Margaret Mead was an American cultural anthropologist, women’s rights activist and writer.
Mead was born in 1901 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Edward Sherwood Mead, a professor of finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Emily Mead, a feminist political activist and sociologist who studied Italian immigrants. Mead’s family moved frequently and she attended traditional schools as well as being home-schooled depending on where her family lived. In 1919, Mead enrolled at DePauw University but transferred to Barnard College a year later where she earned her bachelor’s degree and met Franz Boas. Mead then studied at the graduate school of Columbia University with anthropologists Franz Boas and Dr. Ruth Benedict where she received first an M.A. in 1924 and then a Ph.D in 1929.
In 1925 Mead travelled to do fieldwork in American Samoa where she gathered information for the first of her 23 books, Coming of Age in Samoa. The work focused on adolescent girls and presented the idea that an individuals experience of developmental stages could be shaped by cultural demands and expectations. She presented the notion that an adolescent might differ in both temperament and sexual development in different cultures and that the “civilized” world had something to learn from the “primitive.” The book was published in 1928 and became a best seller. In 1929 Mead visited Manus Island in New Guinea where she studied the play and imaginations of younger children and how they were influenced by adult society, she published Growing Up in New Guinea in 1930 and suggested that due to different developmental stages in other cultures it is incorrect to assume that “primitive” peoples are “like children.” Mead was the first anthropologist to look at human development in a cross-cultural perspective.
Mead continued to study people in the South Pacific, making 24 field trips in all. On mainland New Guinea, she discovered that gender roles differ in other cultures and in Bali she explored new ways of documenting the connection between child-rearing and adult culture, and the way in which these are symbolically interwoven. She published these findings in ‘Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies’ which became a major part of the feminist movement. Her later works, Male and Female (1949) and Growth and Culture (1951) presented the idea that personality characteristics generally attributed to either men or women are shaped by cultural conditioning.
Mead’s work gained her a certain amount of celebrity and she used this to bring attention to topics such as women’s rights, child rearing, sexual morality, nuclear proliferation, race relations, drug abuse, population control, environmental pollution, and world hunger. She became an in-demand lecturer, often talking about controversial social issues. She also wrote a column for Redbook magazine and was a popular interview subject on a wealth of topics.
While completing her research, Mead worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City where she served as assistant curator (1926–42), associate curator (1942–64), curator of ethnology (1964–69), and curator emeritus (1969–78). In 1948, Mead was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and from 1954 to 1978 she taught at The New School and Columbia University where she was an adjunct professor. Mead was also a professor of anthropology and chair of the Division of Social Sciences at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus from 1968 to 1970 where she founded the anthropology department. In 1970 she became a faculty member at the University of Rhode Island as a Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Anthropology.
Mead wrote a total of 20 books in her lifetime and co-authored another 20. She was honoured in her lifetime serving as president of major scientific associations, including the American Anthropological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She also received 28 honorary doctorates and in 1979, a year after her death, Mead was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honour.