Letha Dawson Scanzoni, who launched a biblical feminism movement but lost influence among evangelicals because of her support for LGBTQ affirmation, has died at 88.
With a pair of articles published by Eternity magazine and a follow-up book, coauthored with Eternity editor Nancy Hardesty, Scanzoni pushed evangelicals to rethink what the Bible said about women. She challenged the idea that women’s equality with men and liberation from customs and cultures that devalued women was somehow secular. According to her, it was a biblical idea first.
“Evangelicals have the tradition of taking Scripture very seriously,” Scanzoni once said. “When we looked at Scripture, we saw it not limiting women, but liberating.”
Scanzoni and a small cohort of people who agreed with her started the Evangelical Women’s Caucus in the early 1970s as part of Evangelicals for Social Action, the progressive Christian group that produced the Chicago Declaration, an evangelical call to oppose racism, materialism, militarism, and the forces that produce economic inequality. The women’s caucus convinced the group to include language opposing sexism.
Within a few years, the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (now called Christian Feminism Today or the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus) was hosting independent annual conferences and had about 1,500 members.
A controversy over homosexuality split the group in the 1980s, though, and the Evangelical Women’s Caucus lost about 80 percent of its membership. Scanzoni, who wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? with theologian Virginia Ramey Mollenkott in 1978, stopped getting invitations to speak at evangelical institutions and could no longer publish articles in most evangelical magazines.
Despite her marginalization, Scanzoni continued to identify as an evangelical. And she always insisted her beliefs were based in the Bible.
“She knew Scripture,” biographer Kendra Weddle wrote, “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.”
Emerging church leader Brian McLaren said Scanzoni showed him that faithful commitment to Scripture would almost inevitably lead to conflict with evangelical gatekeepers.
“I watched her take the same biblical texts that the (white male) evangelical gatekeepers used to oppress others and instead use them to liberate,” he wrote. “I think of her first and foremost as a courageous biblical interpreter.”
Scanzoni was born on October 9, 1935, in Pittsburgh and was raised in Mifflintown in central Pennsylvania. Her parents, James and Hilda Dawson, ran a gas station and diner. They worked most Sundays and were not churchgoers, but sent young Letha to church with her best friend, a pastor’s daughter. When she was 11, Scanzoni had a conversion experience and, with the help of the pastor’s wife, answered an altar call at the church.
As she later recalled the experience, there was a lot of talk about sin and repentance. But she only felt overwhelmed by the love of God. Later, she looked at the sky and marveled at the grandeur, in awe of a Creator who cared so deeply and personally for her.
Scanzoni was a talented trombonist and at 16 was accepted into the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. She also started playing for churches and religious rallies, including a Billy Graham evangelistic event. She started to share her testimony as part of her performances and sometimes offered a devotional or led a Bible study. She soon learned that some Christians placed sharp limits on where and how a woman could speak.
The lines weren’t always clear to her, though. Historian Isaac Sharp writes that Scanzoni was once confused when a minister asked her to talk about her faith during a trombone performance for men in prison. She knew the minister didn’t believe women should teach men. He clarified that testimony was not teaching, a distinction that didn’t make sense to Scanzoni.
As a young woman, she also learned she could not always trust her fellow Christians to treat her with basic respect. A man in leadership at the Youth for Christ meeting she attended at Eastman kissed her without her consent.
Scanzoni transferred from Eastman to Moody Bible Institute’s music program in 1954. There, she met and married John Scanzoni and left school before graduating to support her husband’s calling to the ministry and then to graduate school, where he studied the sociology of families.
She helped her husband write several sociology texts and followed him to Bloomington, Indiana, where John got a job teaching at Indiana University. While raising two boys, Scanzoni also began writing articles and books on her own, applying biblical wisdom and sociological insight to modern family life.
She wrote several books—including Youth Looks at Love, Sex and the Single Eye, and Sex Is a Parent Affair, which talked about the best way to teach children about sex. Sex Is a Parent Affair was endorsed by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who also wrote the foreword.
Scanzoni didn’t think of herself as a rabble-rouser or a crusading feminist. Nor, she later recalled, did anyone else.
“Most people thought of me as a homemaker, a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “I wasn’t the kind of person who would speak out to boldly challenge theological professors and traditional translations. … I was living my days caring for children and doing freelance writing.”
