The University of Chicago Magazine June 1996
Return to June 1996 Table of Contents

The trials of apublic intellectual

"Compromise can be an ideal," she says."It is a democratic way to do politics."

her... driven to make sense even of the senseless, wanting simultaneously to stand out and to blend in, seeking the self within available norms and conventions but determined at the same time to be the bringer of new forms, new ideas, daring possibilities."

Thus did Jean Elshtain describe the young Jane Addams in a lecture at Swift Hall last fall, but she might have been describing herself. She, too, was an earnest child. And like Addams--the Nobel Prize-winning social reformer and pacifist who founded Chicago's Hull House as one of the first settlement houses in North America--Elshtain was ever alert of "the ebb and flow around her." As a friend said of Jean's childhood, "You seem to have been thinking about stuff all the time."

Growing up in the virtual shadow of the Continental Divide, where the eastern flank of the Rockies begins smoothing into the Great Plains, young Jean Bethke felt a sense of space where the public and private became one. As a citizen of tiny Timnath, she learned to feel that "what you said made a difference...It mattered somehow."

The oldest of five children, Elshtain found herself negotiating the "rough waters" between her mother, a powerful woman of volatile temperament ("she tended to see the worst and was rougher than she needed to be, yet there was a kind of tough-mindedness to her") and her father, the Timnath schools superintendent, "a person of exquisitely cheerful temperament who always minimized problems, always downplayed them, and so he seemed this kind of saintly person," she recalls. Thus from an early age Jean developed an affinity for thinkers who understood extremes and who struggled to find some balance between the two.

An avid reader, she was especially drawn to war stories ("My mother thought this was extremely peculiar," she remembers) and consumed the entire opus of Nancy Drew mysteries before attempting to compose a novel herself at age 9 or 10: "Some completely preposterous adventure story involving gold miners in the Southwest," she says, dismissing with a laugh her youthful audacity. "I can't ever remember a time when I wasn't writing."

Elshtain also developed a talent for speaking, via 4-H contests, where she composed and delivered four-minute orations on such topics as "Responsibilities of Citizenship," and "What the 4-H Club Means to Me." (More than 40 years later, she can easily reel off the 4-H pledge: "I pledge my head to clearer thinking, I pledge my heart to greater loyalty....") Her talent for making the compelling case won her speech contests year after year. She was introduced to the East Coast during a high school trip to Washington, D.C., to attend a meeting of the Future Homemakers of America as its national vice-president. Such biographical minutiae charmingly evoke a Norman Rockwell image of small-town life America, but they also foretell many of the essential concerns of Elshtain's adult work: family, community, democratic argument, and civic duty.

The other inescapable influence on Jean's youth was polio, which struck her at age 10. Doctors feared she would not walk again, and she spent months in a Denver hospital, recuperating with the support of her family. The experience, she says, taught her that "there's just a lot that's dealt. A lot of life is just dealing with what's dealt, and I think we forget that at our peril."

After high school, Jean Bethke went to Colorado State University in Fort Collins to study history, later transferring to the University of Colorado, where she received her B.A. But she had also married at 18, borne three children, and divorced her husband by the time she was 23. As a single parent with three young children, she relied on help from her mother and sister while commuting to Boulder to complete a master's degree. In 1973, she earned a Ph.D. in politics from Brandeis. Her second marriage, to Errol Elshtain, AB'64, produced another child and has endured more than 30 years. Errol adopted Jean's three children--the oldest of whom is mentally retarded--and now works in Tennessee's Office of Disability Affairs. At present they maintain a commuter marriage between Nashville, where several children and grandchildren live, and Chicago.

"It's interesting for someone like me, who married young and had children, to look at a woman who never married and had no children, because it's like the path not taken," Elshtain muses about her current project, researching the life of Jane Addams. "So it was foreordained, I guess, that when I read Hull House"--Addam's two-part biography--"she would latch on to me and I would not be able to shake her."

Elshtain also feels that Addams has been neglected as a feminist heroine,

Continue reading "The trials of apublic intellectual."

Go to:

Return to June 1996 Table of Contents