Anthropology Theory Project

Elsie Clews Parsons

Biography and Education []

Elsie Worthington Clews was born in New York City in 1875. She was the eldest child and only daughter of the wealthy Henry Clews, a New York financier of English birth, and Lucy Madison Clews, a descendant of President James Madison. Even as a child she took great interest in social and personal freedom. This is a result of her upbringing. Growing up in a wealthy Victorian era home, she saw oppression of women daily due to the social constrains placed upon them. She was also said to be a strong headed individual. Not much else in known about her youth.

Despite her parents’ desire that she attend a very prestigious school, Parsons decided to study at the newly opened Barnard College, and received her B.A. in Sociology there in 1896. She then attended Columbia University, where she worked under Franklin H. Giddings, the first full-time professor of sociology in the United States. There Parsons received her M.A. in sociology in 1897 and Ph.D. in 1899 (Chambers 1973).

In 1900, she was married to Herbert Parsons, a wealthy New York attorney and Republican leader who was later elected to Congress. Together they had six children, of which only three boys and one girl lived. Parsons went on to become a prolific writer on women in America, as well as on African American and Pueblo Indian folklore. Elsie Clews Parsons died on December 19, 1941 at the age of 66.


Overall, Parsons' career lacks official dates because she did not easily accept positions or honors. Being independently wealthy, she felt that they should go to those who needed them more, both for financial and professional reasons, and to further their careers (Chambers 1973). It is known that Parsons served as fellow at Barnard College from 1899 to 1902. She was also a lecturer in sociology there from 1902 to 1905. After this, her career is generally seen as fitting into three phases.


Parsons first worked in sociology, studying and writing on domestic social problems in America until around 1916, focusing especially on the social oppression of women. She wrote many books during this time, some under the pseudonym of John Main in order to protect her husband’s political career (Parezo 1993). Her book The Family was essentially an outline of her lectures at Barnard. This book discussed “an evolutionary view of marriage and family patterns, using ethnological data, and advocated trial marriage” (Lamphere, 1989). It caused quite an uproar in its day. Parsons sent a copy to Theodore Roosevelt, who was a friend of her husband, following the uproar. He affectionately teased her about the book, saying he was glad to have read it. Other published works, such as The Old Fashioned Woman, Religious Chastity, Fear and Conventionality (1914), Social Freedom (1915) and Social Rule (1916) all reflect a concern for the social state and status of women at the time. Parsons used ethnographic evidence to demonstrate how constrained womens lives were during the period, by taboos, confinement, and exclusion from male dominated activities (Lamphere 1989). She wrote The House of Mirth about her own mother and sister-in-law, who she felt went out of their way to feed into male domination by spending hours on their looks, giving her the sense that male-female relationships were generally shallow and confining (Deacon 1992). Parsons eventually became one of the founders of the New School for Social Research in New York City, and taught a course there called ‘Sex in Ethnography” (Babcock 1987). Late in her career she maintained offices at Columbia University.

African American Folklore[]

During a trip to the American Southwest with her husband, Parsons became fascinated with Pueblo culture, and her career took a turn towards anthropology (Chambers 1973). She came under the influence of Franz Boas, and at his suggestion began to study African American folklore. She became an associate editor of the Journal of American Folklore in 1916, working there with Boas, and held that position for twenty-five years until her death. Being independently wealthy enabled her to support her own work, much of the journal, and the work of other folklorists as well. In 1919 and again in 1920 she was elected president of the American Folklore Society, and in 1932 and 1933 she served as the vice president. In 1923, Elsie Clews Parsons became President of the American Ethno-logical Society for a two-year term.
According to Desley Deacon, part of her new fascination with anthropology was her great enjoyment of fieldwork. He states that she found working out in the field provided her the freedom and independence from society that she had always craved. She was able to combine her work with the fun of escaping the social pressures that came along with being a wife and mother. It allowed her to challenge current cultural taboos, and develop her own intellectual and sexual personality (Deacon 1992).
She traveled extensively to collect a wide variety of “negro folklore” including riddles and songs, visiting the Bahamas, various Caribbean islands, Haiti, Antilles, and the Cape Verde Islands. In addition she also collected folktales and riddles from African Americans in North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Florida. She eventually published a total of 99 folktales, and a number of riddles in works such as "Riddles from Andros Island" and "Ten Folk-Tales from the Cape Verde Islands” (Chambers 1973).

