The personal papers of political theorist, ethicist, author, and professor, Jean Bethke Elshtain are now available for research in the Special Collections Research Center. The papers primarily document Elshtain’s career in academia and her activities as a public intellectual called upon to address issues related to feminism, war, and political ethics. They reveal the remarkable breadth and depth of her work on subjects as wide-ranging as bioethics and Jane Addams.
Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941-2013) grew up in Tinmath, Colorado, a small farming community outside of Fort Collins. At the age of 10, Jean contracted polio and was moved to Denver for treatment. Her mother obtained a job at the hospital in order to be near to her daughter, and eventually Jean was brought home to recuperate and learn to walk again.
Jean went on to earn an A.B. in history at Colorado State University, an M.A. in history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, a second M.A. in history at the University of Colorado, and a Ph.D. in Political Science at Brandeis University. Elshtain held teaching positions at Colorado State University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Chicago where she was the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics in the Divinity School, Political Science, and the Committee on International Relations for 18 years.
In addition to her active teaching career, Elshtain was a prolific writer and public speaker. She authored more than 500 scholarly articles, occasional and opinion pieces, and reviews in a wide range of publications. Elshtain authored more than a dozen books.
She maintained a rigorous public speaking schedule and was invited to lecture or comment upon topics related to feminism, bioethics, political ethics, the place of religion in modern society and in democracy, and war. A devout Christian, Elshtain was unafraid to incorporate theology and the history of religion into her discussions of contemporary events and politics.
Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, her writings on St. Augustine and the Just War doctrine prompted the George W. Bush administration to include her among a group of scholars and religious figures invited to the White House to meet with the President. The Just War doctrine was later used to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and Elshtain was a public supporter of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Additionally, Elshtain was appointed to the Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities (2006-2013) and to the President’s Council on Bioethics (2008). She also served on the board of the National Humanities Center (1996-2013), the board of the National Endowment for Democracy (2003-2011), and the Scholars Council of the Library of Congress (2001-2013).
Elshtain received many prestigious appointments, fellowships, and awards throughout her lifetime, including nine honorary degrees. She co-directed the PEW Forum on Religious and Public Life (2001-2004), and was on the boards of the Institute for Advanced Study (1994-1996) and the Institute for American Values (1994-2008). She was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1996), and a Guggenheim Fellow (1991-1992). She held the Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in Ethics and American History at the Library of Congress (2003), and was a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar (1997-1998). In 2002 Elshtain was given the Frank J. Goodnow Award by the American Political Science Association, the highest honor bestowed by that organization. She delivered the esteemed Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 2005-2006, which led to her final major work, Sovereignty: God, State, and Self.
Jean Bethke Elshtain died in Nashville, Tennessee on August 11, 2013.
The Jean Bethke Elshtain Papers were processed and preserved with generous support from the McDonald Agape Foundation.