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49 2 Present at the Creation M ost of the earliest women anthropologists had little or no professional training; in this respect, Elsie Clews Parsons is a bit of an anomaly for her “informal” career cohort, in part because she had undergone professional training as a sociologist.1 Nonetheless, from 1916 to 1941, Parsons produced ninety-five publications concerning the Southwest, ninety of which dealt with the Pueblo peoples of Arizona and New Mexico. Nothing in Elsie Clews Parsons’s family background would have led people to expect she would become a pathbreaker, although those who knew her often characterized her as something of a force of nature. Born November 27, 1875, in New York City, Parsons was the eldest child of three and the only daughter of Henry Clews, the son of a Staffordshire potter who had emigrated to the United States and founded a New York bank, and Lucy Madison Worthington, a descendent of President James Madison.2 Her life followed the main contours of a person 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 an M.A. in 1897, and a Ph.D. in 1899. She wrote her dissertation on “The Educational Legislation and Administration of the Colonies.” She studied at Columbia with sociologist Franklin H. Giddings, a Spencerian committed to “self-realization.”3 Later, Franz Boas would 50 CHAPTER 2 recall Parsons’s “intense devotion to individual freedom,” spawned in no small part during her study with Giddings.4 Boas characterized Parsons’s early work as “a strenuous revolt against convention . . . a purely intellectual criticism of fundamental forms of our modern ways of life.”5 While Boas’s recollections of Parsons tended to focus on her thought, she also cut a rather memorable figure on a personal level, as the woman of high social status who haunted the halls of academia ; Alfred Kroeber later recalled that “her statuesque figure floated through the seminar alcoves of the Low Library on Morningside Heights as a memorably astonishing sight.”6 In 1900, a year after she completed her doctorate, Elsie Clews married Herbert Parsons, with whom she maintained an open marriage until his sudden death in 1925. With the exception of a stormy period over an affair between Herbert and academic reformer Lucy Wilson—incidentally one of the first women archaeologists to work in the northern Rio Grande region—the union was one in which Parsons found support for her academic pursuits and social activism. One marked ideological rift occurred, however, during World War I, when Herbert volunteered for service in the intelligence branch of the American Expeditionary Force; Elsie remained behind, holding to her staunch pacifist stance. Parsons spoke publicly against the war and American involvement, losing and making friends because of her position. Writing infrequently and with emotional distance, Parsons chose to pass her greetings to Herbert through her young sons.7 Alfred Kroeber recalled her demeanor during the war as evidence of Parsons’s commitment to personal freedom, later writing that “As late as the middle of our participation in the First World War she refused to shake hands with any member of our armed forces: she had always disapproved the gesture as a dictation, she was doubly annoyed by the hierarchical status implied by the uniform.”8 Her reticence deepened as her frustration with Herbert’s support for the war grew. Elsie Clews Parsons bore six children while married to Herbert Parsons, four of whom—John Edward, Lissa, Herbert, and Henry McIlvaine—survived.9 She also took on the demanding role of political wife after Herbert won election to Congress representing New York. However, she continued to challenge pointless convention and 51 PRESENT AT THE CREATION to put her own unique style forward; on one memorable occasion, she refused to speak as a congressman’s wife unless she was allowed to wear her favorite color, orange.10 And she insisted on remaining with the men after dinner rather than retiring from the table. Throughout her marriage to Herbert and especially after his death, 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...


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