Women Who WOW Us: Margaret Mead

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Margaret Mead was an extraordinary woman. In a time where women went to school to find husbands, she went to school and found her life’s work. Margaret was born in 1901 to an economist and a political activist. Her parents were feminist and encouraging, possibly leading to their daughter’s outspoken and bold personality, and her success in a male-dominated field. She went to Barnard College and got her Bachelor’s degree, then went on to Colombia and attained her Master’s degree in 1924 at just 23 years old! In 1926 She got the job of assistant curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History. Ethnology is the study of contemporary cultures, in order to develop a theoretical framework for analyzing human society.

    In terms of ethnology, Margaret had a theory. She believed that the struggle adolescent girls went through during puberty and young adulthood was an effect of Western Society’s strict rules and pressures put on adolescent girls. To further research her theory, Margaret knew she would have to closely observe girls OUTSIDE of the Western Society in order to have a solid point of comparison. Therefore, Margaret travelled to the small East Asian island of Samoa to live with a village of about 600. She immersed herself in their culture for six weeks, interviewing almost 100 girls during that time. Then, in 1928, she published Coming to Age in Samoa, a book about her travels and her research.

    In her efforts Margaret Mead broke many molds in the field of anthropology. Actually, before her trip to Samoa, doing detailed, immersive fieldwork such as this was pretty much unheard of. Additionally, her model of using a non-western culture to highlight issues in the western world was a groundbreaking and field-changing idea. Her cross-cultural comparisons completely changed the way we study human culture and made her a key anthropological figure for the rest of her life.

    Over the years Margaret became a popular public speaker, especially on controversial topics. She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, especially when it was a topic she was well-researched on. A great example of this is sex and gender. Margaret wrote two books on the topic, Male and Female(1949) and Growth and Culture(1951), in which she argued that personality differences between men and women are socially constructed and not hereditary. This principle is still canon in Women’s and Gender Studies classes today. Margaret mead also wrote a column for Redbook and published a biography in 1972 titled Blackberry Winter.

    Margaret Mead was married three times and got divorced three times. With her third husband, Gregory Bateson, an anthropologist in his own right, she did many field collaborations. The two also had a daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, who grew up to be a renowned author and anthropologist. Margaret Mead died in 1978 in her home in New York City, New York.

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