Culture is not a thing.  It is a negotiation, an ongoing tumult of borrowings and innovations hung upon a skeleton of previously accumulated borrowings and innovations, ever claiming proud uniqueness even in the midst of the most profound civilizational mimicry.  Culturally, everybody borrows from everybody in strands of mutual entanglement that stretch over centuries and continents.

The search for “pure” cultures, once the grail of anthropologists and ethnologists, was conclusively shown to be an empty quest by the towering work of a woman of astonishingly diverse gifts at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Elsie Clews Parsons (1875-1941).  Her studies of the long hand of Spanish and Aztec influence working their way into the practice of modern Southwest American Indian tribes showed the true scope and power of acculturation, and worked against the racist paradigms of the Americanization movement in the 1920s and 1930s, just as her close readings of New York high society scorched irretrievably the restrictive sexual mores of the waning Gilded Age.

elsie clews parsons

That glittering, empty era of the late 1890s and early 1900s, when five hundred families ruled New York society as a benevolent oligarchy, was Parsons’s native soil.  Born in 1875 to Lucy Worthington and her New York banker husband Henry Clews, Parsons was expected to be yet another dutiful member of the debutante set.  Her parents were strangers living in the same house, her father married to his work while her mother found her satisfaction in conspicuous consumption and a to-the-letter adherence to the behavioral codes of her class.

Lucy hoped that young Elsie would share her love of shopping, and of belonging to an elite social circle by means of impeccable manners and social instincts.  But Elsie soon showed herself to be cut of different cloth entirely – she loved books and rose early to study them and when, finally, she tore herself away from their grasp it was not to pay calls on powerful society matrons, but to throw herself into rough and tumble outdoor adventures.  In what was to be the pattern of the rest of her life, she escaped the demands of society in the challenges of nature and the mind, and ought to have surprised no one when she added College to the list of things she felt urgently she simply Must do.

Parsons enrolled at Barnard College in 1892, only three years after it first opened its doors, very much against the wishes of her mother.  It hadn’t yet been two decades since Dr. Edward Clarke ventured his scholarly opinion that academic work damaged women’s health and in particular compromised their reproductive organs, and Parsons’s family were anxious for her well-being.  College might be all right for women who had to earn a living as teachers, but for a girl of means and breeding, what possible use could it be?

But Parsons had her way, and found her natural match in the field of anthropology.  Her thoughts about the strict codifications governing human interaction, honed over decades observing the hyper-ritualized Wealthy Set of New York, found fertile soil in the method and theories of anthropology, and especially in the views of culture put forth by the students of Franz Boas.  Boas, whom we met before as a mentor of Margaret Mead and will meet again when I finally get around to telling the tale of Ruth Benedict, was attempting to work a small revolution in how anthropology was done by stressing the need to look at civilizations on their own terms, rather than through the lens of an evolutionary European standard model.

As Parsons learned more about this new school of anthropological thought, she applied it to her own social milieu, seeing in the supposed High Culture conventions of her class just echoes of ritualistic practices millennia old.  In books like The Family (1906), The Old-Fashioned Woman (1913), and Fear and Conventionality (1914), Parsons placed modern American social and religious life squarely within the context of ancient fears and prejudices.  Convention is our armor against an instinctual fear of The Other, one we get so accustomed to wearing that we think of it as normal clothing.  And nowhere has our society become more twisted and senselessly codified than in its gender relations and approach to sexual mores.

Her arguments for trial marriage in The Family scandalized the nation.  In that book she lobbied for child-bearing as the license-worthy central event of a couple’s relationship, not the act of sexual coupling.  Childbirth is the moment when commitments must be deepened and promises made, she advocated, not in the frenzied clutches of sexual desires at full boil.  Parsons herself had married in 1900, and after the scandal of The Family and a series of unsuccessful pregnancies culminating in the birth of a child that nearly killed her, she decided that her life needed fundamental reordering.

“In her time, Parsons was a powerful and persuasive voice arguing for a new and more fluid notion of culture…”

She would no longer live a married life that meant only personal frustration.  She wanted freedom to travel and study other cultures, to escape from the expectations of the traditional wife, and to take on other lovers if and when she felt it necessary to.  She and her husband came to an agreement by which they would stay married and send the children to boarding school, freeing Parsons up to take her first trips to the American Southwest to study pueblo culture there.

