“On 16 December 1901, Margaret Mead, who would go on to become one of the most influential anthropologists of the 20th century, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her studies of cultures in New Guinea, Samoa, and Bali reached the general public through her bestselling books and her ideas permeated society through her unceasing activism.
Mead’s mother was a sociologist and her father a professor of finance. Despite the times, Mead attended university in a small town in the Midwestern United States before moving to New York City to finish her undergraduate studies at Barnard College, followed by graduate school at Columbia University. It was here, studying under two celebrated anthropologists, Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, that she developed her scholarship of cultural anthropology before embarking on field research for the first time. At the ago of 23, Mead left New York for Samoa in order to conduct research into how young Samoan women were brought up. The result of her studies, Coming of Age in Samoa, would go on to become a bestseller.
Coming of Age in Samoa reflected Mead’s observational approach to social science as opposed to a reliance on statistical data. Her approach would, and continues today to, divide anthropologists as to the reliability of her conclusions. Regardless, Mead, still in her twenties, wrote what is considered today as the most widely read book in the field of anthropology. Her research into the sexual freedom of young Samoan women was not only pioneering in its scholarship, but it resonated across her native country as the women’s rights movement gathered pace.
As her fame grew, Mead continued to conduct field research and to publish. Her other most important work, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), is also considered to have had an enormous influence on the women’s rights movement for it described an organised society in Papua New Guinea in which women were dominant.
Mead’s interests ranged far beyond women’s rights. She was actively involved with the environmental movement, population control and world hunger, along with improving race relations and many other major social issues. Professionally, she served in curatorial positions at the American Museum of Natural History in New York from 1926 until her death, and contributed considerably to its Hall of Pacific Peoples. In 1972 she was elected President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Mead died of cancer in 1978 at the age of 76. She continued to write, travel and speak publicly right until the end. A friend of hers is quoted as saying “”Margaret Mead was not going to let a little thing like death stop her.”” The year following her death, US President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honour.”
Credit: Image Credit: Library of Congress
Caption: Margaret Meade became one of the most influential anthropologists of the 20th century.