Parsons, Elsie (Worthington) Clews

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PARSONS, Elsie (Worthington) Clews

Born 27 November 1875, New York, New York; died 19 December 1971, New York, New York

Wrote under: John Main

Daughter of Henry and Lucy Madison Clews; married Herbert Parsons, 1900 (died 1925); children: six

Elsie Clews Parsons was the daughter of wealthy and socially prominent parents. She was educated in New York City, receiving from Columbia University a B.A. in 1896, M.A. in 1897, and Ph.D. in 1899. In 1900 she married a New York attorney who became a Congressman and a leader in the Republican Party. The marriage lasted until his death in 1925 and seems to have been unusual in the degree of autonomy Parsons achieved within it. There were six children born of this marriage, four of whom survived Parsons.

Primarily a researcher and writer, Parsons taught only briefly from 1899 to 1905 at Barnard College and then at the New School for Social Research in 1919. But her professional achievements were well recognized: she presided over the American Folklore Society (1918), the American Ethnological Association (1923-25), and the American Anthropological Association (1940-41); she was also associate editor of the Journal of American Folklore (1910-41) and vice president of the New York Academy of Sciences (1936).

Parsons's career may be divided into two periods, the first beginning in 1899 when she undertook speculative work in sociology, committed to the belief individuals have the right to self-development, and that civilized society must allow for and benefit from such development. Occasionally, Parsons's objective observations of her own society made readers uncomfortable. For example, a college textbook titled The Family (1906) attracted unusual attention because it was directed at both students and "intelligent mothers" of daughters, and discussed not only the family but also the inequities of the double standard and the advantages of trial marriage.

Parsons's next five books also dealt with social oppression, but from a broader perspective. The Old-Fashioned Woman (1913) is a book written with wit and quiet irony. Here Parsons reviews attitudes and customs relating to women in so-called primitive societies and in her own society so the limitations of each are revealed as painfully alike. In Social Freedom: A Study of the Conflicts Between Social Classifications and Personality (1915) Parsons explores the negative effects of such social categorization by age and sex on the development of individual personality. In Social Rule: A Study of the Will to Power (1916) she argues that social categories are used as a way of controlling such groups as women, children, employees, and "backward peoples." Of special interest in this book is Parsons's view of the ideal role of feminism.

The second stage of Parsons's career began about 1915, when she became interested in the anthropological approach of Franz Boas. Parsons did not abandon her commitment to self-development, but turned from speculating about the way society functioned to collecting ethnographic data that could indicate how a specific culture functioned. After 1915, Parsons undertook at least one field trip a year to study various groups, though her chief work was done with American and West Indian blacks and with Native Americans of the southwest Pueblos. On occasion, she returned to her earlier speculations and her interest in feminist-related issues when she wrote journal articles.

Boas and other anthropologists cite two works of this period as having special significance—Pueblo Indian Religion (1939) and Mitla: Town of the Souls, and Other Zapoteco-speaking Pueblos of Oaxaca, Mexico (1936)—but these books are aimed at the specialist reader.

Vital to any assessment of Parsons is a consideration of her character, which was marked by an uncompromising commitment to her work and to living in accordance with her beliefs. She was, Boas wrote: "intolerant towards [herself], tolerant towards others, disdainful of selfish pettiness and truthful in thought and action." So strong was her personality that Robert Herrick, a novelist of the period, used it as the basis for several characterizations in Wanderings (1925), Chimes (1926), and The End of Desire (1932).

Since Parsons' death, her work has attracted little general attention, though at the time of her death the value of her work and the significance of her support of the American Folklore Society and of the field work of other anthropologists were acknowledged by many.

Other Works:

Educational Legislation and Administration of the Colonial Governments (1899). Religious Chastity (1913). Fear and Conventionality (1914). Notes on Zuñi (1917). Folk-tales of Andros Island, Bahamas (1918). Notes on Ceremonialism at Laguna (1920). Winter and Summer Dance Series in Zuñi in 1918 (1922). Folk-lore from the Cape Verde Islands (1923). Folklore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina (1923). Laguna Genealogies (1923). The Scalp Ceremonial of Zuñi (1924). The Pueblo of Jemez (1925). Tewa Tales (1926). Kiowa Tales (1929). The Social Organization of the Tewa of New Mexico (1929). Isleta, New Mexico (1932). Folk-lore of the Antilles, French and English (1933). Hopi and Zuñi Ceremonialism (1933). Taos Pueblo (1936). Taos Tales (1940). Notes on the Caddo (1941). Pequche, Canton of Otavelo, Province of Imbabura Ecuador: A Study of Andean Indians (1945).


Reference works:

Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

American Anthropologist (1943). Journal of American Folklore (1943). Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1950). Scientific Monthly (May 1942).


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Parsons, Elsie (Worthington) Clews

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