Pueblo Folklore[]

The last phase of her career is seen as her study of Pueblo Indians in the American South West. She lived for long periods of time with the Zuni, Laguna, Navajo, Taos, Hopi, and Tewa. Elsie wrote articles on the masked figures of the Zuni religion, the matrilineal orientation of the Hopi people, family structure of the Tewa, and of the Kachina cults of the western pueblo peoples (particularly the Hopi Kachina Cult), while of course collecting folklore along the way. Much of her focus remained on women. Roberts Lowie states that Parsons felt that as a woman, she could get closer to the world of women in these cultures than male anthropologists, which proved to be true (Lowie 1960). Parsons was interested in the practices and offerings women made in order to get pregnant, the taboos surrounding birth (to avoid deformities in the child), as well as postpartum practices and naming ceremonies. She was also highly interested in the taboos surrounding sexuality (Silverberg 1998).
Lowie also speaks of Parsons' was fascination with the matrilineal systems held by some of the pueblo people. Her research helped to show the diversity amongst the Pueblo peoples. Matrilineal clanship means that a child's ancestry is traced back through the clan of their mother, which would be the oppositte of patrilineal clanship, or the tracing of ancestry through the father's clan. In a matrilineal clanship system, children and homes belong to the women. She made the observation that the Navajo and Apache are matrilineal but have multiple clans, and the Hopi have all encompassing matrilineal clanship system with no moieties, while some eastern have moieties with Patrilineal descent. Moieties in this case mean half of a tribal family. According to Helene Silverberg, the Hopi and Zuni in particular held her interest , and Parsons stated that few women were more independent . Thus most of her Pueblo research centers on these two tribes. Parsons saw the relationship in their society between social structure and power. These women owned their own homes and gardens, men moved in with a woman’s family upon marriage, and the children belonged to their mother’s clan. Zuni women were also able to marry and divorce at will (Silverberg 1998). Silverberg also states that this system of social structure followed the lines of what Parson’s felt modern society should be adopting. These examples proved many of the points she had tried to make in her sociology days, they showed roles are given by society, not inherent, and so gender is culturally constructed. She in fact used these societies to compare with her own in many of the articles that she wrote in order to express her feminist outlooks Lowie argues that Parsons used her research to reveal to “civilized society” that these so called primitive people had a social structure in which women could combine productive work with family. Their social structure also allowed for shared relationships with men based on greater equality, autonomy, and personal development for both partners (Lowie 1960).
There was a resistance among the pueblo people to share their culture with outsiders. In order to obtain information, Parsons sometimes worked in secret with informants outside the villages she was studying. This also caused her to rely primarily on information from one host family or from a small circle of paid informants. She was careful never to reveal the names of her informants during her research. Due to this method of gathering information, data was often gathered in small bits at a time.
All of the research Parsons conducted showed varied and diverse life-ways amongst the different Puebloan groups. Through her research these differences have come to light. Parsons noted the different purposes for ceremonies amongst different tribes. According to Lamphere, Parsons' research on Pueblo ceremony revealed that ceremonies among the Hopi were generally for rain, the Keresans for curing, and the Zuni performed ceremonies for both. The Pueblo of Jemez, published in 1925, was the first full ethnography of a single Puebloan village ever, and included history, contemporary relations, economic life, kin and clan, personal life, secular government, ceremonial life, rituals, and tales. She also noted observations on variations from western to eastern pueblos with regard to social organization and religion. She looked at social and linguistic variations to point out that families of western pueblo tribes focused on women while eastern ones focused on men.
Lamphere also describes a realization Parsons had during her study of Pueblo Indians. Parsons came to see the great effect that the Spanish and Catholicism had on the Indians during their occupation of the area. In order to further her analysis, she also traveled throughout Mexico and studied Mexican and Spanish (Lamphere 1992). Overall, Parsons published over 95 articles on the Southwest, culminating in her two-volume grand synthesis, Pueblo Indian Religion.

