Elsie Clews Parsons, The Journal of a Feminist

Born November 27, 1875, in New York City, Elsie Clews Parsons was the eldest of three children and the only daughter of Henry Clews, the son of a Staffordshire potter who had emigrated to the U.S. and founded a New York bank, and Lucy Madison Worthington, a descendent of President James Madison. Her life followed the main contours of one of her social position, but Parsons demonstrated a great degree of independence. Although her family pressed her to become a debutante, she chose instead to pursue an education, attending Barnard where she received an A.B. in 1896, and then on to Columbia, where she received a Ph.D. in sociology in 1899.

Though married and the mother of four children, Parsons turned her seemingly limitless reserves of both energy and cash to pacifism, socialism, feminism, and anthropology. After a brief appointment as an instructor in the Sociology Department at Barnard College from 1902 to 1905, she taught graduate courses on the family and sex roles at Columbia University. She spent a good deal of her time with young radicals and intellectuals, and wrote occasionally for Max Eastman's Masses. She also became involved with Heterodoxy, a feminist network in Greenwich village. Later, she was one of the founders of The New School for Social Research in New York City.

Parsons's scholarship falls mostly into two categories: sociological studies, taking as a special interest the politics of sex and gender; and folkloric and ethnographic writings, focusing especially on the Native Americans of the American Southwest. Parsons's first major publication was her 1906 study, The Family, which grew out of her lectures at Columbia University. In it, Parsons put forth a feminist argument that the admonitions upon women to serve as mothers and wives proved women's fitness to social and political equality with men. Because Parsons discussed trial marriage in the study, preachers decried her from pulpits, newspapers denounced her on their front pages, and the social registry dropped her name from its rolls. Parsons followed this study with Religious Chastity (1913), The Old-Fashioned Woman (1913), Fear and Conventionality (1914), Social Freedom (1915), and Social Rule (1916). Parsons' later ethnographic studies, the result of tireless research in the American Southwest from the early 1910s until her death in 1941, include Pueblo Indian Religion (1939) and Tewa Tales (1926).

Her Journal of a Feminist, unpublished in her lifetime, provides an outstanding introduction to her philosophy. In it, Parsons argues not only for the liberation of women, but for the free expression of the individual personality in society. It is important to note that her criticism of the stifling effects of gender expectations applied both to men and to women. In part her research about gender roles in Native American societies, and especially about gender-crossing informed these concerns.

Questions to Think About:

1) What was Elsie Clews Parsons's incentive to write this? What goals did she hope it would accomplish?

2) Why does Parsons adopt the literary device of having a fictional character--the Cynthia who "writes" the journal of a feminist--express her ideas? What freedoms does this give Parsons as a writer?

3) What does it mean when Cynthia and Elsie disagree?

4) What does Parsons see as the lot of women in her own society? How does that compare to the place of women in other societies?

5) According to Parsons, how did men gain control over women economically, socially, culturally, sexually? Do you agree with Parsons's assessment of the origins of gender restrictions?

6) Does Cynthia (or Parsons) recognize any situations, factors, or identities that divide women? What does she recommend to overcome these divisions?

Further resources for studying Elsie Clews Parsons:

The Modernism Timeline, 1890-1940, will help place Parsons in context.

You can see how some foreign travelers to the US in the 19th century commented on the status of women.

Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for History 182 (Women's History and Feminist Theory), The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to lavender@postbox.csi.cuny.edu
Last modified: Thursday 26 February 1998.