In her lifelong research as a cultural anthropologist and social scientist, Margaret Mead completed several expeditions to Samoa and New Guinea—places that were radically different from her own life in the United States. She also studied other peoples who lived in the South Pacific. As a result of her research, she wrote many books; three of the most important are Growing up in New Guinea (1930), Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World (1949), and (with her husband, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson) Growth and Culture: A Photographic Study of Balinese Childhood (1951). Although sometimes met with controversy, these works have had an enduring influence on the field of cultural anthropology.
So what exactly did Margaret Mead believe about gender roles and expectations? Growing up in early modern America, she would have experienced cultural constraints upon her life as a woman. As the daughter of a feminist thinker and defender of human rights, Mead grew up in a progressive home and challenged the norms that were set for her during this era. Traveling alone as a young woman to the far-flung reaches of a Pacific island was met with opposition and resistance. But she was especially interested to learn in the field and understand gender constraints facing adolescent girls as a participant observer.
Based on her observations, Mead concluded that children learn by observation. Their behavior is shaped by watching those around them. She referred to this process as “imprinting.” She found that behavior is different based upon culture. Gender is not, therefore, absolute; rather, it is a carefully constructed cultural artifice. These cultural constructs are not without agenda. After all, whose agenda is served through cultural constructions based on gender?
Through her research, Mead challenged societal norms and argued that many social and cultural constraints impacted women in a negative way. She called for a sexual revolution that would liberate women from constraints based upon fixed gender roles.