Mentors and Mentored[]

Over the years, Parsons worked with many prominent people. She studied under and was greatly influenced by Franklin H. Giddings. Giddings was a central figure in the transition from the older disciplines of moral philosophy and philosophy of history to the inductive research of turn-of-the century sociology. Deacon writes that Giddings influence on Sociology involved his support of "rigorous discussion and debate...ethical awareness...and notions of activity [and] effort" (Silverberg 1992). Parsons took on this approach. She also learned from him the painstaking methods of social observation and analysis that she later took into the anthropological field (Deacon 1992). Parsons was also influenced by the psychologists Gabriel Tarde, who emphasized freedom and creativity of the individual, a view which Parsons shared. When she turned to anthropology, she was, like many other women in the field, taken under the wing of the great Franz Boas. He helped her to realize that she preferred the "full consideration of the multiplicity of historical factors involved in determiningany culture or trait" (Chambers 1973) that anthropology takes over the vague generalizing methods of sociology at the time. Boas, as a diffusionist, felt that the collecting folklore was of very important, and was actually the person who influenced her to begin work in collecting folklore. He also influenced her methods of collecting data, in that he felt one should collect any and as much data as possible, accepting and recording all an informant was capable of giving. Parsons is known to have done just that, collecting vast amounts of data in all forms (Chambers 1973). Other influences for Parsons in the field of anthropology are A. A. Goldenweiser, as well as her colleagues A. L. Kroeber, R. H. Lowie, and A. M. Tozzer (Reichard 1950). Eventually Parsons did her own influencing, especially towards young women (particularly feminists) in both anthropology and sociology. These women include Gladys Reichard, Ruth Benedict, and Zora Neale Hurston.

Theory and Style[]

Parsons' major theoretical interest lay in documenting diffusion of motifs or tales, usually from European sources to the New World. She essentially held an ethnocentric view that denied the existence or creation of indigenous regional folklore. According to Reichard, her goal in studying these folktales was to find the “root tale”, the one which all similar tales diffused from. Parsons felt that by seeing the variations a tale held from the root tale, she could find keys to the mentality of a specific culture. Despite this questionable view, she was known as a respecter of evidence, someone who did not skew findings to fit her theories, and did not objectify or stereotype the members of the communities she studied. Even though she enjoyed living in close proximity to her groups of study, she always maintained some distance and tried not to establish very close ties to informants in order to keep a more objective view (Reichard 1950).

Upon her change from sociology to anthropology, her approach to her work also went through change. her articles were trimmed of all theorizing and vagueness. They became packed with detail and increasingly with Pueblo Indian terminology. This made them storehouses of information, but difficult to read. Years of publication were to pass before she would attempt to draw material together in synthesis (Chambers 1973). She became a scrupulous and compulsive collector of texts.

Parsons is known to have worked patiently on very large projects. Chambers asserts that Parsons was very impressed with the importance of tradition in human culture, and collected evidence of these traditions in various ways. Her collecting methods profited from her financial situation. She was able to use voice recording equipment, which was large and expensive at that time, to make phonograph records of the songs that accompanied the numerous fables she collected. Texts were usually dictated in dialect or the native language of the speaker, and translations worked out on the spot with the aid of an interpreter. Her publications often include both original text and English translation (Chambers 1973). Both Chambers and Lamphere point out that the vastness of scope in her studies and data collected from her research show that Parsons held the theory that many isolated details, gathered but not always understood at the time, should still be preserved. Trivial clues may prove valuable later to someone with a new outlook on the subject, and a different point of view.

In her sociological work, Parsons used cross cultural comparisons to demonstrate her points. As an early feminist and social reformer, she had interest in promoting rational sexual mores (Chambers 1973). Her work in sociology focused on the constraints for women in marriage, family life, religion, and social expectations. Parsons expressed a feminist and anthropological concern with the constraints of custom and the influence of culture not only on women, but on individual expression in all. Lamphere explains that Parsons’ opinion was that women of her time were possessions, items of trade, often confined and constricted from the freedoms that men easily enjoyed. She made her point through comparisons of our own culture with those thought to be more primitive at the time. These comparisons involved subjects like taboos and exclusion of women. This also helped her to show womans' lesser position as a universal (Lamphere 1989). According to Deacon, Parsons was always emphasizing the need for individual freedom and choice. Her sociology work led her to see a distinction between mating and parenthood. She found that the act of mating did not exactly coincide with parenting. Thus the institution of parenthood should be made more public and thus open to criticism to ensure that a child receives proper care. Mating though should be private and less constricting, not lessening a person’s access to spontaneity and personal freedom. Parsons also shared the view that hundreds of dating websites now follow; that friendship is the essential basis of the mating relationship because it provides the greatest possibility for both companionship and personal freedom. This thinking brought about her presenting the idea of trial marriage (Deacon 1992). Reichard also depicts Parsons as a pacifist, speaking out against violence during WWI . She was known not to have aggressively pursued any protest, but to have simply ignored the social norms that she didn’t agree with (Reichard 1943).

