Backstory: “Elevate Marriage to Partnership”(1968 Eternity article)

by Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Copyright 2010, Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Author’s note: Various scholars of feminist religious history have frequently referred to two articles I wrote for the evangelical magazine Eternity during the 1960s.  These articles, “Woman’s Place: Silence or Service” (1966) and “Elevate Marriage to Partnership” (1968), are considered to be some of the first articles from within evangelicalism that dared to question traditional attitudes toward women’s roles.

In my March 25, 2010 post,  “Backstory: Woman’s Place—Silence or Service?” I have already told the story behind the publication of my 1966 article on women in the church, including some editing changes that were made before that article went to press.

In this present post, I want to tell how I came to write the second article (originally titled “Christian Marriage: Patriarchy or Partnership” but published under the title “Elevate Marriage to Partnership”).

A Year after the Publication of “Woman’s Place: Silence or Service?”

In  February 1967, exactly a year after my article, “Woman’s Place: Silence or Service” was published, Eternity published a brief editorial titled “Is It a Sin for a Woman to Think?”  It referred to a Roman Catholic periodical that had devoted a special issue to “The Woman Intellectual and the Church,” and the editorial expressed curiosity about how such a topic would be received if it were to be addressed in an evangelical publication.

Not knowing who had written the editorial, I sent off a letter to Eternity’s editor at the time, Russell Hitt.  After saying I had enjoyed reading the editorial, I wrote: “After the reaction to my Eternity article on women in the church last year, I think I know “what kind of a response such a subject would receive in an evangelical publication”!  I continued:

Yet, this whole matter of modern woman’s role in the home, church, and society is of great concern to many Christian women; and it seems that almost daily something I read or some conversation makes me even more aware of how deep the problem is. For the past several years, I have been collecting articles and books on the subject and am at present writing a book on women and Christianity which attempts to deal with some of these questions.
(Letter from Letha Scanzoni to Russell T. Hitt, February 23, 1967)

I went on to ask the name and date of the Roman Catholic publication that was devoted to the topic so that I could look it up.

William J. Petersen, the executive editor with whom I had corresponded about my previous article on women in the church, responded to my letter.  He told me the publication to which he had referred in the editorial was the January 27, 1967 issue of the Roman Catholic magazine, Commonweal. He also added that because of my interest in the topic, he was sending me a Roman Catholic book called Woman Is the Glory of  Man that they had decided not to review in Eternity but thought I might like to have it for my research.  He added, “Of course, since we are doing this for you, we would expect to be remembered some time when you get ready to write an article for Eternity on this subject.” (Letter from William Petersen, March 10, 1967).

On March 21, I wrote back and apologized for not realizing it was he who had written the editorial I had liked so much, told him I had written to Commonweal but had been informed they were already sold out of that issue, and I thanked him for the book he had sent.

My Critique of the Book

I went on to share my thoughts about the book, Woman Is the Glory of Man (by E. Danniel and B. Oliver. Only initials are listed in their names. It was originally written in French in 1964).  I wrote:

For the most part, my own point of view contrasts rather sharply with that of the authors—although, of course, I recognize that some of their thoughts are very good. But I was disappointed that their arguments were largely philosophical with support sought from a few carefully selected psychological studies, while virtually ignoring other psychological studies and the findings of sociology and anthropology.

Some statements seem absurd. For example, the authors say (p. 12): “Woman’s intellect does not usually attain the level of creative power of man’s in the areas where he excels. Besides, her brain is generally lighter and simpler than man’s, which may explain her lesser capacity for deduction. On the other hand, her nervous system, being more delicate, is at the service of her intuition.” Can you imagine how such a paragraph would strike someone who had read the report on the M.I.T. Symposium on American Women in Science and Engineering a couple of years ago, or a report in our local newspaper last week showing that eighty percent of last fall’s Phi Beta Kappa initiates at Indiana University were females (51 out of 64 members)?

