Overview of life
Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901 – November 15, 1978) was an American cultural anthropologist, who was frequently a featured writer and speaker in the mass media throughout the 1960s and 1970s. She earned her bachelor degree at Barnard College in New York City, and her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University.
She was both a popularizer of the insights of anthropology into modern American and Western culture and a respected, if controversial, academic anthropologist. Her reports about the attitudes towards sex in South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures amply informed the 1960s sexual revolution. Mead was a champion of broadened sexual mores within a context of traditional western religious life.
An Anglican Christian, she played a considerable part in the drafting of the 1979 American Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
Early life and education
Mead, the first of five children, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but raised in Doylestown. Her father, Edward Sherwood Mead, was a professor of finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and her mother, Emily (Fogg) Mead, was a sociologist who studied Italian immigrants. Her sister Katharine (1906–1907) died at the age of nine months. This was a traumatic event for Mead, who had named this baby, and thoughts of her lost sister permeated her daydreams for many years. Her family moved frequently, so her early education alternated between home-schooling and traditional schools. Her family owned the Longland farm from 1912 to 1926. Born into a family of varying religious outlooks, she searched for a form of religion that gave an expression of the faith that she had been formally acquainted with, Christianity. In doing so, she found the rituals of the Episcopal Church to fit the expression of religion she was seeking. Margaret studied one year, 1919, at DePauw University, then transferred to Barnard College where she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1923.
She studied with professor Franz Boas and Dr. Ruth Benedict at Columbia University before earning her Master’s in 1924. Mead set out in 1925 to do fieldwork in Samoa. In 1926, she joined the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, as assistant curator. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1929.
Both of Mead’s surviving sisters were married to well-known men. Elizabeth Mead (1909–1983), an artist and teacher, married cartoonist William Steig, and Priscilla Mead (1911–1959) married author Leo Rosten. Mead also had a brother, Richard, who became a professor.
Before departing for Samoa, Mead had a short affair with the linguist Edward Sapir, a close friend of Ruth Benedict. But Sapir’s conservative ideas about marriage and the woman’s role were anathema to Mead, and as Mead left to do field work in Samoa the two separated permanently. Mead received news of Sapir’s remarriage while still in Samoa, and burned their correspondence there on the beach .
Mead was married three times. Her first husband (1923–1928) was American Luther Cressman, a theology student at the time who eventually became an anthropologist. Mead dismissively characterized their union as “my student marriage” in Blackberry Winter, a sobriquet with which Cressman took vigorous issue. Her second husband was New Zealander Reo Fortune, a Cambridge graduate (1928–1935). As an anthropologist, his Sorcerers of Dobu remains the locus classicus of eastern Papuan anthropology, but he is best known instead for his Fortunate number theory.
Her third and longest-lasting marriage (1936–1950) was to the British Anthropologist Gregory Bateson with whom she had a daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, who would also become an anthropologist. Her pediatrician was Benjamin Spock early in his career. Spock’s subsequent writings on child rearing incorporated some of Mead’s own practices and beliefs acquired from her ethnological field observations which she shared with him; in particular, breastfeeding on the baby’s demand rather than a schedule. She readily acknowledged that Gregory Bateson was the husband she loved the most. She was devastated when he left her, and she remained his loving friend ever after, keeping his photograph by her bedside wherever she traveled, including beside her hospital deathbed.
Mead also had an exceptionally close relationship with Ruth Benedict, one of her instructors. In her memoir about her parents, With a Daughter’s Eye, Mary Catherine Bateson implies that the relationship between Benedict and Mead was partly sexual. While Margaret Mead never openly identified herself as lesbian or bisexual, the details of her relationship with Benedict have led others to so identify her. In her writings she proposed that it is to be expected that an individual’s sexual orientation may evolve throughout life.
She spent her last years in a close personal and professional collaboration with anthropologist Rhoda Metraux, with whom she lived from 1955 until her death in 1978. Letters between the two published in 2006 with the permission of Mead’s daughter clearly express a romantic relationship.
