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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Male and Female, Mead identifies universal biological constants among human beings. Principal among these is the female imperative for bearing and nurturing children, which, according to Mead, is universally expressed unless a culture actively conditions against it. Among the hostile, cannibalistic Mundugumor, for example, both men and women are taught to detest children. Through the imposition of taboos, men are penalized for impregnating a wife, and women are condemned and punished by their husbands for conceiving a child. Infant mortality caused by neglect and infanticide accordingly is high. The Mundugumor culture, however, is deviant, and at the time of Mead’s study it was in danger of self-destruction. At the other extreme are the mountain Arapesh, among whom both sexes are equally nurturing and there is little, if any, sexual differentiation in child rearing. Most commonly, however, child rearing is a female role, and women willingly bear and nurture children.

A second biological constant that Mead specifies is the essential dissimilarity in male and female life rhythms. For women, there is a “biological career line” along which there are sharp discontinuous levels, such as menarche, pregnancy, and the menopause. Because there are no parallels to these events in men’s lives, cultures artificially create markers or rights of passage. In a reversal of Freudian penis envy, in which girls are envious because they view themselves as castrated boys and therefore deficient, Mead identifies womb envy among primitive Pacific peoples. Among scantily clad members of Pacific cultures, boys and girls observe male and female anatomy and view women at various stages of pregnancy. In these cultures, a girl learns that she only has to wait, travel through her life-steps, and become a mother. For a boy, however, the sex act appears at best to be tenuously linked to procreation. The little boy, meantime, finding himself unable to conceive and gestate a child and uncertain of his future paternal role, must repeatedly prove his masculinity. This, in turn, leads him toward external creative acts. Thus, according to Mead, there exists a “natural basis for the little girl’s emphasis on being rather than on doing.” While a little girl is awaiting the fulfillment of her biological function, a boy is learning his future constructive role.

An issue to which Mead returns, after having discussed it in previous works— notably Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies—is that of the inculcation of gender roles. In Male and Female , Mead analyzed the relative success of girls and boys in terms of their ability to resolve the Oedipus complex, the critical period in which boys and girls must give up their attachment to their opposite-sex parent and learn to view their same-sex parent as a role model. Nevertheless, successful resolution of the Oedipus complex does not fully explain the variation of gender roles within a culture. For that reason, Mead described continuums along which ideals of masculine and feminine roles as well as deviance lie. When comparing continuums within a culture, Mead suggests that there are gender traits that can be attributed to biology. The most aggressive...

(The entire section is 771 words.)