Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life

By Desley Deacon | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
The Experimental Life

WHEN Elsie Clews married Herbert Parsons in September 1900, she was consciously embarking on an experimental life. Just as young white women of M. Carey Thomas's day, haunted by "the clanging chains of that gloomy specter, Dr. Edward Clarke's Sex in Education," did not know whether their health could stand the strain of education, those of Elsie's day did not know if they could successfully combine work, marriage, and childbearing.1

The prejudices against the experiment were strong. Most career women of Carey Thomas's generation deliberately eschewed marriage in favor of households of women or a loving relationship with another woman. Often separating the spirituality of love from the physical character of sexuality, they found satisfaction in female friendships, relationships with kin, or in devotion to needy groups. Unmarried women, either as couples or alone, sometimes adopted children or took responsibility for orphaned nephews or nieces; but husbands and pregnancies were seen to be incompatible with regular work outside the home. Many female friendships provided sexual as well as spiritual companionship, but the erotic element was rarely acknowledged publicly and the apparent celibacy of many professional women was not regarded as a problem.

New York did offer some prominent role models of professional women who were also wives and mothers, such as journalist Jane Croly and physician Mary Putnam Jacobi. Among Elsie's own generation, she had the example of Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch and Emily James Putnam. But just as Elsie and Herbert were announcing their engagement in April 1900, the pregnant Emily Putnam reluctantly resigned from Barnard owing to "ill health" after a bitter struggle to keep her position; and her friend Alice Duer Miller had forfeited a promising career in mathematics to write "amid the ven

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