Cultural anthropologist and writer Margaret Meade (1901-1978) was born in Philadelphia and graduated from Barnard College in 1923. Appointed assistant curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in 1926, she embarked on two dozen trips to the South Pacific to study Indigenous cultures there. In her resulting books such as Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), Mead formulated her ideas about the powerful effects of social convention on behavior, particularly in adolescent girls. Named a professor of anthropology at Columbia University in 1954, Mead continued to advocate for the relaxation of traditional gender and sexual conventions through her lecturing and writing.

Margaret Mead’s Early Life

Mead, who turned the study of primitive cultures into a vehicle for criticizing her own, was born in Philadelphia on December 16, 1901. 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 early 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.

Margaret Mead’s Theories: Gender Consciousness and Imprinting

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. She thus entered the nature-nurture debate on the side of nurture. Mead’s famous theory of imprinting found that children learn by watching adult behavior.

A decade later, Mead qualified her nature vs. nurture 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.

When funding for her field research in the South Pacific was cut during World War II, she founded the Institute for Intercultural Studies in 1944.

Margaret Mead On Motherhood And Sexuality

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.

She was married three times (to Luther Cressman, Reo Fortune and anthropologist Gregory Bateson) and the mother of only one child, Mary Catherine Bateson, at a time when both divorce and only children were uncommon. Nevertheless, she 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.

Margaret Mead’s Death and Legacy

Margaret Mead was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1976. She died of pancreatic cancer on November 15, 1978, and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1979. She even appeared on a commemorative postage stamp in 1998. Her pioneering anthropological work on sexuality, culture and childrearing continues to be influential today.

Margaret Mead Quotes

“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”
“Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”
“There is no greater insight into the future than recognizing...when we save our children, we save ourselves”