Margaret Mead was a trailblazer, adventurer, and breaker of many glass ceilings for women especially as a Woman in STEM. Her work in the literal anthropological field prompted her to examine her own American culture’s values and examine the limitations it assigned to gender, sexuality, living arrangements, parenting and more. Mead went on to craft her own life according to her own set of values and was successful, living an uncommon lifestyle that satisfied her and inspired others.

In spite of, or perhaps because of this, she became a household name, a trendsetter, and a sought-after wise voice in mainstream America. Mead’s story shows us if we follow the beat of our own drummer with confidence and grace, we may be rewarded or at the very least, left alone.

While it was Mead’s best friend and lover, Ruth Benedict, who originated the phrase “Patterns of Culture,” it was Mead who popularized the understanding of patterns of culture, both visible and invisible, which influence all of our actions and aspirations. Their mentor, Franz Boas coined the term “culture” to mean an agreed-upon system of values, ideals, ideas, and symbols. Boas fostered a team of powerful anthropologists, many of whom were women.

Mead crafted her own “culture” within her culture, much of which many carry on today without even realizing whose influence they are inhabiting.

Margaret Mead is a big deal.

Margaret Mead arose from an uncommon family

Margaret Mead in 1948

As uncommon as Margaret Mead was, so too was the family she arose from. In some ways, her experience of living in a pocket culture within a culture was not unique for her since she had such a non-traditional youth.

Both of her paternal grandparents were teachers. They went to college together. After her grandfather died, her grandmother, Martha Adeline Mead, lived with them until her death in 1927. Margaret Mead describes Martha as “the most decisive influence in my life”(BW 45).

Martha was in large part Margaret Mead’s first teacher. Mead’s formal education was spotty in her youth and her grandmother not only stepped in to fill in the gaps but decided on her curriculum and activity. She taught her the classics as well as important skills around the farm including butter churning, sewing, planting, and most importantly: the ability to observe.

“I think it was my grandmother who gave me my ease in being a woman. She was unquestionably feminine—small and dainty and pretty and wholly without masculine protest or feminist aggrievement. She had gone to college when this was a very unusual thing for a girl to do, she had a firm grip of anything she paid attention to, she had married and had a child, and she had a career of her own. All this was true of my mother, as well. But my mother was filled with passionate resentment about the condition of women, as perhaps my grandmother might have been had my grandfather lived and had she birthed five children and had little opportunity to use her special gifts and training. As it was, the two women I knew best were mothers and had professional training. So I had no reason to doubt that brains were suitable for a woman. And as I had my father’s kind of mind—which was also his mother’s—I learned that mind is not sex-typed.

The content of my conscience came from my mother’s concern for other people and the state of the world and from my father’s insistence that the only thing worth doing is to add to the store of exactly known facts. But the strength of my conscience came from Grandma, who meant what she said. Perhaps nothing is more valuable for a child than living with an adult who is firm and loving—and Grandma was loving”(BW 58).

Margaret Mead’s parents moved around often. If they disliked the curriculum of the local school, they chose not to send their children and instead taught them at home. After she became established as an adult, Mead continued to move homes often. But she retained an office on the upper floors of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan all of her work life that was Home” to her. In her autobiography Blackberry Winter, she credits this home base in allowing her to frequently change living situations and still feel grounded.

“In some ways my upbringing was well ahead of my time—perhaps as much as two generations ahead. Mother’s advanced ideas, the way in which all children in our home were treated as persons, the kind of books I read—ranging from the children’s books of my grandmothers’ generation to the most modern plays that my mother sent for to read with a group of friends—and the way all I read was placed in historical perspective, and above all the continuous running commentary by family on schools, on education, on the way the teachers were treated by the community and the relationship between good schools and much needed higher taxes—for I never heard taxes mentioned except in terms of their being too low—all these things represented an extraordinary sophistication and a view of children that was rare in my childhood”(BW 86).

Growing up, Mead felt herself to be “different” and wished not to be. Though she loved her family and knew it to be non-traditional, like any child she wished to fit in more and have the experience it seemed all other kids were having. But she didn’t.

