Letha Dawson Scanzoni: The Person Behind the Theologian

A photo of Alena Ruggerio, Letha Dawson Scanzoni, and Linda Bieze standing on a bridge in September of 2018.
(l-r) Alena Ruggerio, Letha Dawson Scanzoni, and Linda Bieze in September of 2018

by Alena Ruggerio and Linda Bieze

On January 12, 2024, the two remaining members of the Trigenerational Transnational Telephone Trio met, as they’ve done every Friday night for twenty-one years, to remember their friendship with Letha Dawson Scanzoni. Transcript edited for length and clarity.

ALENA: We’re recording this call three days after Letha’s passing. Let’s check in first. How are you doing?

LINDA: It still hasn’t really sunk in for me. It’s Friday night and it’s really strange. The Friday after Christmas was the last time all three of us were able to talk together. It’s hard. But God is good.

ALENA: I think I’m dissociating. The grief is never going to go away for the rest of my life. But I’m relying on the thought that her soul is free and whole with God. We should explain why we’re doing our remembrance piece this way. First, it’s entirely appropriate given the way we’ve maintained our friendship. Of course we’re going to do a phone call on a Friday night to reminisce about twenty-plus years of Friday night phone calls. Second, this is what we can contribute that hasn’t already been said: our picture of who Letha Dawson Scanzoni, the person, was and who she was as a friend.

LINDA: Besides talking to her nearly every week, both of us went to her home many times. We knew Letha at home, which a lot of people never got to know. We knew the Letha who loved ice cream with homemade hot fudge.

ALENA: How did you meet Letha?

LINDA: Letha and Nancy Hardesty spoke at Calvin College on Monday January 27, 1975. I was a student in the audience there, and I was very impressed by what they had to say about their book All We’re Meant to Be. They were talking about egalitarianism between men and women, which has always been the Christian feminist message. It just clicked with me, so I went to the college bookstore and bought their book and underlined lots of stuff. And I thought, wow these women know what they’re talking about.

I first met Letha in person at the EEWC conference she organized in Norfolk. I was on the campus of Old Dominion University, and here came this woman with two fistfuls of telephone messages rushing around, and I knew it was Letha. I said, “Hi, I’m Linda. I’m glad to meet you. Can I help you with anything?” She looked like she was overwhelmed. She handed me a fistful of phone messages and said, “Can you return these calls?” I found a phone somewhere and started making callbacks for her. That’s how we bonded. I was there to help her out, and she was there to help me out at other times. She wasn’t this goddess on a pedestal; she was a human being who needed help, just like the rest of us.

ALENA: I encountered her work before I knew her personally, too. I took a course in college on the rhetoric of religion, and we read a chapter on Christian feminism. I had never heard it was possible to be simultaneously a Christian and a feminist. I went to the shelf in the library where all the Christian feminist books were, opened my bag, and dumped them all in. One of those books was All We’re Meant to Be.

When I was in my PhD program, I posted to a listserv looking for the second edition of All We’re Meant to Be for a paper on evangelical feminism. Someone forwarded that post to Letha, and she contacted me. I never would have felt prepared or worthy enough to reach out to her myself. I remember running around with my hands in the air after that call yelling, “I just talked to Letha Dawson Scanzoni, and she knows my name, and she wants me to write for her magazine!” I was so excited and so star-struck, and so honored.

How did the tradition of our Friday night phone calls begin?

LINDA: Letha and I started doing it in 2001. Just about the time I was moving from Boston to Grand Rapids in 2003, she brought up the idea of including you in our Bible study. I remembered you from the 2000 EEWC conference, and I said, “Why not? If she’s willing to participate, that would be really cool. The more, the merrier.”

ALENA: That was exceptionally generous of you to say yes to that proposal. That yes changed my life. I had expressed to Letha that I felt lonely and wanted more friends. Letha brought the idea of the weekly phone call up to me in 2003, so now for more than twenty years every Friday we have made our three-person call across three different states and two different time zones. And those phone calls would last for three hours apiece.

LINDA: My friends in Grand Rapids could not believe that we did it every week for three hours.

ALENA: We were checking in with each other and sharing our personal stories, and then we were also doing Bible study.

LINDA: We used a couple of published books at first. Then when Reta Finger started writing her Bible studies for EEWC Update/Christian Feminism Today, we started using those. They were so fantastic. I treasured those nights. Reta is such a brilliant person, and she stimulated so much thinking on our parts.

ALENA: And what was so surreal was that Letha was the one who had edited all those Bible studies.

LINDA: Yeah, and another surreal thing was that I had known Reta through Daughters of Sarah back when we both lived in Chicago.

