Elsie Clews Parsons: "Feminism And Conventionality"


  1. from Women in Public Life (1914)
  2. 1875-1941
  3. cultural anthropologist, president of AAA


° raises questions about impact of restriction of women to private/home sphere
° suggests women “closer to life” than men
° thematizes “difference” per se and its role in social dynamics
° argues from cross-cultural evidence


  1. Greeley quote: women never free or equal so long as it’s felt she needs an escort, etc. Women have won lots of rights (19teens) but reforms lack effect if oppressive conventionalities remain
  2. Risk of being alone associated with women in many cultures
  3. Women’s place focuses on family circle, home, familiar. Women encouraged to be averse to the strange, exotic, unfamiliar and so are marked with less ability to “socialize” and be “hospitable.” BUT in the home they have to put up with all manner of strangeness and they “cannot get away, like me, from their children or their parents” and have to make the best of it
    • cf. “a room of one’s own”
  4. Women more subject to proprieties and taboos and conventions
    • Other behavioral choice with “the different” is avoidance (the first is “conventionality”). This men get to do. With older and younger and women they segregate, have their own clubs and so on.
  5. But when there are domestic disasters, women are the one’s who deal with births, deaths, sickness, etc. Our practice is to ignore changes until too late and then diverting our attention with ceremonies (175a5). Mourning, birthing, initiation.
  6. The anti-feminist will say that even if women do it the men’s way, differences remain.
    • What’s up? She says it is the “apprehension of difference rather than actual difference which bulks so large now and always in the social regulation of sex” (176a6). What does this mean?
    • She says the anti-feminist (would we say “sexist”?) does not want to preserve difference but is afraid of it.
    • Differences in age, in caste, in family, and in race, have filled mankind with analogous apprehensions and prompted analogous methods and plans of self protection (176a8).
    • DJR: so it makes sense to talk of “sexism” by analogy to “racism”?
  7. All of these manifestations of difference have an associated vicious circle: unlikeness ® exclusion/seclusion ® unlikeness.
    • Modern spirit tries to break these down. Fear of the unlike is waning. Tolerance.
    • "…that great fear, is passing. With it are bound to go the devices of self-protection it prompted – ceremonial, conventionality, and segregation. In this general movement of the human spirit feminism was born; upon its march the hopes of feminism ultimately must depend" (176b2).


What do we get when we compare Dubois’ “double consciousness” with Gilman and/or Parsons?

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