Anthropologist Margaret Mead Has Led a Feminist Life

But after three weddings and three divorces she doesn’t think marriage is going out of style.

The Washington Star, October 9, 1973: Anthropologist Margaret Mead stands in the doorway of her suite in Stone House, the Georgian mansion on the grounds of the National Institutes of Health where Fogarty International Center scholars work in carpeted quiet. She’s swathed in a blue light-wool cape and she stands securely without the English countryman’s walking stick she often uses to support an ankle she says has been broken several times.

The tall cane with a forked handle called a thumbstick stands in the corner of the sedate living room where every available surface, including some card tables that are not part of the décor, is covered with books and notes and papers. “The room is not exactly suited for my work,” Dr. Mead smiles, moving a pile of papers from the couch so she and her visitor can settle down.

She explains that the Center is primarily for foreign scientists but once in a while they ask a few Americans, like herself “to liven it up.” Dr. Mead is on leave from the American Museum of Natural History in New York where she has worked since 1926 (“It’s the only job I’ve ever had.”) as well as from Columbia University, where she’s taught for many years.

Dr. Mead, who will be working at the Center until Christmas, is writing a monograph on a New Guinea cannibal tribe she first studied in 1932. She went back to check on them two years ago and discovered that except for the fact that they are no longer cannibals, they haven’t changed a bit. Although she admits, a bit wistfully, that studying a new culture would be “more fun,” Dr. Mead feels her most valuable contribution is to continue to use her lifetime experience in the South Seas. “It is far more useful,” she explains, “because now I have the great-grandchildren of the people I studied.”

Easily the most famous anthropologist in America, Dr. Mead, 71, is invariably described as “kindly” and “grandmotherly” because she looks exactly like the illustrations of grandmothers in children’s books. And she has become a folk heroine of the women’s rights movement whose favorite grandmother figure she is.

These stereotypes fit her, but very loosely. She is a grandmother. “I have one daughter and one daughter’s daughter,” she says. Her daughter, Mary Catherine Kassarjian, is also an anthropologist and the two have a professional relationship with one another, as well as a loving one. “Mary called me dear colleague even before she was a graduate student,” says Dr. Mead, who thinks parents who have “congenial children” are lucky. And in the center of this congenial mother-daughter relationship is Sevanne, 4, the apple of her grandmother’s eye.

While Dr. Mead doesn’t exactly consider herself a part of the women’s movement, she does have a great sympathy for and understanding of the problems women face today. She says she came closer to being a feminist in her own youth. “In the 1920s, I believed women could go ahead and choose a career, marry when they felt like it and have children late in life if they wanted to.” She married three times, divorced all her husbands and raised the child of her third marriage — born when she was in her late 30s — in what these days would be called a family commune.

She still doesn’t live alone. In New York, she shares an apartment with a colleague, Rhoda Metraus, widow of an anthropologist. “When our children were younger we had a house in Greenwich Village and her son and my daughter grew up together.” Dr. Mead does not think marriage is going out of style, though. “That’s nonsense!” she says firmly, in the ungrandmotherly tone she uses when, having shed all her other roles, she speaks as a scientist.

“In the 1950s, they made everybody get married. Millions of people who never should have gotten married were forced to marry. Now we will go back to the kind of society where people who think marriage is appropriate will be married. Most of these will be people with children.”

But the time when women can make a choice between working or staying home and raising a family is nearly over, she believes. “Because of the population explosion women are going to be asked to have only one or two children. That means they will have to spend the rest of their lives being part of society. And society is not going to support them just because they had two children when they were under 25.”

Her views on abortion probably wouldn’t satisfy those for or against it. “It’s an incredibly brutal, lazy, cruel way of handling life. I feel it is unlikely that any woman is not harmed, either psychologically or physically by an abortion. It’s an abominable method of birth control.”

But Dr. Mead did advocate repeal of laws against abortion. “Those who don’t believe in abortion are still free to follow their own consciences, but we are no longer (since the Supreme Court decision) condemning women who do believe in it to illegal abortions.” She takes a dim view of the Pill, too. “Like abortion, it puts the onus on the woman. Ideally, there should be a contraceptive that has to be shared by a man and a woman. The Pill has probably increased venereal disease and has made men more irresponsible.”

Dr. Mead talks about those who haven’t been as fortunate as she. “I think one of the nightmares that hangs over most people is not the fear of dying but the fear of not dying and becoming dependent and of no use to anyone.” It’s a new problem because until recently, “only the strong survived, and if you can ride a bicycle at 85 or tat without glasses at 90, you can manage a place for yourself.” She advocates suitable housing near family and friends “instead of putting them in golden ghettos.”

The afternoon is going and it is time to leave Dr. Mead to her cannibals. “But first,” she says, “let me show you a picture of my grandchild.” She has several but one in particular delights her. In it, Sevanne is looking right into the camera, grinning from ear to ear. “Look at this,” says Dr. Mead, bringing forth another picture, this one of herself. She is staunchly facing the camera, holding her walking stick like a lance and she, too, is grinning from ear to ear.



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Judy Flander

Judy Flander

American Journalist. As a newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., surreptitiously covered the 1970s’ Women’s Liberation Movement.