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Margaret Mead was a cultural anthropologist, writer, and speaker from the United States. She published many writings on her observations of primitive tribes in Papua New Guinea. These helped propel the feminist movement forward, but remain highly controversial based on conflicting evidence by later researchers. The American Museum of Natural History established the Margaret Mead Film Festival in honor of her groundbreaking introduction of anthropology to the general public.

Early Life and Education

Margaret Mead was born in Philadelphia and raised in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. She was the first born of five from the marriage of Edward Sherwood Mead, an economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Emily Fogg, a graduate sociologist. Martha Adeline Ramsay Mead, her paternal grandmother, lived with the family and educated Mead and her four siblings since the family moved many times. Mead attended DePauw University in Indiana, but only for one year. She then transferred in 1920 to Barnard College in New York City. Margaret Mead took anthropology classes with Frank Boas, who she quotes as “the father of modern anthropology” along with modern historians, and Ruth Benedict, his teaching assistant and they encouraged her to become an anthropologist.

Mead conducted her first field study in Samoa on Tau Island between 1925 and 1926. She graduated from Columbia University in 1929 with a Ph.D. in anthropology. Her dissertation focused on house building, canoe building, and the art of tattoo in five different Polynesian cultures.[1]

Personal Relationships

Margaret Mead had a very progressive view of romantic relationships and married three times. She briefly partnered with Edward Sapir, a linguist and friend of Ruth Benedict, but they broke up prior to her trip to Samoa due to his conservative views on women.[2] Her first marriage (1923-1928) was with fellow student Luther Cressman. Her second marriage (1928-1935) was with Reo Fortune, an anthropologist and Cambridge graduate from New Zealand. Her third and longest marriage (1936-1950) was with Gregory Bateson, an anthropologist from Britain. They had one child, Mary Catherine Bateson.[3]

Mead formed a close friendship, many believed intimate, with Ruth Benedict that lasted until Benedict’s death in 1948.[4] From 1955 until 1978 when she died, Mead lived with Rhoda Metraux, another anthropologist, in a romantic relationship.[5]


Coming of Age in Samoa

Mead’s book, Coming of Age in Samoa, was published in 1928 and gave her worldwide recognition.

Margaret Mead’s work in Samoa became an integral part of anthropological studies regardless of the controversy that arose later.

Margaret Mead investigated the theory of nature versus nurture and many other issues involving casual sex, adolescence, family, social norms and attitudes, and gender.[6]

Margaret Mead and her observations and theories based on Samoan culture has been challenged by later research and most directly by Derek Freeman. He wrote several books criticizing her research and there is disagreement among modern scholars regarding their conflicting findings.[7]

Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies

Margaret Mead published another popular anthropological book in 1935 called Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. This work helped spur the feminist movement, citing her research with rural tribes in Tchambuli Lake, now Chambri, region in Papua New Guinea. She documented the Arapesh people near the Tchambuli occasionally participated in warfare, but both men and women exhibited peaceful temperaments and shared the responsibility of child care. The opposite was true of the Mundugumor people.

Mead observed something wholly different in the Tchambuli. The men spent more time on personal care and their appearance while the women appeared more dominate and hard working. Margaret Mead established the theory that male dominance and female subservience is the natural form of gender roles.[8] Deborah Gewertz criticized these findings based on her own experiences with the Tchambuli, who Gewertz referred to as Chambri.

Later Years, Death, and Memorial

Margaret Mead worked for the National Research Council’s Committee on Food Habits during The Second World War. She spent the most time as the American Museum of Natural History’s curator of ethnology working from 1946-1969. In 1948, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences elected her a Fellow.

Margaret Mead’s impact on the world of anthropology changed how future anthropologists approached the subject and brought the general public’s attention to the previously unfamiliar field.

She also taught at Columbia University’s The New School (1954-1978), Fordham University at the Lincoln Center campus (1968-1970) and founded the anthropology department, and the University of Rhode Island (1970-1978).[9]

Mead served president of the American Anthropological Association in 1960.[10] She also served as the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1975. In 1976, she chaired the executive committee to the board of directors.[11]

Margaret Mead died on November 15, 1978, in Manhattan, New York. She is buried in the Trinity Episcopal Church Cemetery in Buckingham, Pennsylvania. She was posthumously voted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.[12] In 2010, the American Museum of Natural History founded the Margaret Mead Film Festival and Filmmaker Award that recognizes innovated documentary filmmakers.</ref>AMNH. (2012, March ). Margaret Mead Filmmaker Award. American Museum of Natural History.</ref>

One of Margaret Mead’s most famous quotes, “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” was appropriated by the writers of the popular television show, The West Wing, in 2003.<ref>International Movie Database. (2003). The West Wing (TV Series) Inauguration: Part 2 - Over There. IMDB.



Howard, J. (1984). Margaret Mead: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Mead, M., & Francis, P. A. (2001, November 30). Shaping Forces - Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture. The Library of Congress.


  1. Mead & Francis, 2001
  2. Darnell, R. (1989). Edward Sapir: Linguist, Anthropologist, Humanist. United States: University of California Press.
  3. Howard, 1984
  4. Bateson, M. C. (1984). With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. United States: William Morrow & Co.
  5. Caffey, M. M. and Francis, P. A. (2006). To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead. New York: Basic Books.
  6. Felder, D. G. (2003). Century of Women the Most Influential events in Twentieth-Century Women’s History. Citadel Press.
  7. Freeman, D. (1990). Freeman: Margaret Mead & Samoa: The Making & Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. United States: Harvard University Press.
  8. Mead, M. (1935). Sex and Temperament. William Morrow and Company.
  9. Howard, 1984
  10. AAA. (2016). AAA Past Presidents. American Anthropological Association.
  11. American Association for the Advancement of Science. AAAS Presidents. Archives and Records Center.
  12. Find A Grave. (2001, January 1). Margaret Mead (1901 - 1978). Find A Grave Memorial.

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