Tribute to Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Letha Dawson Scanzoni, Oct. 9, 1935 – Jan. 9, 2024

Letha Dawson Scanzoni’s life and work transformed the lives of countless people around the world. I’m blessed to be among these.

In 1976, when I was teaching English at Dallas Baptist University, I read All We’re Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation, by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty. The words of “Amazing Grace,” which I had long sung—“was blind but now I see”—became reality for me. Although I had claimed my professional vocation, I had never questioned biblical interpretations that prescribed the subordination of women at home and at church. As I read All We’re Meant to Be, I discovered more than enough biblical support for gender equality in the home and in church leadership. Although Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had come out in 1963, I’d never heard of the book nor raised any questions about women’s traditional roles. In my evangelical tradition 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. Letha and Nancy gave such thorough, convincing biblical support for gender equality in the home and church that I became an instant convert and passionate evangelist for these new truths. I bought copies of All We’re Meant to Be and gave them to the leaders, all men, at our Baptist church. I believed that the copious scriptural evidence and the clear theological reasoning that had so thoroughly convinced me of the rightness of gender equality would persuade them as well. But I soon discovered the strong resistance to equality and the challenging, rewarding paths of Christian feminism that All We’re Meant to Be had inspired me to follow.

Growing up, I never saw a woman in the pulpit, except a missionary to Nigeria. And what she did was called “speak,” not “preach.” The messages I got from my church and culture were that women could be missionaries, teachers, or nurses, but certainly not pastors. When I read All We’re Meant to Be, a new world of possibilities opened for me. Because I found in this book such compelling biblical support for women as church leaders, my self-perception began to change. Even though I delighted in my teaching vocation and viewed it as a ministry, now I could see myself in other kinds of ministries as well. Thus, I was receptive when the call came to pastoral ministry that soon included social justice activism and writing on gender equality. The more I tried to live out my call, the more I realized that the resistance to gender equality is part of a larger culture that gives greatest value to white, heterosexual, able-bodied, financially privileged males. I came to understand that at the foundation of this culture is an image of a male God, sanctioning patterns of dominance and submission. The suggestion in All We’re Meant to Be that God could be more than male planted a seed that would bloom into persuasive writing on expanding divine imagery and then into hymns, liturgies, and stories that include female names and images of Deity. As I mined scripture for inclusive divine images and peace and justice themes, All We’re Meant to Be provided a model of writing that follows sound biblical hermeneutical principles.

In 2011 when I interviewed Rev. Rebecca (Becky) L. Kiser for my book Changing Church: Stories of Liberating Ministers, she talked about Letha Dawson Scanzoni’s profound influence on her. Becky asked me if I knew Letha. I told Becky of the epiphany I’d had through All We’re Meant to Be, but that I didn’t know Letha personally. Becky strongly recommended that I contact Letha because of our shared advocacy for gender justice. When Letha responded immediately and enthusiastically to my email, I felt honored and a little surprised. I expected her to be like some other authors whose work I’ve admired but who remain aloof to personal contacts. A few weeks later Letha called me, and I felt more excited than if the president of the United States had called! I was amazed to actually be talking to the woman whose work had changed my life. And I was delighted and honored that she knew about my work and affirmed it.

Shortly after I read All We’re Meant to Be, I joined Evangelical Women’s Caucus (EWC), an organization Letha co-founded. After a few years I let my membership lapse because of my busy schedule. In my phone conversation with Letha in 2011, she encouraged me to come back into the organization, now called Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus-Christian Feminism Today (EEWC-CFT), and now even more inclusive. Letha not only gave me a warm invitation to EEWC-CFT, but also asked me to serve on the EEWC-CFT Executive Council, to write articles for the newsletter, and to give a theme interpretation at an annual gathering. Even before I met Letha, she challenged me to grow as a writer through her expert editing of my writing. She is one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with, both meticulous in catching errors and collaborative in making revisions.

When I met Letha in person at the 2012 EEWC-CFT Gathering in Indianapolis, I found her to be just as warm and engaging as she had been in phone conversations and in email interactions. Also amazing was this annual gathering of the organization Letha helped create. In fact, it was the most inclusive large gathering I had ever attended: the language of songs, presentations, sermons, and liturgies included female images of the Divine, and people of various sexual orientations, gender identities, and races were included in leadership.

Working with Letha in the EEWC-CFT Executive Council meeting that followed the gathering, I appreciated Letha’s administrative gifts, and I learned how generously she has contributed her gifts of writing, editing, and leadership to the organization. At the 2013 Executive Council meeting in St. Louis, I had the joy of doing a video interview with Letha. Tiana Marquez, a CFT member, talented musician, actor, and storyteller came to our St. Louis meeting to interview council members for this video. Preferring collaboration as in her coauthoring of two major books, Letha asked if I would join her in this interview. I was grateful for this opportunity to cocreate with Letha. As we went back and forth, weaving our stories together, I could clearly see the guiding hand of Sophia (“Wisdom”), connecting us at pivotal points in our journeys.

(from Building Bridges: Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Friends, coauthored with Kendra Weddle) To learn more about Letha’s groundbreaking, life-changing work, read Kendra’s article in CFT and Building Bridges.

Letha has now joined that “great cloud of witnesses,” cheering us on to continue her Christian feminism work of equity, justice, inclusion, peace, and love.

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