Letha Dawson Scanzoni: A Christian Feminist Voice

by Kendra Weddle, PhD. Scholar-in-residence, Northaven Church, Dallas, Texas

A headshot of Letha Dawson Scanzoni in 2012.
Letha Dawson Scanzoni in 2012

Letha Dawson Scanzoni died January 9, 2024, at White Oak Manor in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her legacy of building bridges and changing lives will continue to unfold for years to come.

Even as U.S. denominations today wrangle over LGBTQIA+ inclusion, and some over women in leadership, Letha Dawson Scanzoni, an evangelical, was widely recognized for her unwavering advocacy for and support of LGBTQIA+ persons as well as feminism as a commitment required by Christian faith.

Born October 9, 1935, in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Letha was an independent scholar, freelance writer, editor, and writing consultant, specializing in religion and social issues (lethadawsonscanzoni.com). Among her nine books, she coauthored two that sent waves throughout the evangelical landscape in America. All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today (coauthor Nancy Hardesty), first published by Word Books in 1974 (Abingdon, 1986; revised, updated edition, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), initiated what came to be known as biblical feminism. In 2006, in their fiftieth-anniversary publication, Christianity Today magazine named All We’re Meant to Be as one of “the top fifty books that have shaped evangelicals” (Christianity Today, October 6, 2006).

Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?: A Positive Christian Response (coauthor Virginia Ramey Mollenkott), first published in 1978 by HarperSanFrancisco (revised, expanded edition, 1994), was one of the first books to defend homosexuality as compatible with Christian faith. A Kirkus review said, “If Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? can’t persuade Christians that homosexuals deserve loving acceptance from church and society, then probably nothing can.”

A graphic that reads: For those who knew and loved her, it was evident that Letha viewed this body not only as her church, but also her family.

Just as important to her legacy as these highly acclaimed books, however, was her leadership within EEWC-CFT (Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus/Christian Feminism Today). For those who knew and loved her, it was evident that Letha viewed this body not only as her church but also as her family. And no one has had more influence on the group than Letha.

EEWC (originally called EWC, Evangelical Women’s Caucus) was created in 1974 as one of six work areas formed by Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), who had met a year earlier, in 1973, to address social issues that they identified in need of an evangelical response. One of the areas included the inferior status of women in church and society. EWC became a separate group from ESA, inspired, Letha noted, by women who awakened to the biblical foundation of equality (Building Bridges: Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Friends, Kendra Weddle and Jann Aldredge-Clanton, p. 63).

Throughout its history, Letha provided leadership and guidance to EEWC-CFT through published articles, speaking engagements, and plenary addresses at their national meetings. From 1994 through 2013, she served as editor of Update, their print magazine, and, subsequently, the online version called Christian Feminism Today. She was at the helm when internet websites emerged, ensuring that EEWC-CFT would have one of the first of its kind, the content of which she maintained until her retirement in 2013.

Letha’s work was motivated by the potential of relationships to be transformational. To this end, she initiated cross-generational conversations in two blogs hosted on the EEWC-CFT website. 72-27 enabled an online audience to “listen in” as a seasoned feminist, Letha (then 72), and a young feminist, Kimberly B. George (then 27), explored together what “new visions for equality” might entail (https://eewc.com/how-it-all-began/).

Her second blog hosted by EEWC-CFT was FemFaith. It was a cross-country conversation between Letha, who lived in Norfolk, Virginia (at that time), Melanie Springer Mock in Dundee, Oregon, and Kendra Weddle in Irving, Texas. The subjects of these discussions were wide-ranging but always sought to explore the intersections of lived feminism and faith.

A graphic that reads: One of Letha’s greatest gifts was her capacity for and dedication to friendships.

One of Letha’s greatest gifts was her capacity for and dedication to friendships. In her voluminous papers, there is evidence of this: folders of letters from various people (and often Letha’s letters that she copied prior to sending). Nancy Hardesty and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott have especially thick folders, as one might expect for correspondence with a coauthor, but there are many others whose letters and friendships Letha valued.

