Elsie Clews Parsons (1875–1941), sociologist and anthropologist who wrote about family and gender and undertook detailed, exhaustive studies of the Pueblo and other people of the American Southwest
Elsie Clews Parsons was born Elsie Worthington Clews to a well-to-do family in New York City in 1875. Eschewing the role of debutante, she instead attended Barnard College. She received an A.B. degree in 1896, then continued on to earn an A.M. (1897) and Ph.D. (1899) in sociology from Columbia University. The following year she married Herbert Parsons, a lawyer and politician. With him she would have six children, four of whom survived childhood.
Parsons taught sociology at Barnard and Columbia for a few years, but then the family moved to Washington, D.C., when Mr. Parsons was elected to Congress. Mrs. Parsons began writing sociology books of a decidedly feminist nature. The first to appear was The Family (1906). In it she argued against female subordination, saying (among other things) that inequality hindered women in their roles as wives and mothers. Much of her writing dealt with gender roles and the cultural constraints they imposed on both women and men. Although it was written as a textbook, The Family garnered considerable media attention, not the least for its promotion of trial marriage. To save her congressman husband from further unwanted attention, she published her next couple of books under a pseudonym. “John Main” penned Religious Chastity, another scholarly work (1913) and The Old Fashioned Woman, a work for more general audiences (1913). She returned to her own name for several more popularly-written works: Fear and Conventionality (1914), Social Freedom (1915), and Social Rule (1916).
A trip to the Southwest with her husband changed the direction of Parson’s career. She met anthropologist Franz Boas and became interested in studying the Native Americans of the region. She began doing field research on the Pueblo, gathering huge amounts of data on them and other peoples of the American Southwest, Mexico, and South America. Her exhaustive, scholarly work on the Pueblo, Pueblo Indian Religion, remains a standard reference. She also took an interest in folklore and collected and transcribed folktales from many sources, including West Indian and African American folklore. Parsons was elected president of the American Folklore Society in 1918, the American Ethnological Association in 1923, and in 1940 became the first women elected president of the American Anthropological Association.
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