Born – 16th December 1901
Died – 15th November 1978
Margaret Meade was a well respected cultural anthropologist, known across the world for her writing and speaking. She was also an intellectual and scientist.
Born into a Quaker family in Pennsylvania, Margaret was the oldest of five children. Her father, Edward Sherwood Mead, was a finance professor at Wharton Business School. Her mother, Emily Fogg Mead, was held a doctorate in Sociology. Her grandmother was a teacher and began tutoring Margaret at an early age, purportedly using the scientific method. This led to Margaret making copious notes about the development and behavior of her siblings. She also made similar observations on the human and natural world.
Margaret attended DePauw University for a year (1919) before transferring to Barnard College where she received a Bachelors Degree in 1923. She studied anthropology under Professor Franz Boas and his assistant, Dr. Ruth Benedict. According to one biography, Margaret and Ruth became intimate friends. The implied intimacy led many to label Margaret a lesbian but this was never confirmed by Margaret. The closest she came to commenting on the subject was trough her writing. At one point she wrote “…that it is to be expected that an individual’s sexual orientation may evolve throughout life”
Margaret was married three times. Her first husband was Luther Cressman (1923-28), a theology student at the time and later an anthropologist. She later married Reo Fortune (1928-35), a New Zealander who became famous for his Fortunate number theory. She was dismissive of both marriages. The former she described as her ‘Student Marriage’, the latter as a reaction to being told that she could not bear children, a marriage of passion.
Finally she married the British anthropologist, Gregory Bateson (1936-50) with whom she had her only child, a daughter. Dr. Benjamin Spock was her pediatrician during the pregnancy and Margaret’s observations on techniques like breast feeding on demand became an influence on Spock’s later books on childrearing.
In her later years, Margaret lived with Rhoda Metraux, another anthropologist (1955-78). Subsequent to Margaret’s death, letters between the two women were published that revealed a romantic relationship between them.
In her work, Margaret was considered a pioneer of cross-cultural research. She largely focused on child development, human temperament and male/ female sexual roles. How these themes differed between cultures, especially held against those of America, became the main focus of her work and writing.
Margaret was particularly fascinated by the problems that American adolescents faced during the transition to adulthood. This eventually led to her (now disputed) research and subsequent book, ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’.
Margaret described her research goal, saying “”I have tried to answer the question which sent me to Samoa. Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization? Under different conditions does adolescence present a different picture?”
She lived with, studied and interviewed 68 young women on the island of Ta-u. The interviews were conducted via an interpreter with subjects aged between 9-20. Her conclusions, that the transition amongst the islanders was not marked by the same levels of stress and psychological distress, were not well received. Americans were shocked by the idea of their young girls following the islanders’ example. To whit, delaying marriage and engaging in casual sex.
Later writers claimed that Margaret had actually been misled by either the girls or the interpreter which had devalued her conclusions. Both sides of the argument have lately agreed that the truth may never be known whilst acknowledging Margaret’s undoubted advances and excellent research on other books and areas.
Between 1928-1972 Margaret published a further nine books, including ‘Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World’ and ‘Continuities in Cultural Evolution’. She also published a memoir titled ‘Blackberry Winter; A Memoir’.
In later life Margaret remained active. During WWII she served as executive secretary of the National Research Council’s committee on Food Habits. She taught at Columbia University from 1954-1978 and was curator of Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History (1946-1969). She held a variety of other positions at Fordham University and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
She was also a part of two recordings released by Folkway Records, was an integral part of the drafting of the 1979 edition of the American Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and had a major influence on the sexual ideas and ideals of the1960’s.
Margaret died from pancreatic cancer in 1978 and she was buried at Trinity Episcopal Church in Buckingham, PA.
Many of her thoughts and quotes can be found at the final link below.
Margaret Mead quotes