When she enrolled in DePauw University in Indiana in 1919, this was confirmed by her peers who refused to allow her acceptance into a sorority which was the only way for social acceptance in that school at the time.  Margaret didn’t dress right, speak right or think right. She was othered there and felt the sting of that.

“What did I learn from this essentially very mild experience of being treated as an outsider and a reject from my own society? Just enough to know more clearly than ever that this is not the way to organize society—that those who reject or those who are rejected, and usually both, suffer irreversible damage”(BW 108).

She left for Barnard in 1920.

Barnard, Boas and Benedict

Barnard College was formed in 1889 by Annie Nathan Meyer, a Sephardic Jewish woman. Meyer, like other women at the time, was allowed to sit examinations at Columbia but not to sit in on lectures that prepared one for them. She thought there should be a college for women affiliated with the University where women could sit for classes and so vested the money for it to become.

“Virginia Gildersleeve, Barnard’s visionary and long-serving dean, placed a premium on hiring the best professors from Columbia for additional lectures west of Broadway. She had approached Boas in particular about providing instruction to Barnard students, ensuring that, even when his relationship with President Butler was strained, he remained in the classroom”(King 119).

Franz Boas had established the Anthropology Department at Columbia University and was creating a new philosophy around the science. He resisted many of the commonly held assumptions of the field and promoted one that included respect for diversity in societies. Boas warned anthropologists about what today is called “implicit bias.” He was also keenly aware that many cultures, including their languages and customs, were about to disappear. He wanted many anthropologists in the field gathering notes on their stories, languages, and rituals before it was too late.

Many of Boas’ female protégées came from Barnard, including Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Zora Neale Hurston. They called him “Papa Franz.” Though not officially enrolled, he also mentored Ella Deloria who called him “Father Franz” rather than Papa.

Read Nasty Women Writers posts on Ella Deloria and Zora Neale Hurston:

Ella Deloria’s (1889-1971) Waterlily: Giving Voice to Dakota Women and their ways of Kinship

Zora Neale Hurston: The Real Deal, American Woman Writer (1891-1960)

Zora Neale Hurston: Hiding Places

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston: Nasty Women Writers Who Were Good Friends

Zora Neale Hurston to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: You Are My Sister”

At Barnard, Mead met Ruth Benedict and decided to change her major to anthropology. Benedict, an established anthropologist and Woman of STEM in her own right, was Boas’ right-hand woman at Columbia and a strong role model for all his female students.

“By electing anthropology as a career, I was also electing a closer relationship to Ruth, a friendship that lasted until her death in 1948. When I was away, she took on my varied responsibilities for other people; when she was away, I took on hers. We read and reread each others’s work, wrote poems in answer to poems, shared our hopes and worries about Boas, about Sapir, about anthropology, and in later years about the world. When she died. I had read everything she had ever written. No one else had, and no one else has”(BW 125).

The years at Barnard were exciting. Mead was finally being met for her intelligence and creativity. She began to bloom. When she finished her course work, Boas encouraged her to go out into the field. And so she set off on her first of many expeditions. Boas was particularly interested in how adolescence was interpreted and experienced in other cultures. He asked her to study that in Samoa.

“She could not have known it at the time, but there among the welcoming feasts and the roof fishing, on humid afternoons and in the lashing winds of a tropical storm, Mead was in the middle of a revolution. It had begun with a set of vexing questions at the heart of philosophy, religion, and the human sciences: What are the natural divisions of human society? Is morality universal? How should we treat people whose beliefs and habits are different from our own? It would end with a root-and-branch reconsideration of what it means to be social animals and the surrender of an easy confidence in the superiority our our own civilization”(King 3-4).

While at Barnard she had married her long-time boyfriend Luther Cressman, and then simultaneously begun a torrid affair with anthropologist Edward Sapir and a loving affair with Ruth Benedict. She arrived in Samoa as her relationship with Sapir was imploding, her marriage was failing and her love for Benedict was growing.

