Margaret Mead, 1901-1978

  • Margaret-Mead-WWP

Woman Category: Science & TechnologyWoman Tags: Anthropologist, Author, and NYC Women

  • HerStory

    A cultural anthropologist and a writer; considered one of the most influential anthropologists in history.

    Margaret Mead was born in Philadelphia. Her father was an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, and her mother a sociologist and feminist political activist. At 18, Mead began studying anthropology, met and married her first husband, a fellow student named Luther Cressman. After graduating, she continued her education at Columbia University, earning her Ph.D. in 1929. In 1925, Mead went to her first fieldwork in Samoa. Intrigued by the nature vs. nurture argument, she wanted to explore adolescent behavior – if this period in life is universally stressful or an outcome of cultural upbringing. She published her observations in the book, Coming of Age in Samoa, reviewing her believes in cultural determinism rather than the common conception at the time of genetic determinism. While in Samoa, she met Reo Fortune, a student from New Zealand. On her return, Mead divorced her first husband and re-married in the same year, though this marriage did not last long as well.
    In 1926, Mead joined the American Museum of Natural History in NYC as an assistant curator. Over the next 52 years, she served in various positions, including associate curator, curator of ethnology, and curator emeritus. Along with her work at the museum, Mead also took other responsibilities. She was a professor at Columbia University and at The New School, the Vice President of the New York Academy of Sciences, and chair of the Division of Social Sciences at Fordham University, where she founded their anthropology department. Mead was appointed president of the Society for Applied Anthropology in 1950, as president of the American Anthropological Association in 1960, and was elected as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1976, at the age of 72.
    In her research, Mead focused on the nonliterate peoples of Oceania, studying cultural and psychological aspects, such as natural character, culture change, and the cultural conditioning of sexual behavior. Mead is credited for changing the studying method of human culture. She was a pioneer in examining sexual behavior and claimed that personality characteristics, particularly the differences between men and women, are shaped by cultural conditioning. In her arguments, she laid the foundation of anthropological feminism and inspired the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
    Mead was ahead of her time not only in the anthropology field but also in her personal views. She was a loud advocate for many social issues, such as women’s rights, race relations, sexual morality, drug abuse, population control, world hunger, nuclear proliferation, and environmental pollution. She believed that motherhood and a career do not contradict. She claimed that people’s sexual orientation could change and evolve throughout life, and she was suspected to be involved in romantic relationships with women. Mead has died at the age of 77 from pancreatic cancer.

    “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”

    “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • She was a member of the United States Episcopal Church.
    • Her name was given to one of the characters in the musical Hair.
    • She was known for wearing a cape and for carrying a walking-stick.
    • She coined the word “semiotics” as a noun.
    • She published more than 20 books, an autobiography titled “Blackberry Winter” and a memoir about her parents titled “With a Daughter’s Eye.”
    • She was featured in a Supersisters trading card.
    • She made a total of 24 field trips to the south pacific.
    • She was married three times and had a daughter who was also an anthropologist.
    • Several schools were named after her, including a junior high school in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, and an elementary school in Sammamish, Washington.
    • The USPS issued a stamp of her in 1988.
    • The Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples is named after her.
    • The Margaret Mead Film Festival is taking place annually at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
  • More About Her Legacy

    * Inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame (1976)
    * Posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1979)

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Margaret Mead interview on Cultural Anthropology (1959)

    Providing an intriguing window into cultural anthropology as it was practiced and conceptualized during the mid-20th century, this 1959 NBC interview features renowned researcher Margaret Mead discussing her work with one of her students, William Mitchell.

    Check out these Margaret Mead books on Amazon!
    Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century:
    Mead's, Sex and Temperament: In Three Primitive Societies:
    Coming of Age: The Sexual Awakening of Margaret Mead:

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    Mead explains her views on what Mitchell describes as the “happy savage” myth, largely dispelling the notion while referencing the idea of cultural ethos—the “emotional tone” of a society—and its variation from group to group. She also deftly articulates (several decades ahead of her time) the manner in which Western development and influences erode the cultural traditions and physical territories of indigenous peoples. Even today, viewers will find Mead’s views on polygamy, morality, women’s roles, and other topics riveting and highly relevant.

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  • Mead between 1930-1950. Photo credit - Edward Lynch @ LOC