. . . .Of the Roman Catholic articles and books I’ve read thus far on this subject, the writing I like best is Sidney Cornelia Callahan’s The Illusion of Eve published by Sheed and Ward in 1965. Evangelical Protestant works on the subject that deal with it fairly and with understanding and empathy are rare indeed.  Russell Prohl’s Woman in the Church [1955] is very good, but Eerdmans tells me it is already out of print, although it was published only ten years ago.1 No doubt this indicates the unpopularity of this viewpoint in evangelical circles.

. . . .Just the other day, I spoke with a minister who pointed out that the church did not form a theology of race until the present time when circumstances made it crucial that thought be given this subject, and that he felt now the church needs a “theology of woman.”
(from Letha Scanzoni, letter to William J. Petersen, March 21, 1967)

A Cultural Climate in which Women Were Trivialized, Joked About, and Not Taken Seriously

I had the radio playing in the background as I was writing that letter to Bill Petersen, and I stopped to listen when a call-in program came on that referred to the role of women; so I added this paragraph in parentheses (which I later used as an epigraph to open a chapter in All We’re Meant to Be):

(A humorous sidelight. As I was writing this letter, a phone participation program began on a religious radio station in Indianapolis. One woman called in and asked the guest evangelist about Philip’s four daughters who prophesied [Acts 21:8-9].  He told her it merely meant they witnessed for Christ. When she asked why women can’t preach and teach, the evangelist replied that such a ministry is for men only and “for a very good reason.”  I of course, thought he would quote something from the Apostle Paul, but he didn’t even mention any of those passages. His “very good reason”? “Because God made roosters to crow and hens to lay eggs.”  I’m not joking!  And he let the matter go at that!)
(from Letha Scanzoni, letter to William J. Petersen, March 21, 1967)

I continued, assuming (correctly) that my kindly, patient correspondent Bill Petersen was still reading my long missive!

Thank you for your invitation to write another Eternity article on some aspect of “the woman problem.” I’ll be glad to do that. It is amazing how often this comes up as John and I counsel college girls. One coed tells me that problems relating to “the feminine mystique” are talked about in the dorm more than anything else. Thinking women are really puzzled about where they fit into today’s world. For Christian women, I think the problem seems even more severe.

The book I’m working on relating to this subject will be (tentatively) divided into three sections: women in the home, women in the church, women in the world.  Would you have any preference as to which of these three areas would be most suitable for an article in Eternity?”
( from Letha Scanzoni, letter to William J. Petersen, March 21, 1967)

The Invitation and Manuscript Submission

Bill Petersen responded by suggesting that I write my next article on women in the home. He predicted that an article on the role of wives and husbands would be more volatile than an article on the role of women in society. He expressed his opinion that readers would not be likely to have much of a problem with the achievements of women outside the home and church, including women running for the U.S. Congress.

I then wrote “Christian Marriage: Patriarchy or Partnership,” submitted it to Eternity—and waited for a reply. Time kept passing, and I heard nothing. Then in August, I saw an advertisement in the magazine promoting “What’s Coming Next in Eternity,” and among the titles listed was the one I had submitted.

On August 26, 1967, I wrote to William Petersen and told him I was surprised to see the ad with my title among the upcoming articles, since I had never received an acknowledgment or notification that it had even been accepted for publication!  Since my family had been out of town during a considerable part of that month, I worried that maybe some of my mail had been lost and that maybe I never received a letter that Eternity had sentor that maybe the magazine had just happened to arrive before an on-the-way letter did. “It may even be that it isn’t my article that I saw listed,” I wrote, “although it would be a strange coincidence if someone else came up with the very same title!”  (I no longer have a copy of the ad, but as I recall, the advertisement described the article as setting forth the Apostle Paul’s teaching on marriage.)

On September 6, 1967, I received a letter from Bill Petersen that began, “Do you know what happened?” He explained that he was writing copy for a promotional brochure on the day my manuscript landed on his desk. “Without stopping to read it,” he continued, “I figured that if you had written it, it was of sufficient quality for us to publish it and I wanted to include an article of this nature in our promotional mailing piece.”

