Elsie Worthington Clews Parsons (November 27, 1875 – December 19, 1941) was an American sociologist and anthropologist. Her studies on Pueblo Indians are regarded as the most comprehensive work on this tribe, and her studies of West Indian and African American folklore are considered vital materials in the field. She was famous for her early feminist ideas, which were extremely controversial in her day. She developed an early interest in gender roles in the family, regarding rigid expectations for each gender as stifling to the growth of each person as an individual. She regarded this as problematic both for men and women, although generally more so for women as, at that time, the roles for women in society were severely limited. Although condemned by many for her beliefs, Parsons' work contributed greatly to the liberalization of American society and the opening of new opportunities for women to contribute their talents and abilities more fully for the benefit of all.
Elsie Worthington Clews Parsons was born on November 27, 1875, in New York City, as the eldest of three children of Henry Clews and Lucy Madison Worthington. Her family was of an upper social status, being descendants of President James Madison. Already as a child Elsie showed a great deal of independence.
For her study she chose education, despite her parents desire to become a debutante. She graduated from the newly opened Barnard College with an A.B. degree in 1896, and continued at Columbia University receiving her Ph.D. in sociology in 1899. She was influenced by the works of Gabriel Tarde, Pliny Goddard, Franz Boas, and Alfred L. Kroeber. Her dissertation The Educational Legislation and Administration of the Colonies was published after her graduation.
In 1900, Parsons married Herbert Parsons, a New York attorney. They had six children, of which only four survived birth. Beside her family duties, Parsons taught sociology at Barnard College (1899-1905), and in 1905 received position as a lecturer on sex roles and family at Columbia University. Her involvement with feminist ideas stemmed from this period. She spent significant time with the members of Heterodoxy, a feminist network in New York, and contributed to the founding of The New School for Social Research in New York City. She also wrote for Max Eastman’s The Masses.
In 1905 her husband was elected to Congress and the family moved to Washington, D.C. Parsons turned to writing. Her book The Family was published in 1906 and caused serious controversies. Parsons’ feminist ideas were perceived as too radical for her time, and she was condemned from both the religious and secular sides. However, she was not dissuaded and continued her writing, publishing Religious Chastity (1913; under the pseudonym "John Main" to protect her husband's political career), The Old-Fashioned Woman (1913), Fear and Conventionality (1914), Social Freedom (1915), and Social Rule (1916). She was a strong advocate of pacifism during World War I, and was an active member of the Woman's Peace Party. Her husband’s extramarital affairs and her own experimentations in this field only enhanced her beliefs in gender equality.
In the late 1910s, Parsons’ interest gradually shifted to anthropology. Already in 1910 she visited the American Southwest with her husband, where she witnessed American Indian culture and rituals. She later met Franz Boas, who influenced her to concentrate on research in anthropology. Parsons spent the rest of her career in field studies in Arizona, New Mexico, Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean. Her books Folklore from the Cape Verde Islands (1923), Folklore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina (1923), Mitla: Town of the Souls (1936) and Pueblo Indian Religion (1939) were the results of those field studies.
In 1918, Parsons became associate editor of the Journal of American Folklore, serving in that position until her death. She was president of the American Folklore Society in 1919-20, and treasurer (1916-1922) and president (1923-1925) of the American Ethnological Society. In 1940 she was elected the first woman president of the American Anthropological Association.
Elsie Parsons died in New York City on December 19, 1941.
Parsons became interested in gender roles in the family rather early in life, culminating in her work as a lecturer on family and sex roles at Columbia University. She was a passionate scholar. Her first major work The Family (1906) dealt with the effect society had upon one's individualism. She believed that society’s stiff gender role expectations had a negative effect on one’s fulfillment as a human being. Particularly affected are women, who have to live in a predominantly patriarchal world, and have little chance for becoming anything other than mothers, wives, and at best teachers.
Parsons however did not advocate only for women. She believed that the stifling effect of gender expectations affected both men and women. She further claimed that women can serve on political and social functions equally to men.
Parsons’ feminist beliefs were perceived as too radical in her time. Because of her advocacy in her book for trial marriages, divorce by mutual consent, and access to reliable contraception, she was condemned by preachers, and blackened on the front pages of newspapers as an adulterer. She was forced to withdraw, but never gave up her feminist ideas. Gender equality always remained the central point in her theses. In her Journal of a Feminist, which was published after her death, she advocated for the liberation of women and free expression of individuality in society.
Even as an anthropologist Parsons was concerned with the effect that social conventions produce on the free expression of one’s individuality. She believed that psychological and philosophical data were not enough to explain the relationship between personality and culture, but that deeper empirical study that would include historical and ethnographic facts was needed. With those assumptions she started her anthropological career.
Parsons first started with the study of Hopi and Pueblo Indians. Pueblo culture, which demanded more conformity than her own culture, was of a particular interest for Parsons. She followed the influences that Spanish culture had on Pueblo Indians, and spent several years in Mexico doing extensive research. She recorded data on social organization, religious practices, and folklore. Her two books Mitla, Town of the Souls (1936) and Pueblo Indian Religion (1939) are considered central pieces of Parsons’ anthropological career.
By the end of her career, Parsons had conducted several studies on folklore, especially folk tales of Afro-Americans and Caribbean peoples. She did field studies in the Carolinas, Cape Verde Islands, and Caribbean islands.
Even though Parsons was not much recognized during her career, and was perceived as a rather controversial writer, her work started to be discussed only after her death. She has come to be recognized as an early pioneer of the feminist movement, who challenged people to change their views on social norms and the role of gender in the family. Her non-traditional life style, together with her advocacy for sexual plasticity and a new role for woman in society, contributed toward the liberalization of American society in general.
After her death, many scholars begun to praise her anthropological ideas. Franz Boas saw Parsons’ work on Pueblo Indians as the most comprehensive work on this Indian tribe. Her work on Negro folklore is often cited as fundamental material for any student of folklore.
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