For approximately 20 years, Friday evenings meant a Bible study between Linda Bieze, Alena Ruggerio, and Letha. Sometimes called the Transcontinental Trigenerational Telephone Trio, these women forged a friendship that served as church and family. As Letha aged, Alena and Linda made annual treks to visit her in Charlotte, North Carolina, and on some occasions broke her out of her care facility so she could eat good food and forget for a few moments how much independence she had lost.

Anne Linstatter also traveled frequently to visit Letha, both in Charlotte and, before that, in Norfolk, Virginia. Anne painstakingly worked in Letha’s personal archive, helping in the important task of preservation for future historians, who will want to learn more about Letha, as well as EEWC-CFT. Lē Isaac Weaver in earlier years and Kendra Weddle in later ones also spent time in Letha’s archive, evidence of the respect and care of someone who changed their lives in significant ways.

There are others, too, who had special friendships with Letha, but these are too numerous to mention. Letha told me more than once how a train was her image of friendship. People get on and off over the course of one’s life. Some ride the whole way, while others don’t. Some leave for a period of time but eventually return. She was grateful that her train was always occupied.

If relationships were an integral part of Letha’s life, passion for communication was, too. Writers who had the privilege of Letha as an editor testify to her unmatched skill. She employed the keenest eye for a wayward comma, an ill-constructed phrase, an undeveloped idea. But she also communicated her critiques and suggestions with grace and an invitation for collaboration. Reta Finger, who authored several Bible studies located on the EEWC-CFT website, was once heard exclaiming that Letha’s superb talent as an editor was so extraordinary that Letha was the only editor she wanted to touch her work.

A graphic that reads: ...the Bible was a constant source of inspiration and guidance. She also experienced a vibrant relationship with Christ.

Letha always saw herself as an evangelical. She knew Scripture and could quote chapter and verse with the most ardent biblical scholars. But more than that, the Bible was a constant source of inspiration and guidance. She also experienced a vibrant relationship with Christ. As a young girl, she recalled feeling that God loved her, especially when she was in nature; and in return, she loved God with intensity and dedication. She believed she was called to develop and use her talents to serve God and neighbor. Accolades, even though numerous, were never what motivated her.

Despite her faith, evangelical insiders worked to keep Letha on the margins (see The Other Evangelicals by Isaac B. Sharp). Her critics often argued that she had fallen victim to the slippery slope—the idea that once someone embraces one belief outside of the mainstream, subsequent beliefs beyond a theological boundary will become accepted as well. Her rebuttal was to share the paradigm through which she had thoughtfully considered her positions. She called her approach “Love Thy Neighbor,” where empathy and relationships are centered as opposed to rules or restrictions. She identified the stark contrast: the slippery slope viewed God as a judge who considered sin to be breaking rules, while loving thy neighbor viewed God as love, centering people as made in the image of God (Building Bridges, p. 44; for a reprint of her full article on the slippery slope, see Building Bridges, pp. 167–174).

Measuring the impact of her biblical and theological approach is impossible. Nevertheless, Brian D. McLaren provides some clue to its extensive potential when he wrote, “Many think of Letha Dawson Scanzoni above all as a feminist, and that is no doubt legitimate. But I think of her first and foremost as a courageous biblical interpreter, because when I was a young evangelical, I watched her take the same biblical texts that the [white male] evangelical gatekeepers used to oppress others and instead use them to liberate….” Jann Aldredge-Clanton similarly attests that, “The call to gender justice could reach me only through the Bible. All We’re Meant to Be transformed my life with new revelations from the Bible” (Building Bridges, p. xviii).

A graphic that reads: She trusted that God’s love was liberating and this propelled her to the Bible—not away from it.

Writing in 2010, some fifty years after her first published essays, Letha explained that evangelical feminists need to keep making their case that, while religion can be limiting, it can also be liberating. She trusted that God’s love was liberating and this propelled her to the Bible—not away from it (see Scanzoni, Why We Need Evangelical Feminists in New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views, eds. Mary E. Hunt and Diann L. Neu). The result was a voice that shaped the very movement that sought to marginalize her.

This is not to say that Letha’s path was always easy. She was often misunderstood by her adversaries, who refused to take her faith seriously. When Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? was published, Letha’s speaking opportunities in evangelical circles declined precipitously. She lost income and status. She had taken a public stance even though the personal cost to her was high. Hers was an example of sacrifice, the most important ethic Jesus taught, but she never talked about it this way.