He said he then went on vacation without having had a chance to read my manuscript, came back to piles of work and deadlines for the next issue of the magazine, and still hadn’t read the article but that I should assume it was accepted. He promised to read it as soon as he was able to get to his manuscript pile and would soon let me know “whether we will be accepting it as is or whether we have some suggestions regarding possible additions or corrections.”

What about the Headship of the Husband?

On October 12, I received a $50 check and a letter thanking me for my patience with regard to the manuscript. But the next paragraph began with “However. . . .” The editors wanted me to add one more point which they felt would enable me to “communicate more clearly” with their readership.  Bill wrote:

I believe that you should consider an explanation of what the “headship” of the husband consists of. In my opinion, the major part of headship includes cherishing and protecting as verse 25 and 29 of Ephesians 5 indicate.
(from William Petersen to Letha Scanzoni, October 12, 1967)

He went on to say there was a divine order presented repeatedly in Scripture, “not only in the Epesians 5 and 6 passages, but also in a passage like Romans 13:1.”  He went on to talk about order in a democracy and said that a similar principle existed in marriage, although “the husband and wife relationship is not exactly analogous to this because there is an equality of persons, as you have brought out in your article.” He wrote that nevertheless an order “remains and must remain in a democracy and this order is derived from mutual respect and mutual submission. Yet the order remains.”

He said he was concerned about communicating with the magazine’s readers because “the message you have to present is very much needed in Christian families today.”  He went on to say he didn’t want their readers to “turn me off”either. “I am afraid that many of our readers will say that equality and/or democracy without order is anarchy.”

He couldn’t have said all this more kindly.  He said he would appreciate my reaction.

How Should I Handle This?

I wasn’t quite sure how to reply.  Would it be too much of a compromise to do as he requested?  I had not really wanted to get into this issue beyond the brief statement I had made in the propositions I had listed in my original manuscript (especially propositions 1 to 3).

I was not a Greek scholar; this was long before all the discussions arose among Christian feminists about the meaning of the Greek word for “head.” In fact, there were times I felt I was the only Christian feminist in the world!  It was a very lonely time. There were no organizations like the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus or Christians for Biblical Equality around to lend support.  And I didn’t know of any biblical scholars who were working on these questions to whom I could turn for advice.

My own understanding of Ephesians 5:21-33 was that the main emphasis was on a husband’s love for his wife mirroring Christ’s love for the church, which point by point emphasized the husband’s total self-giving love for his wife — cherishing, nourishing, sacrificing for, laying down his life for, loving her as his own body.  And in my first reference to the passage as illustrating the relationship of Christ and the church in my manuscript, I had been careful to begin with verse 21–which is the verse about Christians mutually submitting to one another. (Although so many of us talk about this now, I had never seen the actual word combination mutual submission until Bill Petersen wrote it in his letter asking for me to expand on headship).  I thought that the true meaning of the passage, with its emphasis on a husband’s love to be modeled after the example of Christ, actually turned the traditional interpretation of the passage upside down.

Yet, every time I had ever read an article on Ephesians 5 or heard a sermon on the passage, the main emphasis had always been on the “wife’s duty to submit” and hammering home the idea that she must be subordinate and obedient to her husband.  The penchant for a predetermined and unambiguous social order was – and continues to be — strong in much of the evangelical world and in other religious groups as well.

I kept pondering the request of the Eternity editors. Perhaps I could add something to my article without losing its intended purpose of getting readers to at least begin thinking of another way to approach this—different from the usual primary emphasis on a “wife’s duty” — and take them as far as I could go in a way that would not cause them to dismiss my basic points out of hand. I wanted my article to be published, even if it meant “diluting” it slightly, because I thought it would at least make readers aware of why egalitarian marriage could be biblical. And so I used the familiar “buck stops here” idea, with the husband as ” the court of last resort” or “court of final appeals”  to make the rest of the article more acceptable to readers.  I would not do that today, although I continue to believe that if we start where people are, we can sometimes help them gradually become open to at least consider some new ways of thinking about things.

My Next letter

After deliberating about how to reply, here is part of the letter I wrote on October 18, 1967.

Dear Bill:

Thank you for your letter of October 12 and for your suggestions about the article.

