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Margaret Mead was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 16, 1901. She was the first born of a professor of finance at the University of Pennsylvania and a sociologist who studied Italian immigrants. She had two surviving sisters (a third died at nine months) and a brother. She studied a DePauw University in 1919, but then transferred to Barnard College where she got her bachelors degree in 1923.  She then studied at Columbia University with Franz Boaz and Ruth Benedict, receiving her masters in 1924 and her Ph.D. in 1929, after she had joined the American Museum of natural History and had done field work in Samoa starting in 1925.  She was married three times, the last to Gregory Bateson, with whom she had a daughter, who also became an anthropologist. She still remained close to Bateson, even after he left her, but seemed to turn to other women for companionship after that.

Mead's work in Samoa (Coming of Age in Samoa, 1928) and New Guinea, (Growing up in New Guinea 1930), as well as her feminist classic, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies 1935, among others, drew heavy criticism from several quarters, chiefly from New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman, who said in print that Mead had been hoodwinked by the Samoans into believing total lies about their social life. Her feminist philosophy drew criticism even from Betty Friedan, who accused her of infantilizing women.  However, at least much of her work has been rehabilitated, based on the meticulous notes she kept and the fact that she well knew that the Samoans were capable of leading her on. Criticism of her was to a large extent driven by irritation with her belief that the evidence showed that male dominance was cultural and that in some societies both sexes were equal or even that some trusted women were at least the economic leaders. The battle in many respects was the classic nature-nurture fight, with Mead on the radical nurture side.  In any case she altered anthropological field work and was recognized for it by numerous awards and honors, including having several schools named after her and being president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  She published a partial autobiography, Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years in 1972.  

Mead was certainly a controversial figure in cultural anthropology, but a pioneer in a number of areas. I first heard of her when, as a teenager, I purchased a then relatively new Mentor paperback edition of Coming of Age in Samoa, which shocked my mother.  She warned me against taking the book seriously.  When I later took anthropology at Arizona Western College and cultural anthropology at the University of Arizona all of these rather prudish attitudes fell away and I found the subject both enlightening and fascinating.  

I have one other very tenuous association with Mead.  I served on the Ph.D. committee of a certified genius (I.Q. of about 200) when he was in his seventies (he had not bothered to formalize his education to that level until then,) who had moved with his wife and son (his son is also a genius) to New Mexico in 1960 from Manhattan, NY.  He had known Margaret Mead personally, as well as an aged John Dewey! Unfortunately I never had the chance to ask him about Mead. He is still alive at 94, which is one reason I did not name him.

Internet References:

Margaret Mean Biography

Margaret Mead: The Anthropology of Human Freedom

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Thu Mar 06, 2014 at 11:51 AM PST.

Also republished by SciTech, Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism, History for Kossacks, and Community Spotlight.

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