Her Works[]

Sociological Works:

  • The Family
  • Religious Chastity
  • The Old-Fashioned Woman
  • Fear and Conventionality
  • Social Freedom
  • Social Rule

Anthropological Works:

  • The Social Organization of the Tewa of New Mexico
  • Hopi and Zuni Ceremonialism
  • Pueblo Indian Religion


  • Mitla: Town of the Souls
  • Peguche

Folklore Works:

  • Folk-Lore from the Cape Verde Islands
  • Folk-Lore of the Sea Islands, S.C.
  • Folk-Lore of the Antilles, French and English

Annotated Bibliography[]

Babcock, Barbara A. 1987 Taking Liberties, Writing from the Margins, and Doing It with a Difference. The Journal of American Folklore (100)398:390-411.

This essay discusses feminists in anthropology, and their current lack of recognition. The invisibility of Elsie Clews Parsons and her work, according to Babcock, illustrates the need to rewrite the history of the discipline to include women and to review the contributions of women folklorists. Parsons is described as an early feminist, sociologist, and pacifist who used her wealth, position, and intellect to champion for social freedom and women's rights. Parsons helped found the New School for Social Research and in 1919 taught a course there called "Sex in Ethnology". Through the Southwest Society, which she founded in 1918, Parsons financed the research and publications of several generations of southwestern anthropologists, male and female, and established a model for anthropological research as a collaborative enterprise. She had a great impact on feminism and the Southwest. Parsons was able to give anthropology a female point of view. She constantly expressed a feminist and anthropological concern with the constraints of custom and the influence of culture on individual expression.

Chambers, Keith S.

1973 The Indefatigable Elsie Clews Parsons, Folklorist. Western Folklore (32)3:180-198.

Chambers’ article describes Elsie Clews Parsons as an early feminist and social reformer with interests in promoting rational sexual mores. The purpose of the article is mainly to describe some her works in folklore. Many of her anthropological writings contain emphasis on ceremony and ritual. When she changed from sociology to anthropology, not only did her focus of interest change, but her approach went through a turn around as well. Her work became incredibly detailed and she spent years analyzing her field notes before publishing. Her interest led to influence by Boas, who wanted her to study folklore. Boas was convinced of the need to rescue the remaining fragments of "primitive" languages and cultures, and passed this feeling on to Parsons. This article states that Parsons' major theoretical interest was documenting the themes and motifs of New World folklore in order to trace them back to European sources. Parsons was a great financial supporter. She made many trips to the Caribbean, Bahamas, and various places in the Southern United States to document riddles and tales from people of African descent. She used voice recording equipment, and sometimes recorded the songs that accompanied the fables collected. She attempted to document folklore in both the traditional language and in English. She briefly recorded tales and riddles from the Cherokee of North Carolina. During the remainder of her life she focused on the Pueblo peoples of the American South West. She published vast amounts of articles on this subject, eventually culminating in her massive collection Pueblo Indian Religion as well as the lesser Taos Tales. 140 Isleta Paint-ings51 was published, most of which are unfortunately reproduced in black and white, but are still useful in depicting pueblo life.

Deacon, Desley .

1992 The Republic of the Spirit: Fieldwork in Elsie Clews Parson’s Turn to Anthropology. A Journal of Women Studies (12)3:13-38.