ALENA: The Christian feminist world is small! Another interesting thing about our friendship was that not only were we in three different states, but we were also from three different generations. You’re exactly twenty years younger than Letha, and I’m exactly twenty years younger than you. What did you think about the age difference?

LINDA: Letha often said this, and I agree: I didn’t feel like there was an age difference. It was like we were three sisters. Maybe Letha was two years older than me and I was two years older than you, but not twenty. Letha always “thought young.” She never thought, oh I’m an old lady, I’ve got to give you all the wisdom of an old lady. I hope I never talk that way either.

A photo of Linda Bieze, Letha Dawson Scanzoni, Alena Ruggerio
The Transcontinental Trigenerational Telephone Trio in 2007

ALENA: Letha was so intellectually curious. She was always following the most recent news, reading the most recent books, and watching the most recent films. She told us amazing stories of everything she’d lived through in the past, but our friendship never felt defined by generations because our conversations were very much grounded in the present moment. What are some of your favorite memories of Letha?

LINDA: The times I spent at her home, with you or just on my own, just doing day-to-day stuff like, “I’m going to walk to the bank and the post office. You want to come along?” And then we’d stop at Starbucks for a Frappuccino. My best memories are of watching a movie at her house, eating ice cream with hot fudge, going to Baker’s Crust restaurant to have breakfast, and all her flavored coffees. “What flavor of coffee shall we have today?”

That trip when we all went to Virginia Beach for our 40th, 60th, and 80th birthdays was so much fun. I look at the pictures when they pop up on my phone every now and then. We just had a great time.

Letha made every little thing about her life a pleasure. She wasn’t extravagant, but she would treat herself well with a flavored coffee, or with salmon when it was on sale, or by going to a movie at the Naro Theater. You know, that was an important lesson she taught me: to treat myself well.

ALENA: Council was very generous to send me to Norfolk several summers in a row when I was her Assistant to the Editor of the magazine to help with all the paperwork stuffed into her apartment. Those are some of my happiest memories. Ironically, my favorite was the week my luggage literally never made it. Letha was so nice. She gave me a cardigan of her own, and she gave me pajamas, and we washed my one set of clothing every night. We went out to eat to her favorite restaurants, we walked around doing errands, and we watched movies either at the Naro or at her apartment after dinner. One of those summers, I happened to be there on my birthday, and she served me on her plate with writing around the rim that said, “You are special today.” Letha was such a night owl. I’d be asleep on the futon in her living room, but she was up until two or three working in her office. One time, she said, “I’m not an insomniac; there are just so many things to learn and do that are more interesting than sleep.”

LINDA: That reminds me of several times I went to stay with her when she was recovering from her different surgeries. Letha said she always did things in twos: she had both hips replaced, she had both knees replaced, she had cataract surgery in both eyes, and she had a double mastectomy. What a survivor she was. I’d be sleeping on the futon, and she’d be in her room incapacitated from those surgeries. She would have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. She couldn’t wake me up by just calling because I sleep pretty hard. So she got out her harmonica and played “Reveille.” Her harmonica music would wake me up to go help her to the bathroom. And it’s really hard to keep your dignity when you’ve had surgery and you have to go to the bathroom. So when I’d be helping her out, she’d make the joke, “You’re seeing a whole new side of me now!”

ALENA: I have good memories of our visits with her in Charlotte toward the end of her life. She was declining after her stroke, but she was still mobile enough that we could bust her out of the assisted living facility. We took her to restaurants and coffee shops and ice cream parlors and she absolutely loved it. I will never forget, we were at a coffee shop and she quietly said, “Sitting here with you, it almost feels normal. It almost feels like my life hasn’t changed and we’re just going out together.” We got to give that to her.

LINDA: When I stayed in Charlotte last January, I was hoping I could do some more of that. But she couldn’t go out, so we’d order Uber Eats almost every night and have a feast in her room.

ALENA: Despite the stereotype that feminists are humorless, Letha actually had an exceptional sense of humor. What are your favorite memories of laughing together?

LINDA: One had to be cleaning her bathroom. She always joked that she was the only person who had two PhDs, an MD, and an MA who would clean her bathroom for her. You and Anne Linstatter were the PhDs, Liz Bowman was the MD, and I was the MA. She couldn’t get down on her hands and knees to scrub the floor or clean the bathtub because of her hips. That was the least I could do for her. As her shoulders got worse and she couldn’t reach things on upper shelves, I also helped her rearrange her kitchen so it was more accessible. All of us with our advanced degrees were very proud to be the ones to scrub that bathtub, because that’s what we did out of love for Letha.

ALENA: What were some of Letha’s favorite things?

