Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Androgyny or Antigone: Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Feminism

M. Christian Green


By M. Christian Green

October 25, 2013

On August 11, 2013, Jean Bethke Elshtain passed away. Elshtain was a leading public intellectual at the University of Chicago, where she held a rather unusual joint appointment in both the divinity school and the political science department. One of Elshtain’s greatest legacies was her intellectual commitment to bringing God into the discussion of politics. Elshtain participated in various events with the Center for Public Justice over the years and references to her work and ideas have appeared frequently in CPJ’s publications. This is the third installment in a series of reflections on Elshtain’s work and legacy.

When I went to study with Jean Bethke Elshtain, just a year after she joined the faculty of the University of Chicago Divinity School, there was a pronounced subterranean hum, especially among her female graduate students, about her work on women, family, and feminism. Was she or wasn’t she? A feminist, that is. 

I hoped that she was, as I wanted her to advise me on my dissertation on fatherhood and feminism.  My dissertation was motivated by the concern that recent trends in American family law, coupled with recent trends in academic feminism, were diminishing fatherhood in a way that ill-served, men, women, children—and especially feminism. Academic feminism, in particular, had shifted from the liberal feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, with its emphasis on sameness, equality, and autonomy of the sexes, to what was variously called difference, cultural, relational, or “gynocentric” feminism, emphasizing women’s distinctive virtues and “different voice” in morality that accrues particularly from their experience as mothers and caregivers of children. 

The “gynocentric” feminist paradigm that was ruling the academy, with its shades of maternal virtue and superiority, seemed contradicted by a legal context in which men and fathers were marginalized and mothers were left with the full burden of childcare. Children were without fathers, fathers were without responsibility, and mothers were left with little time, opportunity, or hope for attaining the liberal feminist goals of equality, autonomy, and personal advancement beyond the rewards of motherhood.  Mine was a liberal feminist project of reintegrating men into the family—goading, shaming, and dragooning them, if necessary— to free women up for public roles outside the home.

Professor Elshtain saw things a bit differently.  She made a name for herself in women’s studies with her 1981 publication of Public Man, Private Woman, a magisterial survey of women in Western political thought, an equally noteworthy article in the same year titled, “Against Androgyny,” and another article a year later, titled “Antigone’s Daughters.” These three writings cemented a certain ambivalent status for Elshtain in American feminism, an ambivalence that would define her career as an academic feminist, among the many other public intellectual roles she would occupy until the very end.

A feminist philosophy listserv item reporting Elshtain’s passing noted that some on the list might “not be fond” of her overall work for its sympathies with conservative views, but that Public Man, Private Woman “for all of its problems, was highly influential in the field.” Therein, Elshtain challenged the public masculine and private woman dichotomy, mostly by noting its dismissive attitude toward the invaluable private and domestic work that women have done within the home for most of human history. This view was at odds with the liberal, second-wave feminism of the 1970s and its primary aim of liberating women from the domestic sphere. Similarly, in “Against Androgyny,” she challenged the feminism of that era for seeking to liberate women—really all humans—from embodied sexual difference in the aim of a transcendent equality. This sort of radical transcendence contradicted Elshtain’s core conviction that we all ultimately live as humans within certain finite, natural boundaries, which she often referred to as the “givens” of our nature. In “Antigone’s Daughters,” Elshtain honed in on concerns about the natural and organic relations of family and civil society being overtaken by the state to the particular detriment of feminine identity. 

Professor Elshtain and I shared a concern to draw historical and political lessons from the great “isms” that defined the worlds in which we came of age. For Elshtain, these were the perilous movements of fascism and communism that dominated the twentieth century. To her mind, the feminism of the 1970s with its relentless emphasis that “the personal is political” risked becoming such an “ism” by denigrating and diminishing the realm of private family life. For my generation of feminists, especially those who seek the holy grail of “work/family balance,” the challenges have come from the rigorous demands of corporate capitalism and its inexorable strain on workers who seek to attain a middle-class “American Dream” that seems to be fading for many. This is the public/private balance that affects both men and women, mothers and fathers, in today’s American families.

To the “isms” above, today’s third wave feminists add yet another —“perfectionism,” with the pressure to be perfect in both the public and private realms at once. Some of the heroic women whose work Elshtain chronicled in her later career—including the social reformer Jane Addams and the Argentine mothers of the Plaza de Mayo making political use of their maternal status to call for justice for their disappeared children—seemed to exemplify a perfect blend of political agency and maternalistic care. In truth, Elshtain did stand for perfectionism of a sort, a perfectionism from within that is achieved through the everyday activities of serving God, family, community, and nation, rather than being imposed from the market, state, and other forces. In one of her last notes to me in the year before her death, she observed of the perfectionist limits and approaching finitude of her illness and her life that “one deals with what one has been dealt.” It was a philosophy that she embodied to the end as a mother and grandmother, a public intellectual, and a notably iconoclastic feminist whose resonance with today’s third-wave feminist complaints about perfectionist rigors may have been ahead of its time.

-  M. Christian Green is a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory University.  She recently contributed the essay “From Third Wave to Third Generation: Feminism, Faith, and Human Rights” to the volume Feminism, Law, and Religion, eds. Marie A. Failinger, Elisabeth R. Schiltz, and Susan Stabile (Ashgate Publishing, July 2013). That essay and more about her work can be found at:

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