Margaret Mead: Unofficial Feminist Ambassador

How much do you know about anthropological pioneer Margaret Mead? Mead studied the indigenous people of Samoa and New Guinea and offered new perspective to women’s roles in America.

Women like Susan B. Anthony, Pearl S. Buck, and Sojourner Truth conspicuously paved the way for women’s lib, but there were others whose quiet, diligent work made a widespread societal impact in America without the “feminist” label. Take for instance Margaret Mead. The famous anthropologist, who died 35 years ago this Friday on November 15, 1978, became known for uncovering the surprising gender and cultural norms of Samoan and New Guinea tribes in the 1920s and ’30s.

While in Samoa in 1925, a 24-year-old Mead studied the lives of women around her own age. She was stunned to discover it was culturally acceptable for a Samoan woman to have premarital sex and have multiple partners. Her findings from her nine-month stint in Samoa were reported in the book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), which became a best-selling book of the ‘20s. With her curiosity piqued, she broke new ground again after she took her first of seven trips to New Guinea in 1929. There she discovered that the roles of males and females within the society weren’t determined by their sex, but by cultural traditions. Many of her findings became fodder for the first-wave Women’s Movement.

In addition to the women who appreciated Mead’s research, the people of New Guinea valued her presence as well. She brought home several tzantzas from the country, pictured above, and a coconut tree was planted in honor of her death in 1978.