Elsie Clews Parsons

Elsie Clews Parsons, née Elsie Worthington Clews (November 27, 1875, N.Y., N.Y. – December 19, 1941, N.Y., N.Y.), was an American sociologist and anthropologist who produced landmark studies of the Pueblo and other Native American tribes in the Southwest, Mexico, and South America. [1] Born to wealth, her education reflected her family’s position: private schools, followed by an undergraduate education at Barnard College which she completed in 1896, and graduate school at Columbia University, from which she earned a Ph.D. in 1899. The following year, she married Herbert Parsons, a New York lawyer and politician. In 1902, she was appointed as a lecturer at Barnard. When her husband was elected to Congress in 1905, she resigned her lectureship and went with him to Washington, D.C. They had four children who survived into adulthood. They remained married until Herbert’s accidental death in 1925. [2]

Parsons’ wealth enabled her to devote herself to research and writing based on it, and to finance the research of many less-well- off anthropologists. [3] She did not teach after her initial lectureship at Barnard except for a course she offered in 1919, “Sex in Ethnology,” at the newly-founded New School for Social Research. [4] Her teaching was a gesture of support to the fledgling school, many of whose backers she knew socially, including Emily James Putnam and Dorothy Straight. She was also a writer for the New Republic, whose offices served as the starting point for conversations about the school. One of her students in her only New School class was Ruth Benedict, who later herself became a well-known anthropologist. [5]

Parsons’ writing concerns two primary topics: an early period in which she penned sociological books of a feminist bent and a later period in which she wrote ethnographic studies of Native Americans. To the earlier period belong The Family, published in 1906, notorious for its extended discussion of trial marriage; then, in 1913, under the pseudonym John Main, Religious Chastity and The Old Fashioned Woman, “the latter of which is a sharp and witty analysis of the genesis of traditional sex roles and behavior and the cultural codes that sustain them”; and finally, under her own name, Fear and Conventionality in 1914, Social Freedom in 1915, and Social Rule in 1916. [6]

Parsons’ interest in Native Americans started to develop in 1915, when she met anthropologists Franz Boas and Pliny Goddard on a trip to the Southwest. Over a 25-year period, she collected rich and precise data on several tribes and became “perhaps the leading authority on the Pueblo and on other tribes in North America, Mexico, and South America.” [7] She completed her masterwork, Pueblo Indian Religion (2 volumes), in 1939. [8] Also notable was her study of Zapotec Indians in Oaxaca, Mexico, Mitla: Town of the Souls (1936), and Peguche, Canton of Otavalo (1945) on Andean Indians. In addition to these studies, she collected African-American folkloric material that became the basis for three books: Folk-Tales of Andros Island, Bahamas (1918); Folk-Lore from the Cape Verde Islands (1923), from research with black Cape Verdeans in Massachusetts; and Folk-Lore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina (1923) about the Gullah- speaking people residing there. Another three-volume work in folklore was published between 1933 and 1943: Folk-Lore of the Antilles, French and English.

Parsons held various influential positions in professional academic organizations, serving as president of the American Folklore Society in 1919-20 and associate editor of its journal from 1918 until her death. She also served as treasurer (1916-22) and president (1923-25) of the American Ethnological Society. She was the first woman elected president of the American Anthropological Association in 1940. She fell ill suddenly just days before the AAA meeting, and died of complications following an appendectomy at the age of 67. She never delivered her inaugural address, which dealt with the “abuse of anthropology to further racist schemes.” [9]

Parsons deserves to be remembered for her pioneering feminism, her financial generosity to other anthropologists, and her excellent research. Although her interpretations of her ethnographic material were criticized by some, the extensive and detailed data she amassed and published were widely admired, and the general respect she enjoyed is evidenced by the prestigious organizational positions she occupied and the positive opinions of her expressed by many of her professional colleagues. [10]


[1] Britannica Academic online “Elsie Clews Parsons.” http://academic.eb.com/levels/collegiate/article/Elsie-Clews-Parsons/58….

[2] Peter H. Hare. A Woman’s Quest for Science [:] Portrait of Anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1985), 19, 299.

[3] Hare, 19.

[4] Ibid.; The New School for Social Research Announcement 1919-1920 [New School course catalog], 14.

[5] Desley Deacon. Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1997), 233; Stacy A. Cordery. Review of Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life, by Desley Deacon. H-Women, H-Net Reviews. November, 1998. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=2500.

[6] Britannica Academic online.

[7] Britannica Academic online.

[8] Leslie Spier and A. L. Kroeber. “Elsie Clews Parsons.” American Anthropologist, 45 (2) April-June (1943): 248.

[9] Britannica Academic online.

[10] Hare provides a summary of the concerns anthropologists have had with Parsons work: 156.
Elsie Clews Parsons. Courtesy of James Parsons. Via Encyclopaedia Britannica. Web. 09 Nov 2014.