Parsons, Elsie Clews (1875–1941)

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Parsons, Elsie Clews (1875–1941)

American anthropologist and sociologist. Name variations: Elsie Worthington Parsons; Elsie Worthington Parsons Clews; (pseudonym) John Main. Born on November 27, 1875, in New York City; died on December19, 1941, in New York City; daughter of Henry Clews (founder of a New York City banking firm) and Lucy Madison (Worthington) Clews; attended Miss Ruehl's private school, New York City; Barnard College, A.B., 1896; Columbia University, A.M., 1897, Ph.D., 1899; married Herbert Parsons (a lawyer and U.S. congressional representative), on September 1, 1900; children: Elsie (b. 1901); John Edward (b. 1903); Herbert (b. 1909); McIlvaine (b. 1911); two who died in childhood.

Taught history at Columbia's Horace Mann High School (1897); taught graduate courses in sociology and on the family as a lecturer at Columbia University (1902–05); published first book, The Family (1906); made first visit to the Southwest (1915); studied Native American tribes in a series of annual field trips (1916–36); lectured on anthropology at the New School for Social Research (1919); served as president of the American Folklore Society (1918–20); was associate editor of Journal of American Folklore (1918–41); served as president of the American Ethnological Association (1923–25); served as the first female president of the American Anthropological Association (1940–41).

Selected works:

The Family (1906); (under pseudonym John Main) Religious Chastity (1913); (under pseudonym John Main) The Old-Fashioned Woman (1913); Fear and Conventionality (1914); Social Freedom (1915); Social Rule (1916); Folk-Tales of Andros Island, Bahamas (1918); Folk-Lore of the Cape Verde Islands (1923); Folk-Lore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina (1923); The Social Organization of the Tewa of New Mexico (1929); Hopi and Zuñi Ceremonialism (1933); Folk-Lore of the Antilles, French and English (3 vols., 1933–43); Mitla: Town of the Souls (1936); Pueblo Indian Religion (2 vols., 1939); Peguche, Canton of Otavalo (1945).

Born in 1875, the first child and only daughter of a wealthy family, Elsie Clews Parsons spent her childhood in Newport, Rhode Island, and in New York City. While her mother Lucy Madison Worthington Clews , a society woman who was a descendant of President James Madison, would have much preferred that her daughter follow her into society life, Parsons opted for intellectual pursuits. She attended the recently established Barnard College for women, and after her graduation in 1896 continued her education at Columbia University. There she studied history and sociology, earning a master's degree in 1897 and a doctoral degree in 1899. The following year, she married Herbert Parsons, a Harvard- and Yale-educated lawyer who would go on to serve three terms as a Republican U.S. congressional representative from New York.

Over the next decade, Parsons gave birth to six children (only four of whom survived to adulthood), but did not eschew her career for motherhood. She lectured at Columbia and wrote her controversial first book, The Family, in 1906. In this groundbreaking treatise, Parsons provided sociological arguments against cultural roles for men and women, and asserted that women should have equal professional opportunities. She also advocated "trial marriage," a notion that her husband's political opponents used against him. To protect his career, Parsons published her next two books, in 1913, under the pseudonym "John Main." These were Religious Chastity, an examination of sexual practices associated with various religions, and The Old-Fashioned Woman, a discussion of ways in which gender-specific behavior is ingrained in children and played out in adulthood. Subsequent books, including Fear and Conventionality (1914), Social Freedom (1915), and Social Rule (1916), were published under her own name and addressed the need for women to be freed from the kinds of social conventions that had so restrained her as a young woman.

Parsons moved in nonconformist circles; she occasionally attended the New York salons of Mabel Dodge Luhan , and her friends included Max Eastman, founder of the Masses, and Walter Lippman, who in 1914 was a founder of the liberal New Republic. She was a committed pacifist during World War I, and lectured at the New School for Social Research, an institution committed to academic freedom. Among her students there was young anthropologist Ruth Benedict , whom she encouraged to study with Franz Boas.

In 1915, during her first visit to the Southwest, Parsons' attention was captured by Native American culture. She subsequently began the work that would establish her as one of the leading authorities on the Pueblo Indians and other Native tribes in North America, Mexico, and South America. Beginning in 1916, she left her oldest daughter Elsie (called Lissa) in charge of the younger children and lived for extended periods of time among the Zuñi, Hopi, Taos, Tewa, Laguna, and other Native peoples. Her field research, influenced by her friend from Columbia University, Franz Boas, resulted in over 100 scholarly papers and several books, including The Social Organization of the Tewa of New Mexico (1929), Hopi and Zuñi Ceremonialism (1933), Mitla: Town of the Souls (1936), and one of her most highly regarded works, the two-volume Pueblo Indian Religion (1939). Her interest in rapidly disappearing cultures also led her to study West Indian and African-American folklore. Parsons studied, among others, inhabitants of the Carolina coastal islands (called Gullahs) and the Portuguese-speaking Cape Verdeans in Massachusetts coastal towns. Her research was published by the American Folklore Society, for which she served as president from 1918 to 1920, and included such works as Folk-Lore from the Cape Verde Islands (1923) and Folk-Lore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina (1923).

Parsons also served as the president of the American Ethnological Society (1923–25) and was the associate editor of the Journal of American Folklore from 1918 until her death. She supported these groups financially, and privately contributed to the research of many young scholars. After her husband died in 1925, Parsons extended her trips and devoted herself even more fully to her work. She remained a pacifist throughout her life, and in 1940 endorsed Norman Thomas, the socialist candidate for president. Elsie Parsons died the following year, only weeks after her 66th birthday, of complications following an appendectomy. At the time, she was serving a term as the first female president of the American Anthropological Society.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Healers and Scientists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Publishers Weekly. March 31, 1997, p. 56.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

suggested reading:

Deacon, Desley. Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Maria Sheler Edwards , M.A., Ypsilanti, Michigan

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Parsons, Elsie Clews (1875–1941)

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