Jean Bethke Elshtain (Jean Bethke Elshtain)

Jean Bethke Elshtain

Elshtain was born on January 6, 1941 in Windsor, Colorado and grew up in Timnath, Colorado. She was from a Lutheran background. She received an AB Colorado State University and masters degrees in history from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Colorado. 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.  The focus of Elshtain’s work is an exploration of the relationship between politics and ethics. Much of her work is concerned with the parallel development of male and female gender roles as they pertain to public and private social participation. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks she has been one of the more visible academic supporters of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.  She has 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.  Over the course of the last thirty-five years, Elshtain has contributed to national debates on the family, the roles of men and women, the state of American Democracy, and International relations.

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'”.

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. 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.

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. 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. 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”.  She died in 2013 at the age of 72 of heart failure resulting from endocarditis.

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  • January, 06, 1941
  • USA
  • Windsor, Colorado


  • August, 11, 2013
  • USA
  • Nashville, Tennessee

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