Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

From the South Seas: Studies of Adolescence and Sex in Primitive Societies is a compendium of three related works by anthropologist Margaret Mead: Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization (1928), Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Education (1930), and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935). Also included is a new general introduction by the author in which Mead suggests that the three books followed one another naturally, as did the studies that they relate.

Coming of Age in Samoa, the first of the three books, is a study of adolescent girls in one so-called primitive society. In Samoa, emotional display is discouraged, and people are supposed to be obedient to the cultural norms. These cultural norms include a very strong separation of the sexes by about age seven as well as a strong differentiation between the sexes. Generally, females are the caretakers of children, and men are the cultural leaders. There is no taboo against nudity or shame involved in sex.

Growing Up in New Guinea tells the story of a markedly different culture. Among the Manus people of New Guinea, women are considered property, and they become part of their husbands’ households at marriage. The children belong solely to the father; if the couple separates for any reason, the children remain with the man. Sex is considered...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

From the South Seas had two very essential impacts on the status of women as American citizens in general and as scholars in particular. Margaret Mead was a doctor of anthropology and a respected scholar when she wrote the books compiled in this collection. Only a few years earlier, when she turned twenty-one, she was not eligible to vote because she was a woman. The movement toward equal rights for women, in which Mead became a major factor, focused on women’s suffrage when the author was a college student.

More important, however, is the fact that Mead chose to study young and adolescent girls, as well as grown women, as a major part of this study. Until this time, it had generally been assumed that men were the natural leaders of society, by biological right of prowess and even (in some cases) by an assumption of superior intelligence. Mead makes it very clear that from her point of view, the superiority of men in terms of strength becomes less and less important as civilization advances. The later twentieth century, marked by advances in technology, made this conclusion extremely obvious. In her later years, Mead was a very important contributor to the movement toward real equality between the sexes.

In the societies studied in From the South Seas, the assumptions made about the sexes in Mead’s time were badly shaken. One finds a society, the Arapesh, in which both men and women are defined as gentle and loving and an opposite case, the Mundugumor, in which both sexes are considered bloodthirsty. In neither case is the Western dichotomy between the sexes prevalent. While Mead’s studies are now dated and other studies have followed, anthropologists and others still argue about their implications. Her general conclusions are very much a source of controversy. She called into question one of the most basic assumptions of Western societies: that there is an inherent, inborn difference between men and women. That question will be debated for many years to come, and this anthropologist’s arguments will always be a source in that debate.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Cameron, Ian. Lost Paradise: The Exploration of the Pacific. Topsfield, Mass.: Salem House, 1987. A discussion of the early inhabitants of the Pacific Islands and the changes made in the aboriginal societies there by the invasion of Europeans.

Cassidy, Robert. Margaret Mead: A Voice for the Century. New York: Universe Books, 1982. A biography of Mead, from her early explorations in the South Pacific through her life in the late twentieth century.

Irwin, George. Samoa. South Brunswick, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1965. A description of Samoan culture and lifestyles from a modern point of view, including illustrations of the people of Samoa and the places where they live.

Mead, Margaret. Male and Female. New York: William Morrow, 1949. A discussion of the dichotomy between male and female roles in society based upon her earlier studies of “primitive” societies, including the works compiled in From the South Seas.

National Geographic Society, Special Publications Division. Primitive Worlds: People Lost in Time. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1973. A description of the lifestyles of a variety of so-called primitive people, including several tribes described much earlier by Margaret Mead.