Patricia Auspos

Published On


Page Range

pp. 175–258


  • English

Print Length

84 pages

3. Separate Careers, Separate Lives

Elsie Clews Parsons and Herbert Parsons

  • Patricia Auspos (author)
Elsie Clews Parsons (1874-1941) and her husband Herbert Parsons (1869-1925) present a very different pattern of conflict and accommodation in a marriage shaped by the wife’s determination to work. Both Elsie and Herbert came from wealthy and prominent New York families. When they married in 1900, after a six-year courtship, Elsie was an atheist, a feminist, and a social rebel who openly challenged female stereotypes and traditional roles. A Ph.D. in sociology, she was teaching at Barnard College and insisted on keeping her job. Herbert, a deeply religious and rather staid man, was a successful lawyer and politician.
Although Elsie and Herbert seemed mismatched, I argue, in contrast to other of Elsie’s biographers, that their marriage was a love match. Their troubles began after Herbert was elected to Congress in 1904. Elsie gave up her teaching job, moved to Washington with their two children, and had four more children (two died shortly after birth). When the controversial views she espoused in her first book set off a public furor that offended and embarrassed Herbert, she stopped publishing under her own name. A few years later, she was wracked with jealousy when she thought he had fallen in love with another woman.

Elsie and Herbert did not divorce, but they led increasingly separate lives after they returned to New York in 1911. Elsie organized her personal and domestic life around two new careers. After establishing a foothold in the feminist, bohemian intellectual world in Greenwich Village, she became a sought-after, influential social critic, writing for The Masses and The New Republic. Then she connected with Franz Boas’s professional circle and became a highly respected anthropologist, studying indigenous peoples in the American Southwest, the Caribbean, and South America.
Elsie had two lengthy love affairs, with the architect Grant LaFarge, and the novelist Robert Herrick. She deliberately chose lovers who – unlike Herbert – were adventurous, interested in her work, and eager to travel with her. In the late teens and twenties, her relationship with Herbert gradually improved, in part because he took on more responsibility for their four surviving children. His unexpected death in 1925, while she was involved with Herrick, was a blow for Elsie.
Deeply in love with Elsie, Herrick wrote about her in several novels and short stories in the 1920s. Initially supportive of her work, he became increasingly jealous of her success and deeply angry at being reduced to what he thought was a subordinate role in her life. His last book about her, published in 1932, several years after their affair ended, cruelly disparaged her and her work.
Elsie was repeatedly disappointed by the men in her life, but she never stopped trying to implement her feminist vision of a more equitable and intimate relationship grounded in work rather than domestic life.


Patricia Auspos


A graduate of Barnard College, Patricia Auspos earned a Ph.D. in Modern British History from Columbia University and taught at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She researched and wrote about social policy issues and programs as a staff member at MDRC and the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, and as an independent consultant. Breaking Conventions is her first book. She lives in Jackson Heights, New York City.