as a Christian feminist during the during the 1960s and ‘70s.

Just the other day I saw the film On the Basis of Sex, which is the story of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she was a young lawyer and what she went through during that period. Afterwards, when I came out of the movie, there were groups of women huddled together on the sidewalk saying, “Oh, how horrible it was to live in that time!” And I could’ve said, “Amen to that!” The 1950s were awful. It wasn’t just gender inequality in the church. The husband was considered the head of the home, whether it was by the Census Bureau, or anything about the government, or whether it was society in general. That’s when the “Help Wanted” ads were divided by male and female. Women were limited in our society. That really kept us angry; some of us were angry enough to rise up and do something. Others just felt helpless and thought, “Oh, that’s just how it is.” I wasn’t going to take that. And I didn’t.  I didn’t like the way they were using God to limit or restrict people. That’s one reason Nancy and I wrote All We’re Meant to Be. I was so glad to find a sister feminist who could write with me, because it was lonely. In the churches feminists were either left out or condemned, and I was just so lonely and longing for people who thought as I did. And yet I knew that God wanted us to be all we were meant to be, not anything less.

JCP: I love the book! I read the third edition. You and Nancy say, “In order to take up the challenge of being all were meant to be as Christian women, we must indeed approach life as an adventure.” How do you do that in your own life these days?

Nancy Hardesty and Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Nancy Hardesty and Letha Dawson Scanzoni in the 1970s

LDS: I think we have to wake up in the morning wondering what new surprises God might have in store for us today! I also think that way at the beginning every year, too – what new things will happen in this new year? Now, they’re not always pleasant things, but we learn from them. What new people will God bring into my life? See, that’s all an adventure. I mean, what is an adventure but trying to explore new ground?  There is new ground, new people, new ideas, new books to read, new things to learn. In that sense, life is an adventure bringing us into new challenges. There are certainly those every day. Our world is sort of in a mess right now, so what adventure can we have here? How can we be the salt of the earth? How can we be the light in so much darkness? That’s the way I look at it.

Not that I never get down; believe me, my friends could tell you that. I think of when Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and when he met them later, Joseph said, “You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good” because something good came out of it. I guess I’m always looking for that, too— for what good can come out of the evil.

“Feminism is a much broader topic”

JCP: You talked about things going on in our culture and society today. If you were to write a book, what social or ethical topic would you want to discuss right now?

LDS: Virginia and I started to write an ethics book way back. That’s how we ended up with Is the Homosexual my Neighbor?  Virginia, being a John Milton scholar, had written her chapters about censorship and freedom of speech. She was writing the chapter on divorce because Milton spoke a lot about it (which many people don’t know), so she drew on that plus her own thoughts. I was doing the one on homosexuality. That chapter got so long, Virginia said, “Let’s just make that a book.” We never did get to the other topics.

Looking at the list of topics for the originally-planned ethics book you wouldn’t believe it. We had every kind of subject: contraception, sterilization, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, genetic engineering, violence, corporal punishment, abuse of power, gambling, and more. We had all this for one ethics book. I’m wondering how we could’ve done that!

JP: What year was that?

LDS: We wrote to the publisher to say we would have it done by 1978. And, of course, what came out instead that year was Is the Homosexual my Neighbor?

I could still talk about all those topics, and today I would also talk about environment, climate change. I would talk about artificial intelligence—where’s the line on that? Of course, I’d talk about medical ethics. Racism, yes. There’s no end to the challenges. If you think of faith and feminism as having its roots in the whole idea of justice and fairness, then there is no end to all the topics we could cover. I won’t be around to do them all, but I’m hoping there are younger feminists coming up now who will be writing these books— who will be speaking out and, most of all, saying that God is a God of compassion, mercy, love, justice, and righteousness in a world that too often pays no attention to these values.

I could go on and on about each one of those. That’s what I care about. Feminism is a much broader topic now. In the 60s and 70s, since essentially women weren’t permitted to do anything outside certain restricted areas, we budding feminists were trying to say women can do more and more and, eventually, everything men could do. Often, what we used to hear from the pulpit – you must’ve heard it, too— was the idea that if a woman worked outside the home, she was “neglecting her family in order to live beyond her means.“ (Of course, these preachers had middle-class women in mind; poorer women didn’t have the luxury of staying home.)

