Eternity magazine declared it “the book of the year” in 1975, and Ms. Scanzoni became a sought-after speaker at Christian organizations and a founding member of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus (now called Christian Feminism Today), a networking and social justice group for the movement that she had helped fire up.
The backlash was immediate, said Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a Christian historian and author of “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation” (2020).
“Conservatives doubled down in their opposition to women’s rights,” Ms. Du Mez said by phone, “making male headship and female submission defining features of modern evangelicalism. Letha was such a threat because she presented her case for feminism in evangelical terms, making it hard for critics to depict feminism as a wholly secular movement intent on undermining traditional Christianity.”
Letha Marion Dawson was born on Oct. 9, 1935, in Pittsburgh and grew up in tiny Mifflintown, in central Pennsylvania. Her parents, James and Hilda (Koch) Dawson, owned a gas station-cum-diner and other small businesses. Her best friend was a preacher’s daughter, and with her parents working on many Sundays, Letha would accompany her friend to church. When she was 11, she had a conversion experience during an altar call and vowed to devote herself to Christian service.
Letha was a talented musician and excellent student, and after graduating early from high school, she enrolled at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where she studied the trombone. There she joined a Christian youth organization and had another epiphany: There were many hypocrites in the group, she saw, and to her mind one jerk — the group’s director, who kissed her without her permission and who made racist and antisemitic comments, as she told Kendra Weddle and Jann Eldredge-Clanton, authors of “Building Bridges: Letha Scanzoni and Friends” (2018).