Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life

By Desley Deacon | Go to book overview
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Dear Propagandist

ELSIE Clews Parsons's absorption into the world of Boasian cultural anthropology was gradual. Her children were still young: Lissa was thirteen in 1914, John eleven, and the two "little boys," Herbert and Mac, five and three respectively. Between 1913 and 1915, as she passed her fortieth birthday, Parsons's life was centered in New York, Newport, and Lenox, her thirst for adventure satisfied by an exciting intellectual life varied by camping and canoeing expeditions with Grant LaFarge. Her only trip to the Southwest during this period was the week's ride through the Rio Grande pueblos in the fall of 1913. During the following summer, she tried once more to travel with Herbert and the children, but their five-week western trip was disastrous. "American cities have nothing to give you and the National Parks, if not 'sentimental,' are 'unreal,'" she wrote Herbert. "Although I wasn't cranky enough to spoil things (as I had feared I might be) you must see now that there wasn't the slightest point in my being of the party. At times I may have been of some advantage to Lissa, but in ways that she will have me to call upon at any time in the next few years."1

Education by "Polynesian Analogues"

During these years, Parsons thought of herself primarily as a feminist social reformer who used her ethnographic skills and her ethnological knowledge to educate people to observe and think about their own experience with greater immediacy and freshness. "She is naturally a reformer, not merely an iconoclast," she wrote of herself in the introduction to "Journal of a Feminist," "and she does appear to take her sex--but fortunately not herself--a little seriously." From the publication of her article "Supernatural Policing of Women" in the Independent in February 1912, she was determined to use anthropology to change the way the intellectual classes


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