Today, in our society, because things have been set up so inequitably, if a woman isn’t sharing in earning the family income, the family often can’t make it. But back then we heard this all the time: a wife can work a little for some “pin money,” to buy little things here and there, or she could have her “allowance” from her husband. Can you imagine how that infantilizes a woman to be told she gets an allowance? And if she sometimes saved some of the money for herself, she was “selfish”. We heard all of that from the pulpit. And if a woman wanted to have a career, she was” selfish.” Even a woman being a doctor or a lawyer was not seen as something beneficial to society but as a woman stepping out of her place. All of those things, to me, were unjust and a total misunderstanding of scripture. I haven’t used the word patriarchy in our conversation, but it is a patriarchal system in which men have had the power and want to keep it. And so even now some will do anything, including changing laws, to make sure women stay pregnant and in the kitchen, to use the old example. That’s a problem.

JCP: That is a problem. To use the name of a chapter in All We’re Meant to Be, where does Christian feminism go from here?

LDS: I think I’ve already addressed that somewhat. I think we need to have a broader outlook on the world. I mean, sometimes I think as I’m brushing my teeth, “I should turn this water off right away; look at all the water I’m wasting.” I’m thinking about how I was born into this society where we not only have water, but we have running water in our homes. What if I had been a little girl born in another country where she has to put a jar on the top of her head, walk miles to get some water, bring a little bit back for the day, maybe make two trips a day? Then I realize girls and women in so many countries don’t even have a chance because of the way resources are distributed. I get to thinking about those things. And I think if we’re going to talk about feminism, we have to have a much broader outlook and include all women everywhere.

I think the other thing besides a broader outlook would be to keep reaching out to younger women, many of whom take for granted the privilege they have in our society. They need to know history.  It’s only when people are trying to take some of their freedoms away from them that they begin questioning. I mean, for example, with contraception and women’s health, those rights could be rolled back. That could be rather scary. Younger women have taken for granted that they would have the choice of when to have children.

Letha with three Hardesty scholars
Letha with three Hardesty scholars

JCP: One of the many fabulous things about the CFT Gathering in St. Louis, where you and I met, was the young women. They gave me such hope! I look at my daughters, who are all in their 20s, and I think this is a generation that can change the world. They’re unlike any that has come before. I am so hopeful, particularly for the Christian feminism movement.

LDS: That does give us hope for the future. So many young women are well educated and they’re computer literate. Now social media can be a problem with all the trolling and the false witness there. On the other hand, it benefits the movements, such as the Women’s March. Organizations can form, and women can get a group together quickly to make a difference. So many of the propaganda ideas are those that people only got from Sunday sermons or conservative media— and by “propaganda,” I mean the false teachings about Scripture that are so down on women. Now, through the internet, people can see there are other ways to look at this. There are other translations out there and other interpretations. I think that is so encouraging. I think we need to keep encouraging younger women to take a stand and to incorporate these values of compassion, love, righteousness—of understanding other people and reaching out. There’s no end. It’s not something that’s over and done. Feminism is going to go on and on in new forms.

JCP: I agree. I have one last question for you. What question would you love to answer that you never get asked?

LDS: You know, I hardly ever get asked about my other books and I’d really like to talk about them. I’ve written nine books with many different editions. I’ve written books on sexuality education for the Christian home. I’ve had books taken out of print because they were so controversial, or more likely, people didn’t like it when I wrote the other books and they didn’t want to be associated with by keeping in print something they had published that was unrelated to the controversial ones with another publisher.  I’ve written a Westminster Press book called Sexuality that was part of a series on topics for women, but the publishing company went through major changes right after it came out, and the series quickly went out of print, taking my book with it.

I wrote two books for young people way back in the 1960s. My first one was in 1964, called Youth Looks at Love, about young people and dating. Then another one was going to be Youth Looks at Life on a general philosophy of life that the publishers titled Why Am I Here? Where Am I Going?

And then I did one back when Helen Gurley Brown wrote Sex and the Single Girl. I wrote a book called Sex and the Single Eye, looking at when Jesus said, “If your eye is single, your whole body has light,” {Matt. 6:22, KJV} meaning to stay focused on the right thing so you won’t be led astray. And I wrote three editions of a major textbook with my then-husband for McGraw-Hill on the sociology of marriage and family, called Men, Women and Change. There were just a lot of books, and I never get asked about those, because everybody wants to talk about All We’re Meant to Be and Is the Homosexual my Neighbor?

My most recent book was published in 2005, on the marriage equality question. I wrote it with David Myers, who is a social psychologist at Hope College in Michigan. We wrote What God Has Joined Together: A Christian Case for Gay Marriage.

JCP: Do you have a page on your website that lists all your books?

LDS: Yes. I have a website that has been terribly neglected.