Similarly, when EWCI (EWCI Evangelical Women’s Caucus International, an appellation used by some at that time) took an affirmative stand for LGBTQ persons at the 1986 conference, it lost many members who were not willing to continue their support. Thus, Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) was born and subsequently became the larger stream of evangelical feminists. Speaking to the smaller EWC (Evangelical Women’s Caucus) gathering in 1990, Letha sought to reassure them. “Stand by all our sisters—our lesbian sisters, our bisexual sisters, and our heterosexual sisters…” she said. “We’re in this together.… The worry over an organization’s public image if it appears ‘too inclusive’ is nothing new” (Building Bridges, p. 73.)

Over ten years later, in 2003, Letha continued to encourage her EEWC friends to keep strong in their commitment:

The firm foundation metaphor sees EEWC as a construction project. It is not abandoning its strong foundation, as shown in our statement of faith, or even its foundation in evangelicalism (in the best sense of that word). But it has not stopped with the foundation. EEWC has been building upon that foundation with new understandings of our experiences with God and with each other as persons created in God’s image, new insights through an openness to the Spirit, new callings as we see God at work in the world, and a fresh look at Scripture, seeking answers to new questions. As these new “rooms” are added to the structure, we find, like any truly loving family, that we have lots of space for the diversity of interests and viewpoints among our members” (Building Bridges, p. 78).

A graphic that reads: Just as she encouraged EEWC-CFT to keep moving forward, she constantly was alert to new discoveries and trends, finding fresh ways to communicate ideas about faith.

Just as she encouraged EEWC-CFT to keep moving forward, she constantly was alert to new discoveries and trends, finding fresh ways to communicate ideas about faith. Her raw intelligence and ability to assimilate and apply information were frequently on display, and it is hard to imagine anyone more suited to explore and use the internet than she was. Her essay “What Can Christians Learn from the ‘Mystery Dress’ Phenomenon?” illustrates this acuity (reprinted in Building Bridges, pp. 175–184). The mystery dress was the dress that circulated around the internet in 2015, a “mystery” because people saw the colors of the dress differently. Experts rushed in to explain the phenomenon.

Letha studied the dress, the articles written by experts about why people saw the dress in varying colors, and then she applied this analysis to differences in faith perspectives. She brought to light how insights about actual perception could be useful in thinking about figurative perception. Had we seen this dress in person, she said, we could have seen it the same way. But in our divided realities, we are far from being in the same room. But we can seek to understand why the light, background, and composition of someone might affect how they see. And when we know that God is light, we know that “light is made up of all the colors of the rainbow” (Building Bridges, pp. 182–183).

Letha graduated in 1972 with distinction from Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, in the field of religious studies, with a membership in Phi Beta Kappa. She studied earlier at the Eastman School of Music (1952–1954) and at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, Illinois, (1954–1956).

Letha was the mother of two grown sons (Steve and Dave) and the grandmother of five grandchildren. She was an internet sleuth extraordinaire, who listened to news and analysis programs on public radio and television, who enjoyed listening to various kinds of music, and who especially enjoyed watching and discussing independent and foreign films (lethadawsonscanzoni.com).

She was 88 when she died, and there was so much more that she wanted to do. But perhaps it is as it should be, that we are the ones left to continue her legacy. In fact, I can almost hear her saying this to us as if we were gathered together listening to one of her inspiring speeches:

Feminism—in all its forms and in various faith traditions—is not just about yesterday. It’s also about today and tomorrow and many more tomorrows beyond that. It’s related to all areas of social justice and equality.

So much work remains to be done. So many miles of the journey still lie ahead.

I hope you will join me in the journey (lethadawsonscanzoni.com).

 

© 2024 by Kendra Weddle and Christian Feminism Today.

Other memorial posts about Letha Dawson Scanzoni on Christian Feminism Today:

Remembering Letha Dawson Scanzoni (October 9, 1935 – January 9, 2024)

 

 

 

 

Kendra Weddle
Kendra Weddle, PhD, is scholar-in-residence at Northaven Church in Dallas, TX. She is coauthor of Building Bridges: Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Friends (with Jann Aldredge-Clanton, PhD) and If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be (coauthor Melanie Springer Mock, PhD).

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