ELSIE CLEWS PARSONS: Inventing Modern Life by Desley Deacon

ELSIE CLEWS PARSONS: Inventing Modern Life

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Despite the wade through Deacon's (American Studies/Univ. of Texas, Austin) dense writing and disheveled timeline, Elsie Clews Parsons's story shines through. A feminist and anthropologist active in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, she consistently challenged the prevailing ideas and prejudices of her time. Parsons, a well-educated member of New York's upper class, drew her feminist ideas from her extensive studies of sociology and anthropology. Deacons chronicles Parsons's professional career as a groundbreaking ethnographer, detailing her ""modernist"" theories, her fieldwork in the Southwest, and her impact on the anthropological community. Her numerous published papers focused on dissecting and revamping cultural norms, from marriage to sex and birth control, all with the aim of spurring social change for women. Her professional career was balanced by an equally active personal life full of adventures, children, and romances, though Parsons carefully kept this life separate from her professional labors. WW I served as a turning point for Parsons, sending her off into new areas of research. A pacifist appalled by the ""melting pot"" acculturation propaganda preached by Woodrow Wilson, and by the racial intolerance that increased with the onset of the war, she immersed herself in understanding the culture of the Pueblo people of the Southwest, where she at last found serenity. (She continued her trips to the Southwest for anthropological research until her death in 1941.) After the war ended, Parsons returned to New York, where she resumed teaching and publishing, and worked to encourage aspiring social scientists. While Parsons's story is a remarkable one, Deacon views her subject as a ""carrier of culture"" in the new modernist era and thus continually interrupts her narrative to cram in extensive, and rather dry, academic explanations of her subject's anthropological theories and her influences, making for an uneven portrait of a remarkable figure.

Pub Date: May 15th, 1997
Page count: 517pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago