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“I Didn't Say That”: Margaret Mead on Nature, Nurture, and Gender in the Nuclear Age

  • Elesha Coffman (a1)

Abstract

The anthropologist Margaret Mead is widely known for stating that human nature is “almost unbelievably malleable,” meaning that individual identity—including gender—is shaped more by culture than by biology. Many feminists, notably Betty Friedan, seized on this idea as a tool for dismantling sexist biases but were dismayed when Mead's later work seemed to relegate women to a biologically determined, maternal role. Mead, however, argued strenuously in print and correspondence that she never intended to set nature against nurture, for she believed that identity grew from the interplay of the two. The historical context for Mead's thinking changed, as the menace of eugenic politics in the 1930s yielded to the existential threat of nuclear annihilation after 1945, but Mead never fundamentally changed her mind about the production of gender.

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Corresponding author. E-mail: elesha_coffman@baylor.edu

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I would like to express sincere gratitude to the editors and anonymous reviewers at Modern Intellectual History, colleagues Andrea Turpin and B. M. Pietsch, and graduate students Sean Delehanty and Skylar Ray. Funding was provided by the Baylor University Office of the Vice Provost for Research. Portions of this research were presented at the 2017 meeting of the Society for US Intellectual History.

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2 Letter, Margaret Mead to Viola Klein, 26 Sept. 1950, Margaret Mead Papers and the South Pacific Ethnographic Archives, Library of Congress, I48.5, original emphasis. Chapter 6 of The Feminine Mystique is titled “The Functional Freeze, the Feminine Protest, and Margaret Mead.” That chapter occupies pages 139–70 in the 2013 W. W. Norton edition of the book, which is the version that will be cited in this essay.

3 Although “gender roles” is the more common term today, I retain Mead's use of “sex roles,” in part for consistency with my sources and in part to reflect Mead's emphasis on biology. On the distinctions between these terms see Acker, Joan, “From Sex Roles to Gendered Institutions,” Contemporary Sociology 21/5 (1992), 565–9. For extended consideration of Mead's and Viola Klein's contributions on this topic see Tarrant, Shira, When Sex Became Gender (New York, 2006). See also Gerhardt, Uta, “Margaret Mead's Male and Female Revisited,” International Sociology 10/2 (1995), 197217.

4 Mandler, Peter, Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War (New Haven, 2013). Mead's abiding concern about nuclear weapons and nuclear energy prompted her to spend considerable time in the last years of her life chairing a National Council of Churches committee crafting a statement of concern on the plutonium economy. As she told an energy executive who objected to her stated concerns, “I gather that you do not know that I have been closely associated with the question of hazards from nuclear energy since the late 1940s.” Letter, Margaret Mead to Morton I. Goldman, 20 May 1974, Mead Papers E169.3.

5 Mead, Margaret, Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years (New York, 1995; first published 1972), 216.

6 Mead's engagement with these ideas from Benedict is attested in many places, including Mead's short essay “Patterns of Culture, 1922–1934,” in Ruth Benedict, An Anthropologist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict, ed. Margaret Mead (Boston, 1959), 201–212; and Banner, Lois W., “Mannish Women, Passive Men, and Constitutional Types: Margaret Mead's Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies as a Response to Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28/3 (2003), 833–58. The 2014 novel Euphoria, by Lily King, offers a fictionalized account of this period in Mead's life. On the culture and personality school see Darnell, Regna, Invisible Genealogies: A History of Americanist Anthropology (Lincoln, 2001).

7 Mead, Margaret, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (New York, 1963; first published 1935), 279–80. Reo Fortune, though initially impressed by the book, came to be one of its more forceful critics. See Dobrin, Lise M. and Bashkow, Ira, “‘The Truth in Anthropology Does Not Travel First Class’: Reo Fortune's Fateful Encounter with Margaret Mead,” Histories of Anthropology Annual, 6 (2010), 66128.

8 Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, 280; Tarrant, When Sex Became Gender, 99. For more on Mead's desire to avoid any appearance of supporting Nazi ideology see Mead, Blackberry Winter, 220; and Bateson, Mary Catherine, With a Daughter's Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson (New York, 1994; first published 1984), 168–9.

9 Florence Finch Kelly, “A Challenging View of the Sexes,” New York Times, 26 May 1935, BR2; Thurnwald, Richard C., review of Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, American Anthropologist 38/4 (1936), 663–7, 664, 665.

10 Mead, Margaret, “A Reply to a Review of ‘Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies,’American Anthropologist 39/3 (1937), 558–61, 558, 559.

11 Yans-McLaughlin, Virginia, “Mobilizing Culture and Personality for World War II,” in Stocking, George W., ed., Malinowski, Rivers, Benedict and Others: Essays on Culture and Personality (Madison, 1986), 184217.

12 Mead, Sex and Temperament, v; Mead, Margaret, Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World (New York, 1949), 3. Mead's impulse to use anthropology to explain and guide American life was by no means new in 1949, but it grew throughout her career. See Molloy, Maureen A., On Creating a Usable Culture: Margaret Mead and the Emergence of American Cosmopolitanism (Honolulu, 2008).

13 Mead, Male and Female, 57, 393. Friedan quoted this passage at 157. Erikson, Erik H., Childhood and Society (New York, 1950). Mead described her introduction to Erikson's ideas, via Lawrence K. (Larry) Frank, at 468–9 of her unpublished 1975 interview with Jean Houston, which is archived in the Mead Papers, Q18.2–5. On the uneasy relationship between “Culture and Personality” and psychoanalytical approaches see LeVine, Robert A., “Culture and Personality Studies, 1918–1960: Myth and History,” Journal of Personality 69/6 (2001), 803–18.

14 Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 158, 161–2.

15 Ibid., 154; Friedan, Betty, “Selection from The Feminine Mystique,” in Hollinger, David A. and Capper, Charles, eds., The American Intellectual Tradition, vol. 2, 7th edn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 506–13; Newman, Louise M., “Coming of Age, but Not in Samoa: Reflections on Margaret Mead's Legacy for Western Liberal Feminism,” American Quarterly 48/2 (1996), 233–72, at 270 n. 66.

16 Bernard Mishkin, “The Sexes in Differing Cultures,” New York Times, 16 Oct. 1949, BR7; Nadel, S. F., review of Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World, American Anthropologist 52/3 (1950), 419–20.

17 Lyon, E. Stina, “Viola Klein: Forgotten Émigré Intellectual, Public Sociologist and Advocate of Women,” Sociology 41/5 (2007), 829–42.

18 Letter quoted in ibid., 836. See also McCarthy, Helen, “Social Science and Married Women's Employment in Post-war Britain,” Past & Present 233/1 (2016), 269305.

19 Klein, Viola, “The Stereotype of Femininity,” Journal of Social Issues 6/3 (1950), 312, 7, original emphasis, 8, 9, 11.

20 Mead, Margaret, “A Reply to a Review of ‘Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies,’American Anthropologist 39/3 (1937), 558–61, 559.

21 Letter, Viola Klein to Margaret Mead, 20 Sept. 1950, Margaret Mead Papers, I48.5, original emphasis.

22 Letter, Margaret Mead to Viola Klein, 26 Sept. 1950, Margaret Mead Papers, I48.5. Interview with Jean Houston, 1975, 463–4, Margaret Mead Papers, Q18.2–5, original emphasis.

23 Letter, Mead to Klein, 26 Sept. 1950.

24 Henry, Jules, review of Male and Female, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 20/4 (1950), 841–2, original emphasis; Mead rejoinder to Henry's review, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 21/2 (1951), 427–8, original emphasis. Mead's sent and unsent correspondence with Henry is located in the Mead papers, C22.

25 Letter, Mead to Klein, 26 Sept. 1950; Mead, Sex and Temperament, 281–2; Mead, Male and Female, 7.

26 In addition to Klein and Mead, authors contributing articles to the Journal of Social Issues 6/3 (1950) were Marguerite Wykoff Zapoleon, Hazel Davis, and Agnes Samuelson (coauthors of “Women in Education”), and Josephine J. Williams. Journal editor Ronald Lippitt wrote a one-page preface, and Seagoe wrote a one-page introduction.

27 Hunt, Rolfe Lanier, Mead, Margaret, and Romulo, Carlos F., “The White House Conference,” Phi Delta Kappan 32/5 (1951), 240–45; Mead interview with Jean Houston, 492.

28 Mead, Margaret, “Toward Mutual Responsibility,” Journal of Social Issues 6/3 (1950), 4556, at 45, 48; Hochschild, Arlie Russell, The Second Shift (New York, 2003; first published 1989). Fatherhood, specifically whether humans possess a paternal instinct, is one of very few topics on which Mead admitted to Houston (at 491) that she had ever changed her mind.

29 Mead, “Toward Mutual Responsibility,” 48; Metraux, Rhoda, ed., Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views (New York, 1979), 16; Journal of Social Issues 68/4 (2012). Mead had presented the Soviet experiment as a contrast to Western democracies earlier, for example in a fleeting reference in Growing Up in New Guinea (New York, 1930), but the reference became more frequent and the contrast more pronounced in her work from World War II forward. On Mead's articles in Redbook in the early 1960s see Shankman, Paul, “The Public Anthropology of Margaret Mead: Redbook, Women's Issues, and the 1960s,” Current Anthropology 59/1 (2018), 5573.

30 Mead, “Toward Mutual Responsibility,” 50, original emphasis; Lawrence Summers, “Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce,” at https://web.archive.org/web/20080130023006/http://www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nber.html, accessed 12 June 2018.

31 Bateson, With a Daughter's Eye, 64, 50. The summary of the 1950 Macy Conference appears at www.asc-cybernetics.org/foundations/history/MacySummary.htm, accessed 13 June 2018.

32 Bateson, Gregory, “The Group Dynamics of Schizophrenia,” in Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York, 1972), 228–43, esp. 231, 233.

33 Gregory Bateson, “The Role of Somatic Change in Evolution,” in Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 346–63, esp. 354.

34 On somatotyping see Foerstel, Lenora, “Margaret Mead from a Cultural-Historical Perspective,” in Foerstel, Lenora and Gilliam, Angela, eds., Confronting Margaret Mead: Scholarship, Empire, and the South Pacific (Philadelphia, 1992), 5573.

35 Mead, Margaret, New Lives for Old: Cultural Transformation in Manus, 1928–1953 (New York, 1966; first published 1956), 13, 14; Mead, Letters from the Field, 1925–1975, reprint edn (New York, 2001; first published 1977), 273.

36 Mead Papers, Library of Congress, B2.1; Mead, Margaret, Continuities in Cultural Evolution (New Brunswick, 1999; first published 1963), esp. 12.

37 Shankman, Paul, The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy (Madison, 2009), 10. See also Shankman, , “Culture, Biology, and Evolution: The Mead–Freeman Controversy Revisited,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 29/5 (2000), 539–56.

38 See Lutkehaus, Nancy C., Margaret Mead: The Making of an American Icon (Princeton, 2008), esp. chap. 8.

39 Brod, Harry, “The New Men's Studies: From Feminist Theory to Gender Scholarship,” Hypatia 2/1 (1987), 179–96. See also Sanday, Peggy Reeves, “Margaret Mead's View of Sex Roles in Her Own and Other Societies,” American Anthropologist 82/2 (1980), 340–48. The website for the Institute for Intercultural Studies, which was founded by Mead, uses the quote about “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” in its logo but admits that no source for the quotation has been found.

I would like to express sincere gratitude to the editors and anonymous reviewers at Modern Intellectual History, colleagues Andrea Turpin and B. M. Pietsch, and graduate students Sean Delehanty and Skylar Ray. Funding was provided by the Baylor University Office of the Vice Provost for Research. Portions of this research were presented at the 2017 meeting of the Society for US Intellectual History.

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