Career and later life
During World War II, Mead served as executive secretary of the National Research Council’s Committee on Food Habits. She served as curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History from 1946 to 1969. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1948. She taught at The New School and Columbia University, where she was an adjunct professor from 1954 to 1978 and was a professor of anthropology and chair of the Division of Social Sciences at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus from 1968 to 1970, founding their anthropology department. Following Ruth Benedict’s example, Mead focused her research on problems of child rearing, personality, and culture. She served as president of the American Anthropological Association in 1960. She held various positions in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, notably president in 1975 and chair of the executive committee of the board of directors in 1976. She was a recognizable figure in academia, usually wearing a distinctive cape and carrying a walking stick.
Mead was featured on two record albums published by Folkways Records. The first, released in 1959, An Interview With Margaret Mead, explored the topics of morals and anthropology. In 1971, she was included in a compilation of talks by prominent women, But the Women Rose, Vol.2: Voices of Women in American History.
She is credited with the pluralization of the term “semiotics.”
In later life, Mead was a mentor to many young anthropologists and sociologists, including Jean Houston.
In 1976, Mead was a key participant at UN Habitat I, the first UN forum on human settlements.
Mead died of pancreatic cancer on November 15, 1978.
Coming of Age in Samoa
In the foreword to Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead’s advisor, Franz Boas, wrote of its significance:
Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, very good manners, and definite ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways.
Mead’s findings suggested that the community ignores both boys and girls until they are about 15 or 16. Before then, children have no social standing within the community. Mead also found that marriage is regarded as a social and economic arrangement where wealth, rank, and job skills of the husband and wife are taken into consideration.
In 1983, five years after Mead had died, New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman, published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, in which he challenged Mead’s major findings about sexuality in Samoan society. Freeman’s book was controversial in its turn: later in 1983 the American Anthropological Association declared it to be “poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading.”
In 1999 Freeman published another book, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research, including previously unavailable material. Most anthropologists have since been highly critical of Freeman’s arguments. A frequent criticism of Freeman is that he regularly misrepresented Mead’s research and views. In a 2009 evaluation of the debate, anthropologist Paul Shankman concluded that:
There is now a large body of criticism of Freeman’s work from a number of perspectives in which Mead, Samoa, and anthropology appear in a very different light than they do in Freeman’s work. Indeed, the immense significance that Freeman gave his critique looks like “much ado about nothing” to many of his critics.
In 1996 Martin Orans examined Mead’s notes preserved at the Library of Congress, and credits her for leaving all of her recorded data available to the general public. Orans concludes that Freeman’s basic criticisms, that Mead was duped by ceremonial virgin Fa’apua’a Fa’amu (who later swore to Freeman that she had played a joke on Mead) were false for several reasons: first, Mead was well aware of the forms and frequency of Samoan joking; second, she provided a careful account of the sexual restrictions on ceremonial virgins that correspond’s to Fa’apua’a Fa’auma’a’s account to Freeman, and third, that Mead’s notes make clear that she had reached her conclusions about Samoan sexuality before meeting Fa’apua’a Fa’amu. He therefore concludes, contrary to Freeman, that Mead was never the victim of a hoax. As Orans points out Mead’s data support several different conclusions, and that Mead’s conclusions hinge on an interpretive, rather than positivist, approach to culture. Evaluating Mead’s work in Samoa from a positivist stance, Martin Orans’ assessment of the controversy was that Mead did not formulate her research agenda in scientific terms, and that “her work may properly be damned with the harshest scientific criticism of all, that it is ‘not even wrong'”.
Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies
Another influential book by Mead was Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. This became a major cornerstone of the feminist movement, since it claimed that females are dominant in the Tchambuli (now spelled Chambri) Lake region of the Sepik basin of Papua New Guinea (in the western Pacific) without causing any special problems. The lack of male dominance may have been the result of the Australian administration’s outlawing of warfare. According to contemporary research, males are dominant throughout Melanesia (although some believe that female witches have special powers). Others have argued that there is still much cultural variation throughout Melanesia, and especially in the large island of New Guinea. Moreover, anthropologists often overlook the significance of networks of political influence among females. The formal male-dominated institutions typical of some areas of high population density were not, for example, present in the same way in Oksapmin, West Sepik Province, a more sparsely populated area. Cultural patterns there were different from, say, Mt. Hagen. They were closer to those described by Mead.
