Elsie Clews, the daughter of Henry Clews, was born in New York City on 27th November, 1875. Her family were extremely rich and she was educated in expensive private schools before attending Barnard College where she was taught by Franz Boas.
In 1900 she married Herbert Parsons, a New York attorney. Elsie Clews Parsons lectured in sociology at Barnard until her husband was elected to Congress in 1905. She now moved to Washington and concentrated on writing. Her first book, The Family, was published in 1906.
Parsons also contributed to The Nation as well as publishing Religious Chastity (1913), The Old Fashioned Woman (1913), Fear and Conventionality (1914), Social Freedom (1915) and Social Rule (1916). Parsons held radical political views and was a strong supporter of women's suffrage. During the First World War she was an active member of the Woman's Peace Party.
In 1918 Parsons became associate editor of the Journal of American Folklore. She also published several books on the subject including Folk-Tales of Andros Island (1918), Folk-Lore from the Cape Verde Islands (1923), Folklore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina (1923), The Social Organization of the Tewa of New Mexico (1929), Hopi and Zuni Ceremonialism (1933) and Folk-Lore of the Antilles, French and English (1933).
Inspired by the work of Frank Boas, Parsons became interested in anthropology. After many years of field research in North America, Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean and eventually published Mitla: Town of the Souls (1936) and Pueblo Indian Religion (1939).
Elsie Clews Parsons died in New York City on 19th December, 1941.