Today’s WOD is Margaret Mead, one of the world’s most renowned American anthropologists. (born December 16, 1901 – November 15, 1978) Mead was born in Philadelphia in a household of social scientists with roots in the Midwest. Her father was a professor at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce and founder of the university’s evening school. However, it was her mother, a sociologist, and her paternal grandmother, a child psychologist, who had the most profound influence on Mead’s young life.
After graduating from high school in 1918, she went on to her father’s alma mater, DePauw University, but after spending a year there she transferred to Barnard College in Manhattan to experience city life.
Meads major at Barnard was psychology, but she went on to earn a doctorate at Columbia, studying with Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. For her, anthropology was an urgent calling, a way to bring new understandings of human behavior to bear on the future.
In 1925 she set out for American Samoa, where she did her first field work, focusing on adolescent girls. Her reports about the attitudes towards sex in South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures amply informed the 1960s sexual revolution. Mead was a champion of broadened sexual morals within a context of traditional western religious life.
In 1929 she went, accompanied by her second husband, Reo Fortune, to Manus Island in New Guinea, where she studied the play and imaginations of younger children and the way they were shaped by adult society. When she returned to the United States, she wrote her first book, “Coming of Age in Samoa,” which both challenged the Western way of life and confirmed Franz Boas’ hypothesis that genes are not the cause for cultural differences, rather, it’s the environment in which people grow up.
She did extensive cross-cultural work on issues including gender roles, environmental justice, education, race relations, child rearing and nutrition. Known as the “observer’s observer,” she successfully bridged the gap between social anthropology and ethnology as we know them today.
Margaret Mead died of cancer on November 16, 1978, hard at work until the day she died. According to Mead’s obituary, “She often gave the impression of being ubiquitous because she was rarely at rest in any one place for very long and because she could not permit a moment to pass unutilized,” and her unpredictability signified she was a “student of adaptation.” After her death, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter.
Throughout her lifetime, Margaret Mead wrote more than 44 books, and more than 1,000 articles that have been translated into a multitude of languages. She gave several television interviews, and held many influential positions, including curator emeritus of the American Museum of Natural History, Earth Day activist, director of research in contemporary culture at Barnard College, and head of the social science department and professor at the liberal arts college at Fordham University. An interesting fact about her as well, as an Anglican Christian, she played a considerable part in the drafting of the 1979 American Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
Considered “mother to the world,” by many, and “a St. Paul,” by a few, her legacy is epitomized in her own words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”