Rhiannon Freya Lyon
Born in the US, 1901, Margaret Mead is recognised as one of the most influential anthropologists of the 20th century, often seen as the woman who laid the foundation for second wave feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Through her studies of isolated civilisations in the South Pacific, Mead was a pioneer of the idea that behaviour is culturally learned rather than being innate. She specifically focused on gender roles (the expected behaviour of an individual based on their gender), and how these are greatly shaped by the society we grow up in.
During her early academic career, Mead was especially interested in studying cultures uninfluenced by Westernisation. This lead to her first pacific island field study in Samoa which largely consisted of interviews with adolescent girls, observations from which laid the grounds for her first book Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928. In this book she put forward the idea that Samoan cultures didn’t adhere as strictly to gender roles as the US: that adolescents had more freedom to explore their sexuality, that extra-marital sex was not so taboo, and that these attitudes lead to more healthy development. She put forward the controversial view that the Western way of doing things was not necessarily the best or most progressive way of doing things.
In 1935 Mead started digging into the differences in gender roles and temperament across different cultures in New Guinea, recorded in her book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. She found that different cultures had different attitudes towards aggression and what the roles of men and women were in society. For example, the Arapesh people were peaceful and neither men nor women were involved in war. Contrary to this, among the Mundugumor people both men and women were involved in war. The women in the Tchambuli ethnic group were responsible for catching and trading of food, while the men were more involved in the politics of the tribe, with neither gender being dominant over the other. Mead found that across cultures men and women would be responsible for different things, but in general whatever the role of the man was, this was held more highly. This observation broke ground by separating the biological sex from a socially constructed gender.
During World War 2, access to the South Pacific was cut off and Mead’s focus therefore shifted to the US. During this time Mead and her former academic mentor Ruth Benedict founded The Institute for Intercultural Studies.
As with anything that challenges the status quo, Mead’s work attracted a lot of criticism. People did not like the idea that their ideas of gender and gender roles were not as set in stone as they may have thought. One of Mead’s most prominent critics was Derek Freeman, who was very determined to discredit her and her findings, publishing several books on her “hoaxing”. There are of course legitimate criticisms to make of Mead’s work, her downplaying of some of the negative elements of Samoan development for example. But Freeman’s criticisms went beyond this in his (somewhat successful) attempts to damage her reputation. His work has now by and large been rejected by the anthropological community, due to his unreliable methods and tendency to cherry-pick his data, while misrepresenting Mead’s work.
After the Second World War, Mead went back to New Guinea in order to study the impact of exposure to the wider world on the people living there as a result of war. She found that after contact with the wider world, societal ideas among previously cut-off cultures had changed. This trip ended up informing her beliefs in the way cultural ideas shape social problems such as racism and disregard for the environment, and lead to her famous quote “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.
Although her mother was a suffragist, Mead never publically labelled herself a feminist. She was however very outspoken on women’s equality and civil rights. Her work contributed to the rise of second wave feminism by focusing on how gender roles are shaped by the society you live in, rather than being inherent.
Later in life Mead became a curator for the American Natural History Museum, President of the American Anthropological Association, Vice President of the New York Academy of Sciences, and served various positions in the American Association for the Advancement of science. She was a public speaker and university lecturer, speaking on a wide variety of subjects. In total Mead authored 12 books, and co-authored many more. She is seen as being a very accessible writer and speaker, able to successfully engage with members of the general public to spread her ideas further than the circle of academia.
Mead said of relationships “one can love several people and that demonstrative affection has its place in different types of relationships”. This illustrates her views, unconventional at the time, and possibly even now, that romance need not be heterosexual or monogamous to be valid. These views were displayed in her own personal life, although her relationships with women were not public knowledge at the time. Mead had three successive husbands, the last of whom she had a child with; alongside her marriages she also had a long-term lover Ruth Benedict, her former mentor. She spent the later years of her life living with fellow anthropologist Rhoda Metraux, with whom she had a romantic relationship.
Over her lifetime Mead was awarded many accolades for her contributions to anthropology and wider society, including being posthumously awarded the Presidential Award of Freedom.