In 1963, however, Scanzoni got angry over an article published in Eternity magazine. Charles Ryrie, a professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote about women in the church, arguing that “a woman cannot do a man’s job in the church any more than a man can do a woman’s job in the home.”
Scanzoni wrote a response, which quickly grew too long to be an effective letter to the editor. She put it aside but then later returned to it to turn it into an article. Eternity published it in February 1966 under the title “Woman’s Place: Silence or Service?” In it, she argued that “inconsistency coupled with inflexibility produces many problems” for Christian women, many of whom were gifted by the Holy Spirit to meet the needs of the church and to fulfill the Great Commission.
“As the men sit in their theological castles debating women’s proper place,” Scanzoni wrote, “Christian women faithfully toil in the vineyards, uneasy about ‘breaking a commandment of God,’ yet even more fearful lest the work remain undone.”
She followed the piece up two years later with an article on egalitarian marriage, which Eternity titled “Elevate Marriage to Partnership.”
The editor of the piece sent Scanzoni an appreciative note.
“I’ve just finished editing your article, and I’m really impressed with it,” Hardesty wrote. “And I don’t think it’s radical or provocative at all. It’s just right and true and like it should be. But then, I’m only a woman.”
Scanzoni replied with an invitation to coauthor a book, and the two started working on All We’re Meant to Be. The book came out in 1974.
The next year, the Evangelical Women’s Caucus organized its first independent meeting, coordinated by CT editor Cheryl Forbes and two others. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott opened the conference with the declaration, “The Bible supports the central tenets of feminism.”
Some prominent evangelicals disagreed, however, and started raising questions about egalitarian women’s respect for Scripture. They argued that some of the feminists crossed a line and weren’t actually evangelical.
“Some of the most ardent advocates of egalitarianism in marriage over against hierarchy reach their conclusion by directly and deliberately denying that the Bible is the infallible rule of faith and practice. Once they do this, they have ceased to be evangelical,” CT editor Harold Lindsell wrote in 1976. “Anyone who wishes to make a case for egalitarianism in marriage is free to do so. But when he or she denigrates Scripture in the process, that’s too high a price to pay.”
The Evangelical Women’s Caucus continued to grow, however, until it was divided by controversy over LGBTQ Christians. Scanzoni and Mollenkott released a book in 1978, arguing for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church.
The book had started out with a broader focus. They planned to write about the pressing social concerns, with chapters focused on divorce, abortion, censorship, and homosexuality. But then Mollenkott came out to Scanzoni and told her she was a lesbian. As Scanzoni worked through her shock, she came to believe the arguments used for women’s liberation applied to LGBTQ people too.
“She called her approach ‘Love Thy Neighbor,’ where empathy and relationships are centered as opposed to rules or restrictions,” her biographer wrote. “She trusted that God’s love was liberating and this propelled her to the Bible—not away from it.”
For many conservative evangelicals, however, that confirmed the idea that feminism was the start of a slippery slope. The issue erupted at the Evangelical Women’s Caucus in 1978 and again in ’82 and ’84, and then ultimately divided the group in ’86. The organization passed a resolution saying “homosexual people are children of God,” taking “a firm stand in favor of civil rights protection for homosexual persons.”
A wave of resignations followed, and some of those leaving started a competing organization, Christians for Biblical Equality. At the same time, evangelicals opposed to Christian feminism launched the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The group was necessary, they said, because of the “increasing prevalence and acceptance of hermeneutical oddities devised to reinterpret the apparently plain meanings of biblical texts.”
Scanzoni, for her part, found herself unwelcome in places she had been welcome before. Invitations to speak at evangelical conferences and colleges stopped coming. Pitches to write for evangelical outlets stopped being accepted. When her book on teaching children about sex was re-released in the 1980s, James Dobson withdrew his endorsement. The message was clear: She was no longer welcome.
“If faithfulness to the authority of the Bible also meant staying within a range of interpretive conclusions set by evangelical power brokers,” historian Isaac Sharp wrote, “evangelical feminists were out of luck.”
Scanzoni didn’t seem especially dismayed by her marginalization in evangelicalism, however. She believed Christ called her to continue writing, teaching, and preaching, and so she did.
“In Luke 4, we’re told that Jesus came into the world to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed to freedom,” Scanzoni said. “That is nothing less than a call to justice. That is nothing that each of us can’t have a part of, and each of us can be a little stream feeding into a great river.”
Scanzoni died in Charlotte, North Carolina, on January 9. She is survived by her sons David and Stephen.