MARGARET MEAD AND HUMANITY'S COMING OF AGE
On a sweltering summer afternoon in 1925 a young woman stood on a train platform in Philadelphia. Leaving her husband and friends, she was setting out on a journey that would change the way people look at people.
She was just 23 and weighed less than 100 pounds. She had never spent a full day alone in her life. That spring, doctors had examined her for chronic neuritis and other pains. Diagnosing fatigue, they prescribed a long rest. Defying their advice, the young woman set out across America, bound for a tropical island visited only by a mail boat every three weeks.
Her parents had begged her not to go. Peers belittled her plan to study women and children. Yet she was sworn to help humanity question the "civilized" and the "savage." Three years later, she was a household name – Margaret Mead.
Margaret Mead devoted her life to a battle that has raged since the dawn of human thought -- nature vs. nurture. Are we as we are because we are born a certain way or because we are raised a certain way? Before Mead headed for the South Pacific, nature had trounced nurture. Sex, gender, and family patterns were locked in by “human nature,” and “primitive” peoples were seen as backward and childlike, with nothing to teach Western civilization. More than any other thinker of her time, Mead changed those views. As with Freud and Darwin, nothing was ever the same when viewed through her lenses.
Yet to change how people look at people, Mead had to open her mind as well as her notebook. At Barnard College, she found anthropology tarred by white supremacy, "the stupid underbrush of nineteenth century arguments.” So she crossed the street to Columbia. There, the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas led her to ask whether behavior might owe more to culture than biology. To test her theory, she changed her doctoral thesis from a study of South Seas tattooing to the study of adolescence.
When her train reached San Francisco that summer of 1925, Mead boarded a boat for Honolulu, then hopped a US Navy ship to the American base at Pago Pago. Leaving the base behind, she entered the native world, as alone as anyone can be in the damp, teeming tropics. Cut off from her own culture, she holed up in a thatched roof hotel and went to work.
First she studied the Samoan language, learning a passable patois. In off hours, she strolled crowded streets, the only white woman for hundreds of miles. The tropics fed her soul as Northeastern climes never had. She inhaled the smell of frangipani blossoms "mixed on the warm breeze with the odor of slightly fermented overripe bananas."
After six weeks, Mead moved to the Samoan island of Ta’u to live with natives. She was especially drawn to teenage girls. She talked to them about their lives, especially their sex lives. And in their stories of romantic trysts framed by palm trees and crashing surf, she found a world unbridled by Western concepts of chastity and fidelity.
Natives who had never met a young woman on her own called Mead taupou¸-- ”ceremonial virgin.” They played with her straight hair and toyed with her American trinkets. And years later, Mead’s critics would say the Samoans tricked her.
Margaret Mead spent nine months in Samoa. When she returned to the America of flappers and speakeasies, she began writing. Her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa, shocked and enthralled Americans. The late 1920s saw a widespread fascination with the ancient and the primitive. King Tut's tomb had recently been discovered. Roy Chapman Andrews, the model for Indiana Jones, had just brought dinosaur eggs from the Gobi Desert. British excavations in Greece were making headlines. But Mead's slim book, challenging hidebound notions of culture, sex, and family, outshone the rest. It made her famous and landed her a job at the Museum of Natural History in New York. It also stirred a controversy that still rages. Might Samoan girls, describing their sexual adventures, have been playing a joke on the "ceremonial virgin?"
In 1983, a New Zealand anthropologist charged that Mead had been duped. The islands were no paradise, Derek Freeman said. They were as filled with anxiety, violence, and sexual confusion as any other society. Mead, he said, had fallen for teenage tales. A culture-wide debate ensued. Critics attacked Mead and the "permissiveness" she sanctioned. Defenders upheld her work, charging that the modern Samoa Derek Freeman studied had been changed by Christian missionaries. Nurture, not nature, shaped the human psyche, and adolescence did not have to be as troubled as in Western cultures.
The debate continues, a crack in the intellectual edifice that was Margaret Mead. But most academics now reject "the trashing of Margaret Mead," and agree that Freeman's attack "looks like 'much ado about nothing' to many of his critics."
At various times Margaret Mead was: professor, tribal sojourner, museum curator, mother, wife to three husbands, lobbyist for nuclear disarmament, filmmaker, stern critic, dogged optimist, and, her guests agreed, a great salad maker. The topics of her books range from child rearing to race to American schools. Well into her 70s, she was still returning to the "primitive" world, studying, working, learning. She died of pancreatic cancer in 1978.
Decades later, Mead's work lives in her writing, in museum exhibits, and in how people look at people. But in recent years, she has also become known for a single quote. Printed on posters and bumper stickers, cited in articles and Tweets, worn on T-shirts and paraded on protest signs, Mead's words offer hope for humanity. "Never doubt," she said, "that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."