JCP: That’s not uncommon, particularly for people who have 40,000 things going on like you do!

“There’s no end to life’s adventure”

LDS: I’m working on updating my website. My first thought for the website was to document the history of how Nancy and I wrote All We’re Meant to Be. During the time I was putting that history together, Nancy was dying of pancreatic cancer, and she was so thrilled that I was doing this and would eagerly look forward to each blog installment, because it told the whole history.  All We’re Meant to Be took years for us to get published. It was not easy to get published at that time. It came out in 1974 but we had started writing it in ‘69. It went out to publishers for several years before someone was brave enough to take it. And then it really set off a whole movement. What I was trying to do on my website was tell the story of how we were putting it together. And then I got to the part about Nancy’s death, and I wrote a special post in memory of her and said that this remembrance would be an intermission or an interlude but I never picked it up again to finish the last part of the story behind All We’re Meant to Be. I keep thinking of it all the time. One of my sons asked me the other day if I’d updated it, and I need to do that. I hadn’t even yet listed Kendra’s and Jann’s book, Building Bridges, which tells a lot of my story.

Building Bridges book coverJCP: That is such a wonderful book!

LDS: Isn’t it? I’m very happy with what they’ve done there.

JCP: They did a beautiful job. I enjoyed getting to know you better through that book, absolutely.

LDS: Thank you. Some people said they were learning things they didn’t know about me. I’m not one to talk a lot about myself usually. Kendra Weddle and Jann Aldredge-Clanton wrote that book mainly because for years people at Christian Feminism Today were asking me to write my memoir, and I just kept putting it off and saying someone else would have to do it because I never seemed to have time. And before I knew it, Kendra and Jann wanted to do it!  I’m glad for that, too. I may write more—or they may write more; I don’t know.

I think what intrigues people about my life is that I started writing on feminism and aiming it toward the evangelical public half a century ago. Back then there was what they used to call the evangelical left— I guess some still do somewhat — and there were only a few of us. We were questioning. There was a very rigid legalism in one aspect of evangelicalism which was, “Don’t go to movies; don’t go to dances;” taking the stance of being apart from the culture rather than one of changing culture. And then when conservative evangelicals got around to changing culture, they went in the direction that is, to me, the very opposite of what Christianity is about—excluding people and putting people down rather lifting them up. And that’s a problem. I’m just saying that the challenges are still there. There’s no end to life’s adventure because you’re venturing with God! And that’s quite exciting, come to think of it! If God is always doing a new thing, we can be in on it.

JCP: I love that. I think that’s a big part of Scripture, God inviting us as humans to be part of God’s adventure and big plan for the world.

LDS: Right, exactly. That’s what it’s all about. I think so many Christians in the most traditional expressions of Christianity are so hung up on the idea that we’re here on earth only to decide whether we want to go to heaven or hell. I think we’re here on earth to do God’s work. It’s an adventure all along.

JCP: I love that. This has been absolutely delightful! I am thrilled that you honored me with your time and your presence and your wise words. I can’t wait to see you again —I hope it’s soon!

LDS: It’s been a pleasure to me, too! I hear you have quite the story, too, Janene, and someday I’d like to hear that. I should interview you!

JCP: You name the time and place and I will be there, my friend. I would love it. I have some stories to tell and I believe now’s the time to do it. I’m so excited and grateful that you’re part of my story now, and so grateful for CFT. Aand I can’t wait to see where we’re all going from here. I am absolutely thrilled that you’ve given me this time to talk.

LDS: This was a lot of fun! Thank you!


Selected Resources for Further Reading

Letha’s website

“Woman’s Place: Silence or Service” (Eternity Magazine, Feb.1966).

“Conservative Christians and Gay Civil Rights” The Christian Century, Oct. 13, 1976.

Building Bridges: Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Friends by Kendra Weddle and Jann Aldredge-Clanton, 2018.

All We’re Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, 1974, 1986, 1992. In the second and third editions, the subtitle is “Biblical Feminism for Today.”

Is the Homosexual my Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response, by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, 1978, 1994.

What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage, by David Myers and Letha Dawson Scanzoni, 2005.


© 2019 by Christian Feminism Today


Janene Cates Putman
Janene Cates Putman grew up the daughter of a Southern Baptist pastor. After 20 years of raising kids and failing miserably to measure up to the Proverbs 31 woman, she stepped out of the conservative box and into who God created her to be. Enrolling in Bible college in her 40s, she began to rewrite her life. She now lives her dream writing about faith and feminism on the little slice of heaven in the east Tennessee mountains she shares with her Hot Husband.


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