Margaret Mead, ‘Never Underestimate … ‘

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The cultural anthropologist and writer Margaret Mead (1901–78) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA and raised near Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Her father was an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, her mother a feminist political activist. She studied at DePauw University, graduated from Barnard College in 1923; and from Columbia University, with a PhD in 1929. In 1925 she carried out undergraduate fieldwork in Polynesia. She later published the findings from her expeditions to Samoa and New Guinea in Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) and Growing Up in New Guinea (1930). In 1926 she joined the American Museum of Natural History in New York as an assistant curator; she was quickly promoted to curator, a position she held until 1969, and she maintained a connection with the museum up until her death.

During World War II she served as executive secretary of the National Research Council’s Committee on Food Habits. From 1954 she taught at Columbia University as an adjunct professor, and held various positions in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, including those of president and chair of the executive committee of the board of directors.

mcbShe was married and divorced three times; first to Luther Cressman (a theological student, who became an anthropologist after they separated), then to two anthropologists – first Reo Fortune, and then to Gregory Bateson (1936–50) with who she had a daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, who is also an anthropologist.

Mead also had a close relationship with anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887 – 1948). In her memoir, With a Daughter’s Eye, Mary Catherine implies that this relationship was sexual. Mead never identified herself as a lesbian but in her writings she did propose that it was to be expected that an individual’s sexual orientation could change during their lives.

Her later works included Male and Female (1949) and Growth and Culture (1951), in which she argued that personality characteristics, especially as they differ between men and women, were shaped by cultural conditioning rather than heredity.

Although she is considered a pioneering anthropologist by some, other academics have disagreed with some of her findings. However, there is no doubt that she made anthropology accessible to a wider audience and, in her later years, her presence and opinions were widely sought.

“I must admit that I personally measure success in terms of the contributions an individual makes to her or his fellow human beings.” – Margaret Mead.

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