I appreciate your candor in pointing out to me that some readers might misunderstand and “turn me off.” You know the readership far better than I.  Thus, I’ve made an addition along the lines you suggested, and it can be inserted at the proper place in the original manuscript. It’s a revision of “Proposition 3” in the article. I hope this will be satisfactory.  Any comments you may have will be appreciated.

The reason I didn’t say more originally about the headship of the husband and the submission of the wife is that there already exist so many articles on this subject appearing in evangelical periodicals.  I wanted to treat it from a somewhat different angle than is usually presented. Especially am I concerned for young adults who are looking forward to marriage but who have many questions and problems about the way the subject of Christian marriage is often taught.  College students in particular wonder about this a great deal. And their confusion is compounded by reading over and over in articles and textbooks dealing with marriage and the family statements like this: “It is ironic that the Christian church should have drastically lowered the status of marriage, and yet this is so. Under Christian influence, marriage and the family were more lowly regarded than ever before or since in Western history. . . .Certainly some of the early church fathers held lofty views of marriage. But over the centuries the dominant view became that which is represented by some of the writings of St.Paul.” [Unfortunately, I failed to note the source of this particular quotation in this letter, but it was typical of many that were found in numerous books at the time.]  After such statements, various Bible passages are cited usually, and many Christian students have no answer and just don’t know what to think. In addition, many of them reflect the thinking typical of the current generation in seeking real meaning in relationships and desiring real companionship in marriage. I’m convinced that the Biblical ideal of marriage and the equalitarian-companionship ideal are not contradictory, nor are they incompatible. . . .
(Letha Scanzoni, letter to William Petersen, October 18, 1967)

Along with the letter, I enclosed this addition to my original manuscript:

Proposition #3 (revised) to be inserted at the bottom of page 6 of Letha Scanzoni manuscript, “Christian Marriage: Patriarchy or Partnership?”

3. It is untrue that the only alternative to a husband-dictatorship is a marriage in which the wife rules. Among many evangelicals, there seems to be fear of any sort of female leadership. However, family life authorities have shown that the equalitarian form of marriage so popular in America today does not require either spouse to be all-powerful. Equalitarian marriage exists in two main forms: some couples make almost all decisions jointly; other couples assign some decisions to the husband and some to the wife.

Contrary to the worries of many Christians, most women don’t want to dominate in a marriage. Where this does occur, it generally means that the husband is passive and indifferent, absenting himself from active involvement in the dynamics of married life, so that the wife assumes command out of sheer necessity. The role of chief decision-maker falls to her by default of the husband’s leadership, not by usurpation of power, And such a wife is apt to feel cheated. She feels alone in what should be a shared experience;  she feels hurt because her husband is so disinterested.

However, on the other hand, the wife who is ruled by a despotic husband who believes it is his prerogative to tell his wife (not ask her opinion) will also feel short-changed. If a decision concerns her or her interests (and most decisions in marriage do) and yet she is not even consulted nor her desires considered, a wife is likely to feel she doesn’t really count—that she is not viewed as a person but as a possession by her husband.

A basically equalitarian marriage plan worked out by mutual consent is by no means anarchy in which each spouse does what he or she pleases. Each is concerned for the other and for the best interests of the marriage and family. And, of course, for the dedicated Christian couple, the old saying, “each for the other and both for the Lord” is applicable. This is far removed from disorderly chaos or selfish power struggles.

Some Christians may wonder if this contradicts the Biblical instructions about the husband’s headship in marriage. Not if one views this headship as leadership involving great responsibility, instead of looking at it as a “caste system” with vested privileges for the male sex. There is a vast difference between loving direction by the husband and egocentric dictatorship. For example, a Christian couple may agree on virtually all major issues and basic values, so that only in marginal disagreements would a situation ever arise in which someone would have to make the final decision —be the final court of appeals. When that “court” is the husband, the divine order is being followed; but at the same time, the basic form of companionable, democratic marriage has not been discarded. Such couples may find occasions of this sort occurring very rarely.

