A Marguerite for Margaret
Luther S. Cressman
I was Margaret Mead's husband from 1923 to 1928, after a six-year engagement, a period leading up to and covering her Samoan field trip. The ancient code of comradeship, a relationship Margaret and I enjoyed until her death, compels me to make this statement. In the current academic media brouhaha about Margaret's first field trip to American Samoa, from 1925 to 1926, no recognition has been given to facts that are of the greatest importance in understanding her experience and appreciating its significance.
Margaret's work, errors and all, like that of all of us has to be evaluated in terms of the value system and what was happening to it at the time the work was in progress. No one, at least in what I have read, has made the least effort to do that; perhaps no one could. Those postwar years, the fabled twenties, provided those of us at Columbia opportunities to be a part of a process of change in our society and intellectual life that can never be repeated. Margaret and I were central to such a group at Columbia and responded to the challenges of the period.
Margaret's mother passed on to her the ideal of women's rights and in the difficult process of persuading her father to let her go to college she learned who the "enemy" was. Our long engagement gave me the opportunity to observe her devotion to the ideals of equality of the sexes (not similarity) and that women could do anything men could and as well. The idea would become almost an obsession with her.
She chose the challenge of the field of anthropology and what it demanded of its professionals to validate her belief in women's capabilities and, therefore, their proper demand for equality of opportunity, recognition, and reward.
To say that Franz Boas [professor of anthropology at Columbia from 1899 to 1936] sent Margaret to Samoa to gather information to support his idea of the greater importance of nurture over nature is utter nonsense. He had a much more pressing problem on his hands. He had this brilliant, emotional, driving young woman student, whose abilities he recognized and admired, insisting that he support her desire to do her first field work outside of North America, just as he would do for a man. For a young, lone woman to do this was something new and it created many problems. Counterpressure on Boas to refuse her proposal came from Edward Sapir, a Canadian anthropologist whop was a frequent visitor at Columbia, and others who cited her frailty as a woman as a drawback. This infuriated her.
One thing was certain, she could go no place for field work without Boas's approval. He knew his obligation to support his troublesome young student and to provide her an opportunity consonant with her training that would let her demonstrate her ability to perform as promised. He was fully sensitive to the trauma he would inflict on the girl if he frustrated her deeply rooted ambition. He suggested to Margaret that she go to American Samoa and learn what the adolescent experience was like there.
Boas wisely chose this problem for its vitality in the public consciousness, the interest it held for Margaret, and as one in which her youth would be to her advantage. Finally, American Samoa was a safe place for an unescorted young woman, a consideration important to Boas both as a person and institutional sponsor. He was investing with great deliberation in the promise of the professional future of his brilliant young student. Some doubting Thomases differed with Boas on his decision, but none shared his depth of understanding and appreciation of the young Margaret.
If Margaret, in going to Samoa, wanted to prove some preconceived idea, it certainly was not the nature of adolescence in a Samoan village population -- that she would try to learn -- but that a woman, Margaret Mead, could be a professional anthropological field worker as well as any man of comparable preparation. That she proved, but apparently not to all men's satisfaction then or now, for when -- after ten years was it? --Derek Freeman, the hunter, shouted, "TALLY HO!" men and hounds dashed from the halls of academe to join the chase; but I am sure the quarry is still free. How fragile the thin veneer of tolerance over the ancient biases!
All social science, but especially anthropology, owes Margaret Mead a tremendous debt. At twenty-three years of age she did what no woman in anthropology had done. She went on a poverty-level fellowship compared to the generous stipends now given. She violated the canons of the Establishment by writing a report that was interesting, readable, and relevant to the lives of people in our society. She popularized anthropology. The departments in which some of her critics, both friendly and hostile, now teach owe their existence to Margaret's popularization of the subject matter. If what she wrote in Coming of Age in Samoa tended to produce an outburst of demand for greater sexual freedom among our young people, it did that because it was a lance puncturing the old pustule of hypocrisy. She became a celebrity, and having been made that by the media she cleverly turned it to her own use to support her programs.
Over a half-century ago, this twenty-three-year-old girl who had never before been out of the country, went to an isolated island under financial conditions a contemporary graduate student would probably reject as demeaning, and there made her first field study. She had the firm conviction that she could establish and hold her place in the profession with men. Her record proves she was right and in the doing she became a pioneer in the women's movement. We all are indebted to her in some degree. Colleagues as scholars will correct her errors, the perspective of time establish her scientific work, and we, her professional associates, will gain stature both personally and professionally, if we rightly honor the remarkable young girl and the woman Margaret became.