Mary Brown Parlee, former visiting professor of women’s studies on the Tallman Foundation, 1992-93, died on June 27, 2018, in Boston, Massachusetts.
(The following was published in The Boston Globe on July 25, 2018):
In the 1970s, psychologist Mary Brown Parlee published groundbreaking research pushing back against the rise of the catch-all diagnosis premenstrual syndrome, and she forged a trailblazing career that ultimately brought her to question modern feminism.
She debunked unscientific ideas about PMS after national headlines carried claims that “raging hormones” made women dangerously unfit for top jobs, including as airline pilots.
“Dr. Parlee laid out the parameters that are still used today for understanding how women’s bodies and experiences are pathologized by the medical establishment and exploited by the pharmaceutical industry,” said Leonore Tiefer, a New York psychologist and longtime activist against the “medicalization” of natural experiences.
Dr. Parlee, who had been a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1994 and formerly was director of the City University of New York’s Center for the Study of Women and Society, died June 27 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke. She lived in Somerville and was 75.
“She was a questioner. She always wanted to explore alternatives to conventional wisdom,” said her friend Susan Milmoe, a former Radcliffe College classmate who works in academic publishing. “I was always eager to know what Mary thought.”
Dr. Parlee was “unfailingly polite and mild-mannered, modest to a fault, but she was clear-eyed and determined,” Tiefer said.
When Tiefer launched a campaign in 1999 against pharmaceutical companies marketing new drugs in response to the success of Viagra, Dr. Parlee came to the group’s first meeting. Dr. Parlee warned her friend “that the pharmaceutical industry wouldn’t stand for it and would have me mowed down,” Tiefer recalled.
“When I told her I was going to do it anyway, in part because her work had made it clear that we were right, she drily wished me luck and told me she wouldn’t say, ‘I told you so,’ if it all came crashing down,’ ” Tiefer said.
Dr. Parlee, who earned her doctorate in experimental psychology from MIT in 1969, focused more recent research on the historical and philosophical foundations of neuroscience. She also developed a graduate course in transsexualism in response to requests from transgender students at MIT.
For the 50th anniversary report of her Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1965, Dr. Parlee wrote a note acknowledging the progress feminism had wrought for young women like her daughter, who is a physician, and the many young women she taught during more than four decades in academia. But she also expressed some ambivalence.
“Today’s version of feminism is not something I identify with, however, nor do I think early efforts by me and others to bring feminist insights into scientific psychology have borne much intellectual fruit,” wrote Dr. Parlee, who was on the advisory board of Ms. Magazine in its early years and was an early president of the Society for the Psychology of Women.
“Since I thought of myself as a feminist for most of my adult life, and built a hard-won, substantial reputation as a feminist psychologist in the academic world, it is disquieting — for want of a better word — to be forced by present realities into rethinking such basic commitments,” she wrote. “Maybe that is why I don’t have much perspective right now on the past 50 years; I’m still trying to work it out.”
In her mid-60s, Dr. Parlee converted to Catholicism.
“Given her feminist history, it was fascinating and hard to figure out,” said her daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Parlee, who was raised in the Episcopal church and practices family medicine at the Cambridge Health Alliance.
She said her mother was “incredibly humble” and more interested in big ideas than small talk. When Elizabeth was growing up, her mother established a nightly routine at dinner, during which they would discuss a column Elizabeth chose daily from the opinion pages of The New York Times.
Later in life, Dr. Parlee became a devoted grandmother, cheering on her grandsons at their hockey games and entertaining them on Halloween as what she described as “an aging hippie witch.”
Born Mary Esther Brown in Oak Park, Ill., Dr. Parlee was the eldest of three children. Her father, Grant S. Brown, was an engineer. Her mother, Esther, whose last name was Bonter before marrying, was a secretary and sponsor of the arts.
Upon graduating from MIT, she was pointed by her professors toward work at Wellesley College, she recalled, while her male counterparts were encouraged to look for opportunities nationwide. She taught at Wellesley until 1972 and took part in the first interdisciplinary conference on menstrual cycle research, held at the University of Illinois Chicago.
Dr. Parlee’s first marriage, to Dr. Robert Parlee, a Boston radiologist, ended in divorce. She and her daughter then moved to New York, where she taught at Barnard College until 1978 and later joined the faculty at the CUNY.
In a note to her Harvard and Radcliffe classmates for their 25th anniversary report, she said she belatedly received tenure at CUNY after enduring “once again, foolish remarks about feminist scholarship from administrators who have never read a word of it.”
She was 47 when she fell in love with Joseph A. Bauer Jr., a psychologist whom she first met at MIT in the late-’60s. They reconnected in 1990 when they were both divorced single parents spending summers at Pickerel Pond in Maine.
Midlife gave Dr. Parlee the courage to enter a new relationship, she told Harvard Magazine, which published a feature in 2009 about love in the second half of life.
“I realized I had to do something or my life was not going to change, and that I wanted someone I could be my whole self with,” she said. “So when Joe and I got together I knew that I had to take a risk, even though I was scared.”
They were married for 27 years and lived for a time in Brunswick, Maine, while Dr. Parlee was a visiting professor at Bowdoin College.
He began suffering from dementia in their later years. Dr. Parlee cared for him for several years. “It broke my heart last year when I finally cracked and could no longer care for him at home,” she said in her class reunion notes in 2015.
In addition to her husband, who lives in Bedford, and her daughter, Elizabeth, who lives in Somerville, Dr. Parlee leaves her brother, Grant Brown of Pittsburgh; her sister, Barbara Brown Clarke of Danielson, Conn.; her stepsons, Christopher Bauer of Westwood and Joseph A. Bauer IV of Framingham; a stepdaughter, Wendy Bauer of Springfield; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
In an interview for a multimedia archival project at York University in Toronto called “Psychology’s Feminist Voices,” Dr. Parlee reflected on episodes of sexism and dismissive attitudes toward her work that she had endured over the course of 40 years in academia.
“In some circles, I am sure many circles still today, it is not an advantage to be identified as a feminist scholar,” she said.