The role of the husband as “head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church” calls for a Christian husband to love his wife as himself, to care for her as he does his very own body (Eph. 5:28, 29), to cherish her (Eph. 5:25), to look after her welfare, to recognize that he is a unity with her (Eph. 5:31). The stress is always on responsibility, not rank.
(Revision submitted with letter to William Petersen, October 18, 1967)

I Thought That Would be the End of It

I sent in the letter and revision, but I heard nothing back.

Months passed.  The Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s holidays came and went. Winter ended. Spring blossoms bloomed.  And then in May, a letter arrived on the familiar off-white stationery with the navy blue Eternity “magazine for today’s Christians” letterhead.

Only this time, the letter was not from William J. Petersen but from a woman who had accepted a position at Eternity as assistant editor.  Her name was Nancy Hardesty.

The letter read:

May 13, 1968

Dear Mrs. Scanzoni:

We hope to publish your article “Christian Marriage: Patriarchy or Partnership” in the July issue which we are hard at work on now.

To run along with it, some members of the staff here thought it would be a good idea to have a picture of you and your husband (I guess to show that he approves of your writing such “radical” stuff). They would also like to know what particular activities besides writing you and your husband enjoy doing together (that’s not meant to be a loaded question).  Incidentally, do you have any children?  A dog?

I’ve just finished editing your article and I’m really impressed by it – 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!

Cordially yours,

(Miss) Nancy Hardesty
Assistant Editor

Editorial Staff Anxiety

Apparently the editors were still nervous about how the readership would receive my article!  I had never known Eternity to include a picture of an author. And the author information was usually limited to a line or two at the end of the article.  With my marriage article, they wanted much more.

I wrote back to Nancy Hardesty with the information she had requested and assured her my husband had “approved” my article, that each of us always discussed what the other had written, and that he had even quoted from it in a recent speech he had given.  I told her about the many activities our family engaged in, both work activities and fun activities, 1967 family photo, used inEternity Magazine 12-1967 4-10-2010 8-59-37 PM 1629x1876how we opened our home regularly to Indiana University students for Bible studies and discussions, how we had family devotions, and so on. Yes, we had children: Stephen, almost 11, and David, 7.  No, we didn’t have a dog. I decided to send a picture of the entire family—a photo we had had taken a few months earlier for our 1967 Christmas card.

And then, as I neared the end of my letter to Nancy and was thinking about the actual and anticipated anxieties my articles on women’s roles seemed to trigger among readers and editors, my own insecurities kicked in as well.

Suddenly I felt I had to defend myself in the way most women felt and reacted during the 1950s and 1960s. We felt we had to make sure that society (not just the Christian subculture) would not condemn us for daring to step out of the traditional mold in any way.  The traditional view of women’s roles was emphasized everywhere– in advice columns, books on marriage and family, television, women’s magazines, religious magazines, sermons, institutions of higher learning, and just about everywhere else.  (For more about those expectations for women at the time, see my September 10, 1968 post in the 72-27 cross-generational blog that I co-write with Kimberly George, especially the section on being a wife and mother in the 1950s.)

So, although I had already typed almost two full pages of information, I added this closing paragraph to my letter to Nancy:

Hope this gives you some idea of our family life and supplies the information desired. I hope the article won’t be considered “radical.” Actually, I’m not at all the type of person who tries or likes to get involved in controversy—so it seems strange when I’m placed in that position. On the other hand, if I’m convinced of the truth of something, I don’t feel one should be quiet and act cowardly to avoid criticism. Really I don’t think of my views on this as being that way-out (maybe they are, though!), and the article was full of Scripture references and allusions. I trust I haven’t conveyed the impression I’m some sort of bossy, man-hating woman. In actuality, I take very seriously the responsibilities of being a Christian wife and mother, including the housekeeping chores of cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, etc. that are sandwiched in between writing, as well as the more important matter of spending time with the boys and John. It sounds as though your views on this subject of woman’s roles, etc. are quite similar to mine. Would love to discuss it with you sometime.

Cordially yours,

(letter from Letha Scanzoni to Nancy Hardesty, May 17, 1968)

From the information I supplied, Nancy put together a nice boxed inset to be printed with the article. It took up considerable space on the page and included the family photo. She also identified me as the author of the two books I had written but which had not been mentioned in the incorrect bio that was included with my previous article (1966) on women in the church.