Her studies of the people of Samoa and their sexual customs freed her to consider new ones for herself. She was already experiencing herself sexually as outside of the norm of her culture. Her anthropological studies gave her permission to pursue life as she wished to. Studying gender and how it is considered and expressed in many variations in other cultures allowed her to see the limitations around gender in her own.

From this expedition came her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928 when Mead was twenty-six years old. Mead would continue to study these subjects in other cultures throughout her entire career and bring her findings forward in her books and other writings. She had a way of presenting information so that others would listen. She recalled observations and told stories of other cultures with prose that allowed them to flow unobstructed into her own culture and begin to be viewed as normal considerations for ways to live.

On the way home from Samoa, Mead met and fell in love with her second husband, psychologist and future anthropologist Reo Fortune. Together, they traveled to Indonesia to study the people of Manus in Papua, New Guinea. She returned to New York City from the fieldwork in Manus to discover her book Coming of Age in Samoa about the lives of adolescent girls in the culture of Samoa was a best seller.

“William Morrow, her publisher, offered an advance of $500 for a follow-up book concerning her new adventures on Manus. It appeared next year as Growing up in New Guinea, with a dedication to Reo Fortune. The new book sealed her position as an outspoken, even scandalous public scientist, given her frank discussions of sex and her refusal to acknowledge the self-evident superiority of Western Civilization. She had become, seemingly overnight, one of the country’s foremost experts on the relevance of the most remote parts of the globe for understanding what was happening back home”(King 185).

Her marriage to Reo Fortune was problematic. He had trouble with jealousy and competing with Mead. In her memoir Blackberry Winter, Mead discusses how she was willing to bend to some of his expectations and demands as a husband but she would not pander to him professionally. She refused to not tell him the truth when he asked her for help with his writing or other work.

“If we are to have a world in which women work beside men, a world in which both men and women can contribute their best, women must learn to give up pandering to male sensitivities, something at which they succeed so well as long as it was a woman’s primary role, as a wife, to keep her family intact or, as a mistress, to comfort her lover”(BW 205).

When Mead and Fortune returned to the field, they met anthropologist Gregory Bateson who would become Mead’s third and last husband.

Beginning in 1936, with Bateson, Mead carried out intense studies in Bali. They worked together in the field tirelessly for over two years and gathered an enormous amount of data. They developed a new method using movie film and photographic stills. Mead writes:

“The decision we made does not sound very momentous today. Daylight loaders have been available for years, amateur photographers have long since adopted sequence photography, and field budgets for work with film have enormously increased. But it was momentous then. Whereas we had planned to take 2,000 photographs, we took 25,000. It meant that notes I took were similarly multiplied by a factor of ten, and when Made’s notes also were added in, the volume of our work was changed in tremendously significant ways. It also meant that we had to wait almost twenty-five years before our work had much impact on anthropological field work. And there are still no records of human interaction that compare with those that Gregory made in Bali and then in Iatmul”(BW 257).

Mead was meticulous in her work, taking detailed notes and faithfully transcribing them. She developed methods and protocol which she was committed to pass on to young anthropologists so they would be prepared for what to expect in fieldwork and not have to learn the hard way as she had. Along with her continued fieldwork and other public appearances, she went on to write more than twenty books.

“It was through Mead that Boas’s core ideas lived on and spread to a broader audience than Papa Franz could have ever dreamed. Her early books on Samoa and New Guinea each went through as many as seventeen editions and twenty foreign translations. Her typical year’s output might include a scholarly book, articles in learned journals, essays in edited collections, encyclopedia entries, a bevy of reviews, and short pieces in Camp Fire Girls, Good Housekeeping, and Redbook, that spun anthropological findings into practical, how-to advice. Newspapers and conference organizers solicited her views on childcare, equality, marriage, race, the Cold War and virtually any other subject of popular concern. In turn her FBI file, one of many kept on public intellectuals during the era of J. Edgar Hoover, ballooned to nearly a thousand pages of tedious reports on her movements and friendships”(King 338).

