Skip to Content

Vanderbilt News

Former Vanderbilt professor Jean Elshtain dies

by | Aug. 14, 2013, 1:24 PM

Jean Bethke Elshtain

Jean Bethke Elshtain (Jason Smith/University of Chicago)

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a renowned interdisciplinary scholar who was the first woman to hold an endowed professorship at Vanderbilt University, died Aug. 11. She was 72.

At the time of her death, she was the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics in the Divinity School, Political Science, and the Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago. Elshtain taught at Vanderbilt from 1988 to 1994.

“Jean Elshtain had a long and distinguished academic career,” said V. Jacque Voegeli, dean of the College of Arts and Science, emeritus, and professor of history, emeritus. “For over three decades, her scholarly work on an impressive array of subjects that included politics, feminism, war and sovereignty engaged the interests of political scientists, ethicists, historians and philosophers and stimulated public and academic discourse. Vanderbilt is fortunate to have had her lively presence on its faculty.”

Elshtain joined the faculty as Centennial Professor of Political Science and added the appointment of professor of philosophy a year later. She directed the Center for Social and Political Thought at Vanderbilt from 1991 to 1994.

During her six years at Vanderbilt, Jean participated in three Warren Center Fellows Programs: “Disciplines and the Canon” (the inaugural Fellows Program), “The Return of Rhetoric” and “Eastern European Literature and Political Change.” She also directed several interdisciplinary summer seminars for graduate students at the Warren Center. She returned to campus in 1996 to lead off a trio of Project Dialogue-sponsored lectures on issues of gender.

“Jean’s generous intellectual spirit was one of the central components in the early success of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities,” said Mona Frederick, the center’s executive director. “Jean relished engaging with her colleagues across a broad range of topics and the Warren Center was a natural home for her during her years on our campus.”

Elshtain’s books included Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought, Women and War, Power Trips and Other Journeys, and Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy. She was awarded the Ellen Gregg Ingalls Award for Excellence in Classroom Teaching in 1991. Her numerous honors included membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Elshtain earned her doctorate at Brandeis University, where her dissertation was titled “Women and Politics: A Theoretical Analysis.”

Elshtain is survived by her husband, Errol Elshtain; four children, Sheri, Heidi, Jenny and Eric; and four grandchildren.

The funeral will be Aug. 19 in Fort Collins, Colo. There will also be a celebration of her life and work during a conference at the University of Chicago Oct. 17-18.

A website has been set up for those who like to send condolences to the family.

In lieu of flowers, Elshtain requested that donations be sent to a memorial scholarship that she established at Colorado State University.

Media Inquiries:
Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS

VU Tweets