Letha Dawson Scanzoni in 2010
Letha Dawson Scanzoni in 2010

LINDA: Her teal-colored clothing. And then when she didn’t like to wear light-colored tops anymore after her mastectomy, she’d wear a black top but she’d always wear a teal scarf with it, or jewelry. She really looked sharp all the time. She started out as a musician, and she could very well have been a professional musician. I remember her love of all different varieties of music. She introduced me to so many feminist musicians and Christian women singers. She broadened my musical horizons. Music was a part of her life. Remember when she got that hammered dulcimer and she was trying to learn how to play at age 75?

ALENA: She played her hammered dulcimer for me on those summer visits. And she had a special place in her heart for Tommy Dorsey.

LINDA: He was a trombone player and a big band leader, which segues perfectly into my answer to the next question: If you could go back in time, at what point in Letha’s life would you want to know her? When she was in high school, she played the trombone and she had her own all-girl big band. I would have liked to know her when she was that girl band leader starting her studies at Eastman School of Music. It would have been so cool to hang out with her when being a musician was her primary focus.

ALENA: I would have loved to have been an eyewitness to the earliest days of writing All We’re Meant to Be and founding the organization that came to be Christian Feminism Today. By the time I became friends with her, she was still writing and editing but she wasn’t traveling much nationally or internationally to speak. I only got to see her speak live once. I would have loved to have known her in those early days just crackling with the sense of feminist history being made.

LINDA: Letha and Nancy Hardesty went through it together, and they supported each other. After they had written the book and they were getting a lot of buzz in the evangelical media, the old publication the Wittenberg Door, which was sort of a parody magazine, did a Letha Dawson Scanzoni [fully clothed] centerfold photo shoot. Did you ever see that picture?

Letha Dawson Scanzoni holding up a copy of The Wittenburg Door, a satirical Christian magazine, centerfold she posed for.ALENA: Yes, I saw it twice. The first time she told me that story was during one of my visits to Norfolk, and she actually dug out the magazine. She thought that was one of the funniest things she ever did. And then she told that same story in her plenary at the 2014 CFT conference, where she retold her history of the founding of the organization. She had the cutest laugh and a mischievous smile, and I will never forget that moment when she pulled the centerfold out and the whole room, including her, just roared with laughter for a minute straight.

What do you think our friendships meant to Letha?

LINDA: I was able to help her when she needed help, like the time she just needed somebody to return all those crazy phone calls. Shortly after that, she took a job at a public radio station and she hated it. I was working at a publisher that I hated, so we gave each other a lot of mutual support over our career crises. I gave her a lot of emotional support. Not major emotional support; I wasn’t there for her in the major crises of her life, like when she got divorced or when her mom died. But just the rough day-to-day stuff of being a single woman of a certain age. I was happy to be able to give her that support.

ALENA: For me, you could see a pattern in Letha’s life where she intentionally would take younger feminist women under her wing. She had this amazing superpower of making you feel like the most important person. Like you had amazing potential. Like you belonged within the circle of these incredible women she had built in Christian Feminism Today. You could see her doing that with one young woman after another. I just happened to be one of those who stuck around for the rest of her life. She was the most encouraging, the most supportive, the most empowering friend.

LINDA: She wanted to see every one of her friends become all they were meant to be.

ALENA: What did Letha’s friendship mean to you?

LINDA: She was my best friend. Certainly, a friend that I talked to more often than any other friend. Certainly, a friend who always wanted the best for me and was always praying for me and supporting me. She was like the big sister I never had. She also taught me how to grow older gracefully. I hope I can bop till I drop, as Letha would have done were it not for that stroke. Who knows what God has in store.

ALENA: I actually wrote out my answer to this question. When my own grandparents had all been gone for decades, she was a grandmother to me. When my own mother has not always been well mentally or physically, she was a mother to me. When I had a beloved brother but no other siblings, she was a sister to me. When I was struggling to finish my dissertation while also working my full-time job, she was an editor and coach to me. When my local church let me down in my most vulnerable moment of need, she was church to me. And we sum all of that up with the motto we have repeated to each other again and again for the last twenty years: she was the dear friend who was family of choice to me.

LINDA: Let’s continue talking every Friday. Friday nights are sacred.

ALENA: Amen.

 

© 2024 by Christian Feminism Today

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

Letha Dawson Scanzoni: A Christian Feminist Voice

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

 

Linda Bieze and Alena Ruggerio
Linda Bieze is a retired managing editor at a Christian press. She lives in West Michigan with her second rescued greyhound, and is active in her church as an elder and a mezzo soprano. Alena Ruggerio is a professor of communication at Southern Oregon University. She lives in the Rogue Valley of Oregon with her husband and astonishingly adorable cats. Both Linda and Alena have served as officers on the Christian Feminism Today Council.

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