Mead stated that the Arapesh people, also in the Sepik, were pacifists, although she noted that they do on occasion engage in warfare. Her observations about the sharing of garden plots amongst the Arapesh, the egalitarian emphasis in child rearing, and her documentation of predominantly peaceful relations among relatives are very different from the “big man” displays of dominance that were documented in more stratified New Guinea cultures — e.g., by Andrew Strathern. They are a different cultural pattern.
In brief, her comparative study revealed a full range of contrasting gender roles:
“Among the Arapesh, both men and women were peaceful in temperament and neither men nor women made war.
“Among the Mundugumor, the opposite was true: both men and women were warlike in temperament.
“And the Tchambuli were different from both. The men ‘primped’ and spent their time decorating themselves while the women worked and were the practical ones — the opposite of how it seemed in early 20th century America.”
Deborah Gewertz (1981) studied the Chambri (called Tchambuli by Mead) in 1974-1975, and found no evidence of such gender roles. Gewertz states that as far back in history as there is evidence (1850’s) Chambri men dominated over the women, controlled their produce and made all important political decisions. In later years there has been a diligent search for societies in which women dominate men, or for signs of such past societies, but none have been found (Bamberger 1974).
Despite its feminist roots, Mead’s work on women and men was also criticized by Betty Friedan on the basis that it contributes to infantilizing women.
Other research areas
Mead has been credited with persuading the American Jewish Committee to sponsor a project to study European Jewish villages, shtetls, in which a team of researchers would conduct mass interviews with Jewish immigrants living in New York City. The resulting book, widely cited for decades, allegedly created the Jewish mother stereotype, a mother intensely loving but controlling to the point of smothering, and engendering guilt in her children through the suffering she professed to undertake for their sakes.
She also cofounded the Parapsychological Association, a group advocating for the advancement of parapsychology and psychical research.
Mead worked for the RAND Corporation, a U.S. Air Force military funded private research organization, from 1948 to 1950 to study Russian culture and attitudes toward authority.
On January 19, 1979, President Jimmy Carter announced that he was awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously to Mead. UN Ambassador Andrew Young presented the award to Mead’s daughter at a special program honoring Mead’s contributions, sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, where she spent many years of her career. The citation read:
“Margaret Mead was both a student of civilization and an exemplar of it. To a public of millions, she brought the central insight of cultural anthropology: that varying cultural patterns express an underlying human unity. She mastered her discipline, but she also transcended it. Intrepid, independent, plain spoken, fearless, she remains a model for the young and a teacher from whom all may learn.”
The 2006 music video for “If Everyone Cared” by Nickelback ends with her quote: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
In addition, there are several schools named after Margaret Mead in the United States: a junior high school in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, an elementary school in Sammamish, Washington and another in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York.
Publications by Mead
As a sole author
- Coming of Age in Samoa (1928)
- Growing Up In New Guinea (1930)
- The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe (1932)
- Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935)
- And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America (1942)
- Male and Female (1949)
- New Lives for Old: Cultural Transformation in Manus, 1928-1953 (1956)
- People and Places (1959; a book for young readers)
- Continuities in Cultural Evolution (1964)
- Culture and Commitment (1970)
- Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years (1972; autobiography)
As editor or coauthor
- Cultural Patterns and Technical Change , editor (1953)
- Primitive Heritage: An Anthropological Anthology , edited with Nicholas Calas (1953)
- An Anthropologist at Work , editor (1959, reprinted 1966; a volume of Ruth Benedict’s writings)
- The Study of Culture At A Distance , edited with Rhoda Metraux, 1953
- Themes in French Culture , with Rhoda Metraux, 1954
- The Wagon and the Star: A Study of American Community Initiative co-authored with Muriel Whitbeck Brown, 1966
- A Rap on Race , with James Baldwin, 1971
- A Way of Seeing , with Rhoda Metraux, 1975