Other Changes

Probably because of the requested addition to the article, as well as the boxed inset with the author information and family photo, the editors decided that something else had to be cut. So the opening paragraphs about the Confucian marriage manual, which urged revering a husband as a god, were deleted in the published version.

In many ways, that disappointed me, because I had been trying to make a special point by including it. I had frequently been using that quote, unidentified, in speaking engagements and then would pause and ask if the audience knew where the quotation came from.  Invariably, I would hear shouts of “the Apostle Paul!” or just “The Bible!”  The shouters were sure they had the right answer. Then when I told them it was from a centuries old Confucian marriage manual, they would look shocked.

The reason for the shock was that conservative Christians had long been told that God had clearly provided instructions for husbands and wives in a way that was unique, with an emphasis on husband dominance and wifely submission.  This was said to be God’s will, directly revealed.  But then, when other cultures and religions are examined, it’s a different story. Patriarchal ideals are found throughout the world and throughout time.  And by emphasizing submission and obedience, Christians were totally missing what actually was new and unique about biblical teachings such as those I was trying to emphasize by looking at the actual point of the Ephesians passage.

The quotation that had been cut from my article (“A woman must look to her husband as her lord, and must serve him with all worship and reverence. . . . She should look on her husband as if he were Heaven itself.”) struck me forcefully years after I wrote my article when I happened to read Christian writer  Elizabeth Rice Handford’s book, Me? Obey Him? (Murfreesboro, TN: Sword of the Lord Publishers, 1972).  Speaking about a wife who feels her husband is asking her to do something that goes directly against what the woman herself feels God is asking of her, Handford writes:

The Scriptures say a woman must ignore her “feelings” about the will of God and do what her husband says. She is to obey her husband as if he were God Himself. She can be as certain of God’s will, when her husband speaks, as if God had spoken audibly from Heaven!”  (p. 34 in Handford, Me? Obey Him?)

But I need to get back to my  story!

The Article Gets Published

And so, after all the delays, my “Christian Marriage: Patriarchy or Partnership?” article, with the editors’ new title, “Elevate Marriage to Partnership,”  appeared in the July, 1968 issue, including my reluctantly written modification on headship.

When the issue was published, the sky didn’t fall, the readership didn’t condemn the magazine for heresy, and reaction was almost ho-hum.  But I realized that a great deal had happened to me personally through the whole process.  I had learned a lot.

And most importantly, I had apparently found a sister Christian feminist!  The road ahead looked a bit less lonely.  I hoped someday to meet this assistant editor, Nancy Hardesty, not yet dreaming that one day our names would be linked together as coauthors of a book called All We’re Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation (1974) that played a major role in launching 20th-century biblical feminism.

But that’s another story. I’ll save that for another post.



1. Russel Prohl was a Lutheran hospital chaplain in New Orleans whose denomination was the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  In his book, Woman in the Church: A Restudy of Woman’s Place in Building the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1957), he questioned the Missouri Synod’s devaluation of women, including its denial of the right of women even to vote in congregational meetings, much less be permitted to be leaders, seminary students, and ordained ministers.  The heated controversy that erupted because of  Prohl’s book is described in full detail by historian Mary Todd in Authority Vested: A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000). Prohl was charged with “transgressing basic principles of scriptural interpretation and of proper ministerial conduct” and told at one point that he must repent of what he had written or face the possibility of being discharged from his service as a pastor in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (p. 173 in Authority Vested). Prohl refused to back down and insisted “he had not broken his clerical vows by stating his opinion” (p. 172).  He eventually decided to resign and seek the possibility of transferring to another Lutheran body, but not only was his resignation refused and a compromise sought, but his health broke and he was hospitalized for surgery with ulcers, was found to also have leukemia, and died at age 53.  Professor Todd writes, “With his death the most vocal spokesman for a change in the status of women in the Missouri Synod was silenced, and the church was spared having to take definitive action against a dissenter” (p. 176).