The purpose of Deacon’s article is to discuss Parsons' transition into anthropology and the motivation she had to do so. Her brief biography sets up the knowledge of her independent spirit, so that one can see why fieldwork was such as draw to Parsons, which ”provided the distance, the stimulus, the intellectual and physical rigor, and the supportive professional ties she needed to escape from the more conventional aspects of her life”. It allowed her to do something that was seen as unacceptable, her own act of rebellion. Parsons held a long standing desire to expand the roles and freedom of women in American during her time, and wrote several controversial articles and book on the subject. When she turned to anthropology, she continued to focus on women. Given in the article are in depth descriptions of her writings and fieldwork. Her new work allowed her to set up large professional networks in places she worked, and she made many friends in the field. One of these friends was Kroeber, who she credited with helping her stay objective. She always maintained her distance from the communities she studied and she never identified herself with the people she wrote about. She tried not to establish close relationships with informants, the point of all this being to stay objective and avoid stereotypes. An interesting aspect to her work was that she used dialogue from a variety of informants, and this often led to conflicting stories. One conclusion she came to through all her work in both anthropology and sociology was the need for a distinction between mating and parenthood. Parenthood, she thought, should be the public act of raising productive and healthy children. Mating, however, should become a private matter between individuals, where permanence was important, but not at the expense of spontaneity and personal freedom. Parsons also wrote that friendship was the essential basis of the mating relationship because it provided the greatest possibility for both companionship and personal freedom, while the sexual nature of the relationship was a secondary matter.

Lamphere, Louise

1989 Feminist Anthropology: The Legacy of Elsie Clews Parson. American Ethnologist (16)3:518-533.

This article looks at the sociological works, namely the books published by Parsons in the early part of her career. The Family, an outline of her lectures at Barnard, was very controversial because of its view of marriage and family patterns, and use of ethnological data to advocate trial marriage. Most of her sociological work focused on the constraints for women of marriage, the family, religion, and social etiquette. In several of her published works she emphasized the need for individual freedom and choice. Parsons hoped to one day removed the social categories of "Man" and "Woman," and equate womanhood with humanity. Her books The Old Fashioned Woman and Religious Chastity, as well as Fear and Conventionality, Social Freedom, and Social Rule all reflect a concern for the universal in women's experience, and use ethnographic evidence to demonstrate how women's lives were often constrained by taboos, confinement, and exclusion from male affairs. She often compared American society with other cultures to demonstrate her points. Her transition to anthropology led her to study folklore, family structures, diffusion, and culture history. To obtain information on the Southwest tribes, Parsons usually relied primarily on one family and a small circle of paid informants. In more secretive pueblos like Isleta, notes were made during interviews in a hotel room or at a nearby Spanish village. Parsons still focused on women and their practices. Some things she studied included offerings made by women in order to get pregnant, the taboos surrounding birth, postpartum practices, and naming ceremonies. Lamphere notes that Parsons made a transition from a feminism that sought to generalize about womens situation based on ethnographic examples, to an ethnographic observation, informant narration, and question and answer interrogation of natives.

Lamphere, Louise

1992 Women, Anthropology, Tourism, and the Southwest. A Journal of Women Studies (12)3:5-12.

This article analyzes the lives of five women who influenced the development and perception of the American Southwest. In particular, Elsie Clews Parsons, who was sensitive to the key role that the Spanish conquest played in transforming Pueblo culture, as well as the effects of reservation policies on pueblo tribes. Discussed are her methods of collecting information. It was known that the Pueblo people did not like sharing information with outsiders, and Parsons often worked in secret with informants outside the villages she was studying. Her work with the pueblo tribes and consequent writings reveal her interest in women's issues, sometimes giving her these issues a Native American perspective. Parsons' personal life is discussed; as well her attempts to find and promote a solution that combined family commitments and professional goals for women. Parsons created for herself a blend of fieldwork and ethnographic writing that often left the voices of Native American women intact and kept her own position visible. She was also a promoter of Native art in all forms.

Lowie, Robert H. 1960 The History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc.

Lowie analyzes the contributions of Boas to Parsons anthropological work, as well as her contributions to anthropology as a woman in the field. Some important observations made by Parsons had to do with family structure and power. She noted that the Navajo and Apache are matrilineal but have multiple clans, and the Hopi have an all encompassing matrilineal clanship system with no moieties, while some eastern tribes have moieties with patrilineal descent. She also studied marriage by capture and groom abduction, which was not uncommon in among the Puebloan tribes. Parsons saw a relationship between social structure and power, a sort of sequence. Puebloan women owned their homes, and so there came to be matrilocal residence, then lineages, and then clans. Her work is valued within anthropology because of its great detail and lack of static view often presented by investigators of her time.

