Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Remembering Margaret Mead

"Every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man."
~ Margaret Mead

March is Women's History Month, and I've been thinking a lot about the women who influenced me most when I was young. At or near the top of my list is cultural anthropologist, outspoken activist and all-around free thinker Margaret Mead.

I'm not completely sure what brought Margaret Mead to my attention. It was probably one of one of her frequent television appearances — she was a semi-regular on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I must have been ten or eleven at the time, and I remember being impressed by how confident and self-possessed she seemed. She also had a mischievous edge that radiated through her matronly  exterior. She was a little woman with large and impressively exotic accomplishments who spoke about things that just didn't come up at my mother's bridge club meetings — not everyday attributes for a woman in the 1950s. The more I learned more about her, especially her advocacy on behalf of women's rights, civil rights and the rights of children, the more impressed I became.

If you're not familiar with Margaret Mead, here's a brief recap. She was born in 1901 to a Pennsylvania Quaker family that valued education; her father was a professor at the Wharton School and her mother was a sociologist. Margaret earned her master's degree in anthropology at Columbia in 1924, studying under Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, before heading off to Polynesia for field work. When she returned to the U.S. in 1926, Margaret took a job with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where she continued working for the next 43 years. She earned her PhD from Columbia in 1929.


Her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa, is a study of the lives, values, customs and sex habits of young Samoans; published in 1928, it made her a star. She authored or co-authored some nineteen books in her lifetime. She also found time to marry three times; all were anthropologists and the last was the famous British scientist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson, with whom she had one daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, who grew up to become a cultural anthropologist, too. Margaret was believed to be bisexual and, as far as I can tell, never backed down from a fight.

In Washington in 1969, during one of her many visits to testify before Congress, she stirred up one of her last controversies when she endorsed legalizing marijuana. It inspired cartoonist Mike Peters to draw the cartoon at right for the Dayton Daily News.

As the Institute for Intercultural Studies points out on its Web site, "When Margaret Mead died in 1978, she was the most famous anthropologist in the world. Indeed, it was through her work that many people learned about anthropology and its holistic vision of the human species."

In 2001, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth, the Library of Congress mounted an expansive exhibit, pulling generously from its collection of 500,000 Margaret Mead items. Selected parts of that exhibit are online now, and it is truly fascinating stuff. See it here

Margaret Mead also lives on in the online archives of the American Museum of Natural History, which has a trove of archival footage. But for a  more accessible view, I recommend this brief video filmed by a close friend about a year before she died. I watched it before I sat down to write this, and it reminded me of the quiet confidence and humor that had made me admire her in the first place.

Here are a few of the smart and funny things she had to say:

"I must admit that I personally measure success in terms of the contributions an individual makes to her or his fellow human beings."

"Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else."

"One of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder where you are when you don't come home at night."

"I have spent most of my life studying the lives of other peoples — faraway peoples — so that Americans might better understand themselves."

"A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

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