Why I’ll Miss Jean Bethke Elshtain

A short version of a tribute to Jean Bethke Elshtain, who died last Sunday, from Christine Sylvester, Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut.


Jean Bethke Elshtain

She was embraced by feminists for her books on Women and War and Public Man/Private Woman, and then ostracised by the sisterhood for her disapproval of gay marriage and approval of “just” wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She would become anathema to peace researchers and sandpaper to scholars of critical IR. Those who liked her early writings in a secular vein would be disappointed when she began to argue from a base in religious philosophies. Jean Bethke Elshtain encapsulated the best hopes of feminists to effect change in core topics of “men’s studies” –International Relations and Religious Studies –and ended up instead on the wrong side of several issues. That’s clear. So let’s ignore her recent death, shall we? Possibly celebrate her end?

Not me. I met Jean at a series of feminist IR conferences held between 1989 and 1993 in the USA, and then shared many a panel with her at the International Studies Association for a few years. Without equivocation, had I not met Jean and found favour in her eyes, I wouldn’t have produced publishable work in my own voice. Jean pulled me aside at one conference, sat me down, and told me to maintain and further develop what she called my “maverick tendencies.” The good Coloradan that she was warned against following the herd as it raced along toward…possibly nothing. My graduate school mentors had been excellent and very encouraging, especially Karen Mingst. I learned much from them, but also resisted some of their good advice once I was out on my own, stubbornly insisting on writing about Zimbabwe and feminist IR –two very different specialisations, both approached in slightly off-centre ways. To Jean, that was the way to go. Permission granted. Years later, in 2001, when she was on an ISA panel discussing my work, along with Cynthia Enloe, Steve Smith, and Dipesh Chakrabarty, she gave me a hard time over what she called my “postmodern avoidances;” by then, Jean was a solid believer in truth. She gave an audience member an even harder time, though, for wilfully misrepresenting my arguments.

Jean the scholar I admired very much. Jean the person behind the scholar astounded me. Her story, of course, appears in an early chapter in Women and War (1987), a book that came out decades before IR recent “new” interest in auto-ethnography. Jean depicts herself as a smart-ass tomboy, a shoot-em-up leader of the cavalry of kids, clearly smarter than everyone around her. But she was decidedly in the pack of youngsters who contracted polio before the vaccine, and who had to suffer the neanderthal treatments available at the time (my cousin was similarly afflicted and spent months in a hideous Iron Lung.) Thereafter, Jean walked with a noticeable limp. I remember the two of us racing like maniacs down the streets of the University of Southern California to get to where we were to speak. That pronounced limp on a shortened leg could not be ignored: I suggested we go slower. She wouldn’t have it. “I can do this,” she said, “not happily or easily, but I can do it.”

In Women and War, Jean wrote in a similar tone, which is to say without self-pity or self-congratulation. Such would become a trademark of a cutting-edge cum down-to-earth style that included dedicating one of her books to John Lennon; no one who wanted to be taken seriously as a scholar did things like that in the 1980s. Over drinks, and in a post-conference frame of mind, she told me how important Elvis Presley had been to teenagers of her generation. He was so overtly sexual as a young performer, she said, swivelling his hips, bumping and grinding without shame, that he single-handedly catapulted everyone over the prim social mores of the cold war era. She laughed about getting out on the floor with her bum leg and dancing like there’s no tomorrow. “You have to know who’s important in a generation.” I like that – a major academic not feigning, or actually feeling, indifference to era-changing arts. We argued over who was better: the Beatles (her choice) or the Stones (mine to this day). She was on the cusp of many changing genres of life. Married much too young at 18 (!), with three kids in rapid succession before divorcing at 23 (and that was around 1964, years before western society would accept divorce as a fact of life), Jean also studied political philosophy and international relations to the PhD level. She would later lament in Women and War that IR had “a pronounced insouciance concerning the will to power, including the promise of control over events, embedded in the concepts and tropes that compromise the discourse in the first place.” Yup.