Disgusted by America’s entry into World War I, and the racist hysteria it whipped up against Germans and other nationalities, Parsons threw herself into her work with America’s native cultures, and with preserving the folklore traditions of the African diaspora.  In these early days of professional anthropology, funding was thin on the ground, and so Parsons used her own personal wealth to finance not only her own expeditions, but those of others seeking to broaden our knowledge of the American Southwest.  She discovered how rituals that seemed to express the essence of a “pure” Indian racial identity were actually complex mixtures of Spanish, medieval Christian, and Aztec borrowings that fanned out over the Americas in combinations of tantalizing variety.

Her theories about how individuals within cultures decide what elements of other cultures they will appropriate, and what ones reject, set the stage for the next half century of acculturation studies.  She found that ideas that did not intersect at many points with current practice, like Jesus mythology, was disregarded and dropped by native tribes, while others with multiple points of contact, like rituals dealing with the Christian saints, were eagerly appropriated and combined with existing rituals.  To an America that was in the full embrace of eugenics enthusiasm, Parsons’s studies pointed to the arbitrary folly of characterizing any set of practices and ideas as “purely American.”

In the Southwest, and later in Mexico, Parsons went routinely in the field with male colleagues to demonstrate that women and men could do meaningful fieldwork together, paving the way for Bunzler, Mead, and Benedict, and a whole generation of women anthropologists besides, to do their work unencumbered by administrative hemming and hawing about Proprieties Being Observed.  When her father died in 1923, Elsie inherited considerable wealth, and used it to expand her funding of worthwhile anthropology in the Boasian tradition.  Journals and expeditions and supplies and support staff for a whole web of needy practitioners were financed by Parsons, while she spent more time in the field herself, culminating in the magnum opus of her work in Mexico observing the inhabitants of the Zapotecan city of Mitla.

Mitla: Town of the Souls (1936) was a tour de force that wove together history, psychology, ritual, town gossip, biography, and daily life in a fashion rigorous enough for the academic world but engaging enough to have popular success.  She followed that up with a 1200 page compendium of all her knowledge of pueblo culture as gathered through three decades of observations and research, Pueblo Indian Religion (1939), which cemented her status as one of America’s most important living anthropologists.  As a result, she was fast-tracked to the vice-presidency of the American Anthropological Association, a position which would have led her to the presidency in 1941 had she not died of kidney failure shortly before she would have assumed that position.

In her time, Parsons was a powerful and persuasive voice arguing for a new and more fluid notion of culture, one which lent support to her larger sociological project of increasing mutual understanding through discussion and inclusion.  She spoke out for women’s sexual liberation in the Aughts, for pacifism in the midst of World War I, against the racism of the Americanization and eugenicist movements in the Teens and Twenties, and for a more multi-faceted approach to anthropological fieldwork in the Thirties.  Her purse financed a new generation of Boas-inspired ethnologists while her writings inspired them to try new approaches in integrating with a community and allowing it to tell its own tales.

With the passage of time have come objections to her methods, some clearly justified, like her early habit of stealing cultural artifacts under cover of night or telling deliberate lies about belonging to a far removed tribe to lure her subjects into talking about their own, and others more complicated to disentangle, like the charges of racism made against her for over-idealizing the cultures she recorded.  That those accusations have been made at all, though, is a sign of how much Parsons, and those she supported, succeeded in directing anthropology away from the evolutionary course it had been on.  She developed a standard for approaching cultures on the basis of listening to their sense of self-identity and teasing out their historical connections with other civilizations, and anthropologists have been building on that standard since.  Born into privilege, she spent her life speaking unpopular truths and documenting the course and evolution of vanishing civilizations – feminist, modernist, philanthropist, in the end she was simply Elsie Clews Parsons, anthropologist, and mentor.

Lead image: Photo via Wikimedia, Creative Commons. Property of the Parsons family. Submitted to Wikipedia by James Parsons. Photo taken sometime between 1926 and 1941, likely by one of her children with her own camera, but exact photographer is unknown.


FURTHER READING: Two books leap to mind when thinking about Elsie Clews Parsons.  Peter Hare’s A Woman’s Quest for Science: Portrait of Anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons (1985) and Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life (1997) by Deasley Deacon.  Deacon’s book is the more thorough (as it should be, at some four times the length), but curiously doesn’t bring up some of the points Hare makes about the loose ethics of some of her early field practices.  Of her own writings, Fear and Conventionality is still in print and a good example of her early sociological writings, while Pueblo Indian Religion is likewise still in print in two massive volumes for those interested in her comprehensive later work.

And for more awesome Women in Science comics, check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 12 and 3.