Mead, who turned the study of primitive cultures into a vehicle for criticizing her own, was born in Philadelphia. Both her father, Edward Mead, an economist at the Wharton School, and her mother, Emily Mead, a sociologist of immigrant family life and a feminist, were devoted to intellectual achievement and democratic ideals.
Mead discovered her calling as an undergraduate at Barnard College in the early 1920s in classes with Franz Boas, the patriarch of American anthropology, and in discussions with his assistant, Ruth Benedict. The study of primitive cultures, she learned, offered a unique laboratory for exploring a central question in American life: how much of human behavior is universal, therefore presumably natural and unalterable, and how much is socially induced? Among a people widely convinced of the inferiority of women and the immutability of gender roles, clear answers to this question could have important social consequences.
Selecting the peoples of the South Pacific as the focus of her research, Mead spent the rest of her life exploring the plasticity of human nature and the variability of social customs. In her first study, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), she observed that Samoan children moved with relative ease into the adult world of sexuality and work, in contrast to children in the United States, where lingering Victorian restraints on sexual behavior and the increasing separation of children from the productive world made youth a needlessly difficult time. Westerners’ deep-seated belief in innate femininity and masculinity served only to compound these troubles, Mead continued in Sex and Temperament (1935). Describing the widely varying temperaments exhibited by men and women in different cultures, from the nurturing men of the Arapesh tribe to the violent women of the Mundugumor, Mead maintained that social convention, not biology, determines how people behave. A decade later she qualified her environmental stance somewhat in Male and Female (1949), in which she analyzed the ways in which motherhood serves to reinforce male and female roles in all societies. She continued nevertheless to emphasize the possibility and wisdom of resisting traditional gender stereotypes.
By the 1950s Mead was widely regarded as a national oracle. She served as a curator at the Museum of Natural History from 1926 until her death and as an adjunct professor of anthropology at Columbia from 1954, but she devoted the greater part of her professional life to writing and lecturing. Married three times and the mother of only one child at a time when both divorce and only children were uncommon, Mead nevertheless achieved fame as an expert on family life and child rearing. In such books as Culture and Commitment (1970) and her autobiographical Blackberry Winter (1972), in magazine articles for Redbook, and in her lectures, Mead tried to persuade Americans that understanding the lives of other people could help them understand their own, that a greater ease with sexuality (homosexual as well as heterosexual) could enrich them, that motherhood and careers could and should go together, and that building support networks for the overburdened nuclear family would bring greater well-being for all.