One of the most impressive elements of that book was the incorporation of ordinary life into a deeply scholarly treatise. Jean refused to leave the kids, mothers, soldiers, and families out of the power picture of her international relations. She led with those lost souls of IR. Off the page, Jean was the mother of a mentally disabled daughter, and seemed to do all in her maternal power to enable the maturing girl to have a normal life. This included building an addition to the family house in Nashville so her daughter and new, similarly disabled, husband could live as a couple on their own as much as possible. When a baby came along and they had difficulty caring for it, Jean and husband Errol adopted and raised the child. Yet Jean never gave off look-at-my-great-mothering vibes. Nor were the mothers in Women and War angels of good tiding. Spartan mothers urged on their warrior sons and insisted that death in battle was a virtue rather than an occasion for mourning. Other mothers slaughtered attacking Native Americans or abandoned children to go to war. Twenty-five years later, a new generation of feminists in IR would finally enlarge Elshtain’s footprint by researching the many locations, views and activities of women in and around today’s wars – no holds barred.

I could go on and on in this vein. Suffice to say, I was really looking forward to spending a few days with Jean at a conference in October to appraise her work on war. I will still be there with a host of others, including Jean’s family. Jean will be there too, and at a terrifically inappropriate moment she will whisper something sharp in my ear. I will guffaw at that “wrong” second in the conference, like someone who doesn’t know the rules. It will be an outlaw moment; and I will miss the penetrating Elshtain look that would usually follow. Jean was a difficult feminist, one who does not always say what she is supposed to say if she is a real feminist. I disagree with much of her later work, too. But so what? Since when is agreement the measure of a person? There was always remarkable complexity to Jean Bethke Elshtain, along with daring, guts, intelligence, willingness to do battle, and dedication to friends and colleagues. So, listen to Pink: “Just come on and come on and raise your glass”…to Jean.

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10 thoughts on “Why I’ll Miss Jean Bethke Elshtain

  1. Pingback: Jean Bethke Elshtain, 1941-2013 » Duck of Minerva

  2. “Jean was a difficult feminist, one who does not always say what she is supposed to say if she is a real feminist. I disagree with much of her later work, too. But so what? Since when is agreement the measure of a person.” I think that’s a lesson for all of us…to get out of our own comfort zones and engage with those who challenge our ideas, instead of foreclosing dialogue/conversations. In these times we are bound to have people across the ideological divide and we could all learn from each other instead of ‘fencing terrains of knowledge’. Thanks Christine for this heart felt/personal insight into one of our founding mothers. I raise my glass to the formidable woman that she was: Jean Bethke Elshtain.

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  3. Thanks so much for this moving tribute and sage reminder. I disagree with much of her later work but I disagree even more with the policing of what a feminist must (not) think, (not) say, or (not) do in order to be considered a “real” feminist. There is, and always should be, a diversity of opinions amongst any group of thinking people. The minute we start to gatekeep the thoughts of others is the minute we stop being true to the spirit of academic freedom, inquiry, and the sharing of ideas. Elshtain was an important woman and scholar, and as your tribute sketches out, she was apparently a pretty cool person too. That deserves to be recognized and celebrated, as you have done here, so well.

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  4. Thanks so much for this, Chris. Jean was an amazing teacher, generous mentor, inspiring role model, and important thinker. I am very sad about her passing, but hope she enjoys an eternity of great conversatios with Augustine, Jean, Niccolo, Jane, Sigmund, the Mahatma, and many more who inspired her to inspire us.

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  5. An amazing academic, I came across her writings a few years ago. As a theologian-in-constant training, I find her work to be a veritable signal fire; a bridging voice in the wilderness between two competing tribes. As such, I disagree little with her conclusions. It is great to finally read an acknowledgement of Elshtain and the contribution her work will make to further the ”deliberative process found in democratic civil societies”.

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  6. In Women and War, Jean wrote in a similar tone, which is to say without self-pity or self-congratulation.Is there any way to differentiate between those non violent actions which are legitimate and “good” and those which are not?royal jelly

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