Civic Housekeeping: Jean Elshtain on Mothering and Other Duties

Article excerpt

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN began her career by challenging traditional gender roles--the assumption that the public realm is primary and belongs to men, and that the private realm is secondary and belongs to women. Characteristically, she applied her analysis in unpredictable ways, as indicated by the title of one of her early books, Women and War. The place of women in the conduct of war was not a typical feminist concern. Further complicating her feminist vision was Elshtain's fierce defense of women's work in the domestic sphere. The moral imperative women have felt to shape the home, she argues, has empowered women and advanced culture.

Elshtain has made a career of rankling both the left and the right. Her latest book, Just War Against Terror (Basic Books), asserts that the U.S., being the world's sole superpower, is obligated to rescue the victimized and defend the peace, and that this responsibility may entail going to war. In 2001, this same concern for defending victims led her to appear before a House subcommittee to argue for the prohibition of human cloning. We are a nation that "will not permit the emergence of unused 'products,' failed clones, poor misbegotten 'children' of our distorted imaginations."

Elshtain is Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the author of 19 books, including Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy (Basic Books). She was the first woman to hold an endowed professorship at Vanderbilt University, and she recently received the Goodnow Award from the American Political Science Association for lifetime accomplishment.

She is a teacher, philosopher and public intellectual. She is also a wife, mother and grandmother, and now a mother (again). A strong advocate of women's roles in public life, she is unstintingly committed to family and mothering. Despite Pope John Paul's narrow view of women's roles in the church, she hails him as a heroic moral figure. She bristles at the way some feminist thinkers depict women as victims and has little sympathy for leftover ideologies from the late 1960s that reject institutions and authority. Yet she dedicated Women and War "to the memory of John Lennon," because the Beatles' music was so "life-affirming," she says, and because "the solemnity of the academy gets to me."

In these times, when the fear of unregulated violence hovers in people's consciousness, Elshtain is trying to think through risks and options in the light of moral conscience. She understands the power of evil--that evil conspires against law and moral order, and that it cannot be quenched by men and guns alone, or even women and guns. Still, she thinks attempts must be made to contain evil and disorder, and that such attempts must sometimes involve force. On the local level, such vigilance is a kind of "civic housekeeping"--a term inspired by the social reformer Jane Addams. On the international level, she argues that "concrete neighbor love" sometimes must be acted out in the face of "harsh necessity."

Born in 1941, Elshtain started learning about housekeeping and harsh necessity as the oldest of five children growing up in Timnath, Colorado, population about 185 then (and now). Her father was a superintendent of the town school. Her mother arose from earthier stock--Volga-German immigrants from Russia who worked in the sugar beet fields in northern Colorado. Helen Lind Bethke never saw schooling beyond the eighth grade because the family needed her help in the fields. "There was a kind of severity about her from time to time," says Elshtain of her mother. "But I understood it on some level." Helen "was fiercely dedicated to her family and worked very hard to leave a powerful family legacy."

Young Jean read voraciously, which met with approval from both parents until she became enamored with Ernie Pyle's war dispatches. At the age of nine she used her 4-H Club money to purchase a subscription to Time magazine. …

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