Jean Bethke Elshtain

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Jean Bethke Elshtain (January 6, 1941 – August 11, 2013) was an American ethicist, political philosopher, and public intellectual. She was the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics in the University of Chicago Divinity School with a joint appointment in the department of political science.[1]


Early life

Elshtain was born on January 6, 1941 in Windsor, Colorado and grew up in Timnath, Colorado.[2] She was from a Lutheran background.[3] She received an AB Colorado State University and master's degrees in history from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Colorado.[2] She received her Ph.D. from Brandeis University in Massachusetts in 1973, writing her dissertation on 'Women and Politics: A Theoretical Analysis'.


Elshtain taught from 1973 to 1988 at the University of Massachusetts and then from 1988 to 1995 she taught at Vanderbilt University as the first woman to hold an endowed professorship. Elshtain was selected as a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, a Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of nine honorary degrees. In 1995 she became a professor at University of Chicago. She was the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and a contributing editor for The New Republic. She was also a Visiting Distinguished Professor of Religion and Politics at Baylor University.

She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and she has served on the Boards of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and the National Humanities Center. She was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and received nine honorary degrees. In 2002, Elshtain received the Frank J. Goodnow award, the highest award for distinguished service to the profession given by the American Political Science Association.[4]

The focus of Elshtain's work is an exploration of the relationship between politics and ethics. Much of her work concerned the parallel development of male and female gender roles as they pertain to public and private social participation. After the September 11, 2001 attacks she was one of the more visible academic supporters of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.[5]

She published over five hundred essays and authored and/or edited over twenty books, including Democracy on Trial, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy, Augustine and the Limits of Politics, and " Sovereignty: God, State, Self.

In 2006, she was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and also delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, joining such previous Gifford Lecturers as William James, Hannah Arendt, Karl Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr. In 2008, Elshtain received a second presidential appointment to the President's Council on Bioethics.

Elshtain contributed to national debates on the family, the roles of men and women, the state of American Democracy, and International relations for more than thirty-five years.

Analysis of major works

Elshtain's importance to the United States stems both from her impact in political ethics, and also her position in society as a woman. Carlin Romano, author of America the Philosophical, explains in his work that Elshtain's aim "was not so much to lobby for specific policies as to push for good civic-minded 'individualism' over the egoism of 'bad individualism'".[6]

In one of her more popular titles, Women and War, Elshtain examines women's roles in war as contrasted against masculine roles and why these concepts are important to society.[7] Beginning by examining America's societal interpretations of gender roles during wartime (man as a brave fighter and woman as a pacifist), Elshtain argues that men may make poor civic soldiers due to the fact that they are predisposed to a dangerous kind of eager adolescence on the battlefield, while women may be enthusiastically patriotic and possess a kind of necessary maturity, which is vital to successful combat.[7]

In one of her more famous works, Democracy on Trial, Elshtain reflects on democracy in America, discussing how socio-cultural insistence on 'difference' or 'separatism' have evolved since the ratification of the Constitution, and how it may be detrimental to the system.[8] Elshtain does not deny the importance of difference, especially within a civic body. Rather, she recognizes that Americans are no longer acting as representative bodies in governments, which embrace separate interests and also work as a collective towards the betterment of the whole.[9] Elshtain, like James Madison, explains that American factional hostility is only a detriment to society: "one makes war with enemies: one does politics – democratic politics – with opponents".[10]


She died in 2013 at the age of 72 of heart failure resulting from endocarditis.[11] She was buried at Grandview Cemetery, Fort Collins.[12]

Published works

  • Sovereignty: God, State, Self (2008)
  • Just War against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (2003)
  • Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy (2002)
  • Who Are We? Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities. Politics and Ethical Discourse (2000)
  • New Wine in Old Bottles: International Politics and Ethical Discourse (1998)
  • Real Politics: Political Theory and Everyday Life (1997)
  • Augustine and the Limits of Politics (1996)
  • Democracy on Trial, New York: Basic Books, 1995a [1993]<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Just War Theory, 1991<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Power Trips and Other Journeys, 1990<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Women and War, New York: Basic Books, 1995b [1987]<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Meditations on Modern Political Thought, 1986<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought (1981)
Articles and interviews


  1. "Elshtain", Faculty, University of Chicago Divinity School<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Gifford Lectures, retrieved March 5, 2013<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  3. Elshtain, Jean Bethke; Wills, Garry, reply (Dec 16, 2004), "Arguing about War", New York Review of Books<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  4. "New Members Join Humanities Endowment's National Council". The America's Intelligence Wire. November 15, 2006. Retrieved 2009-10-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. News report in September/October 2013 issue of Philosophy Now magazine entitled 'Jean Bethke Elshtein' (sic), accessible here
  6. Romano 2012, p. 432.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Elshtain 1995b, pp. xi–xii.
  8. Romano 2012, pp. 431–33.
  9. Elshtain 1995a, pp. 65–66.
  10. Elshtain 1995a, p. 68.
  12. Jean Paulette Bethke Elshtain at Find a Grave

Further reading

  • Romano, Carlin (2012), America the Philosophical, New York: Indiana University Press<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.

External links