In 1939, Mead and Bateson had a child they named Mary Catherine. Bateson left Mead and moved to California when Mary Catherine was very young. After that, Mead never married again but had relationships with both men and women simultaneously the rest of her life.

Today we may label Mead “polyamorous,” although I am not sure she would agree with that title or any label. While outspoken about the enforced limits around sexuality in her own culture, she remained in the closet for all of her life around her sexual relationships with women.

Margaret Mead the Mother

In her memoir, With A Daughter’s Eye, Mary Catherine Bateson describes the multiple homes and interesting living situations she experienced growing up. Mead found ways to keep working regularly despite being a single mother. She did this by creating and maintaining dependable relationships and connections she could call on to support her and her daughter.

As with everything in her life, she viewed motherhood through the lens of anthropology and subsequently changed many patterns around motherhood in her own culture including introducing breastfeeding on demand and what would now be called “conscious parenting.”

Bateson recalls her mother being asked about handing over her care to others:

“Don’t you mind handing over the care of your child to a younger and more beautiful woman?,” Margaret argued, then and later, that jealousy was culturally produced, an emotion she did not feel.

Margaret believed that it was not only possible but preferable that children feel a part of several households and have several caretakers. In this way she believed it would be possible to avoid the tightness of bonding to a single caretaker that so often provides the ground of an entire neurotic system. In Samoa, she had described a number of instances where children simply moved into a different household. . . The wartime arrangement with the Franks, which continued after the war when we remained in the same house although the households were more clearly separated, was always described by us to each other as a utopia, and the summers in which the households were merged at Larry’s house, Cloverly, were always recalled as equally ideal”(Bateson 35).

As stated above, they lived in many multi-family households where rotating care for the collective young was the norm. Mead’s longtime friend whom Mary Catherine refers to as “Aunt Marie” was a stalwart and steady resource for Mary Catherine and Mead whenever they needed her.

Mary Catherine Bateson (1939-2021) was a writer and cultural anthropologist as well as an activist for peace and justice. As well as With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, she authored many other books including the wildly popular and inspirational book on women’s roles in society, Composing a Life.

War and motherhood interrupted Mead’s field work but in 1953, when she felt Mary Catherine was old enough, she returned to the field. Upon her return, Mead and Mary Catherine moved into a house in Greenwich Village owned by anthropologist Rhoda Mertraux. Mertraux had a son. This was another opportunity to share households and childrearing. Mertraux and Mead were lovers and also worked together professionally from 1955 until her death. They coauthored several books and many articles.

Margaret Mead’s life was one of connections. Connections she created, fostered and maintained. Bateson recalls:

“As Margaret moved around the world, engaging in conversation after conversation, she was a one-person conference. She carried a little notebook around in her purse at all times, writing down any new idea or information she thought she might want to use.

The notebook stands in my mind for a whole way of working whereby she was constantly taking in new material and using it, incorporating reactions, so that an interesting piece of work she heard about in Florida would be talked about in Topeka and synthesized with what someone was thinking or writing in Boston, elaborated in Cincinnati, incorporated in a lecture in California. She tried to be conscientious about giving credit and would often put people working on related matters in touch with each other, but no amount of care for references to formal pieces of work would sufficiently reflect the extent to which all her speeches and writing represented a legion of voices”(Bateson 240).

Mead had absolute confidence which she and her daughter attribute to her upbringing. This simple fact exemplifies many of the conclusions of her work.

“She became the face of the discipline, the epitome of an engaged scholar, even if other prominent academics continued to treat her, as they had done for decades, as somehow outside the mainstream. “The whole world is my field,” she said in a long profile in The New Yorker. The article took as its title her phrase for teaching people to know themselves: “It’s all Anthropology”(King 339).

Margaret Mead is a Nasty Woman of Stem.

© Theresa C. Dintino 2024

Works Cited

Bateson, Mary Catherine. With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. HarperCollins, 1984.

King, Charles. Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex and Gender in the Twentieth Century. Doubleday, 2019.

Mead, Margaret. Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years. William Morrow. 1972.