Parezo, Nancy J., Ed. 1993 Hidden Scholars. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Parezo discusses many of Parson’s theoretical stances, including how she collected information and organized it. Parsons is described as a diffusionist, but also dabbled in functionalism and configurationalism. Parsons is highly thought of for her translation of Alexander Stephen’s diaries on the Hopi. Parsons along with Stevenson were the only people to successfully break down secrecy barriers and obtain info on the Zuni blue lake ceremony at the time. Despite being better known for her sociological work, Parsons wrote prolifically on the Southwest. She took annual trips to pueblos to work with the Zuni, Acoma, Tewa, and Laguna areas. She saw their folktales as coming from Spanish origins. As information was hard to come by, Parsons would sometimes pay informants to share tales and riddles with her. Parsons worked many years with the Pueblo Indians, eventually becoming a member of the Hopi tribe. She wrote The Pueblo of Jemez in 1925, which was the first full ethnography of a single Puebloan village ever. It included information on Pueblo history, contemporary relations, economic life, kin and clan, personal life, secular government, ceremonial life, rituals, and tales. In 1924 Parsons published The Religion of the Pueblo Indians, containing observations on variations from western to eastern pueblos with regard to social organization and religion, as well as linguistics and power structures.

Reichard, Gladys E. 1943 Elsie Clews Parsons. The Journal of American Folklore (56)219:45-48.

This article is one of a student writing on a mentor after her death. It gives an early biography and tells of Parsons’ consistency in defying social norms. Parsons had a pacifist outlook during WWI, and was called a passive feminist overall, because she simply refused to observe norms she did not agree with. Parsons had a great deal of education herself, and believed education was the greatest step towards furthering women. She first became interested in the Southwest on trip there with her husband Herbert. Parsons fought for women in the field, and supported women anthropologists both emotionally and financially to ensure their success. Parsons wrote much on the effects of Catholicism and the Spanish on Pueblo people. She went so far as to study the Spanish and Mexico to further these theories. She was known to write in great detail, and save as much as possible. Parsons felt that even a trivial clue may prove valuable later to someone with different point of view. Reichard portrays Parsons as a respecter of evidence, who did not skew things to fit her theories. A tolerant and honest patron, Parsons had a great influence on younger generations, and was a great teacher.

Reichard, Gladys A. 1950 The Elsie Clews Parsons Collection. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (94) 3:308-309.

Gladys Reichard, the Associate Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College discusses a collection of notebooks and unfinished manuscripts that were presented to the American Philosophical Society by Mrs. Parsons' children after her death. This article gives a brief description of Parson’s early life, as well as her education. It discusses her being influenced by Giddings, and the purpose of her books Religious Chastity, The Old-Fashioned Woman, and Fear and Conventionality, which are stated to be representative not only of her views of the force of social ideals, but also of the general change in social thinking characteristic of the times. Also talked of is her transition to anthropology and tutelage under P. E. Goddard, Franz Boas, and A. A. Goldenweiser. Also talked of is her great collection of folklore and religious information in Pueblo Indian Religion, and Mitla, Town of the Souls. Specific details of her many travels and adventures are shared. There were three major works donated by her children that have had a great deal of attention but remain unfinished. Most interesting are the Isleta paintings, a large collection of paintings from Isleta by a native of the pueblo. They are unique in their depiction of simple daily life, subject rarely shown in pueblo art. The two other works include a large collection of prayer-sticks with accompanying comparative information, and the fourth volume of her works from the Antilles.

Silverberg, Helene, Ed. 1998 Gender and American Social Science. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

The main purpose of this article is to demonstrate how Elsie Parsons used her anthropological work to relate back to her sociological ideals. She often used examples from Puebloan tribes to critique the status of American women and the Victorian gender legacy. Parsons felt that Puebloan women were given many more rights at the time despite the fact that they were considered primitive people. Parsons used this to demonstrate that gender roles are given, not inherent. A brief biography is also offered as well of some in depth information on Parson’s marriage to Herbert.