Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World, drawing upon data she had gathered during field trips in Oceania among seven diverse cultures, anthropologist Margaret Mead explored the formation of gender roles among human beings. In every known culture, humans have emphasized differences in gender and have valued male and female roles unequally. Whereas in previous studies, such as Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), Mead had sought cultural determinants in gender formation, in Male and Female she searched for universal biological constants. She did so by applying Freudian psychoanalytic theory.

Male and Female is divided into four sections. In part 1, Mead described the nature of her inquiry and the methods by which she, as an anthropologist, observed and analyzed cultures. In part 2, adapting Freudian theory, which credits the management of biological milestones such as suckling, weaning, and control of bodily eliminations with determining adult character, Mead evaluated the process by which individuals define their gender identity. In part 3, she investigated the variant biological rhythms of males and females and the means by which societies balance their needs. She also described the forms of the family in which children are nurtured and inculcated in the values of their culture and through which they learn to assume their gender roles....

(The entire section is 417 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Throughout her professional career, Mead was concerned with the impact of culture on personality. Prior to Male and Female, she viewed character formation, including gender, as culturally determined and culturally defined, apparently not recognizing biological bases for masculinity or femininity. In Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, for example, she depicted the range of behaviors found in three Oceania cultures to illustrate the culturally determined basis for gender. Male and Female, however, marked a departure for Mead, for in it she explored the biological underpinnings of masculinity and femininity. In addition, she analyzed cultures from a Freudian perspective.

Reflecting the infusion of Freudian psychologists into the United States in the 1930’s and 1940’s and the adoption of psychoanalytic theory by American social scientists, Mead for the first time employed psychoanalytic theory in examining the pertinency of childhood experiences to adult character formation. In searching for biological constants among human beings, she glorified the female role of child bearing. Contrary to her previous attribution of male and female behavior to the cultural environment, Mead in Male and Female found individuals, particularly women, mired in biology. “If women are to be restless and questing, even in the face of child-bearing,” wrote Mead, “they must be made so through education.” She described...

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Male and Female

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

The Work

In Male and Female, Margaret Mead, an anthropologist, psychologist, author, lecturer, and associate curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History, employed the knowledge that she gained in her many field trips to the South Pacific to show the roles that have been played by men and women in different cultures. She starts her book by reporting on societies in which sexual intercourse is considered delightful and those in which it is regarded as a necessary evil; societies in which men envy women and try to emulate their roles and a society in which woman’s place is not in the home; societies in which childbearing is considered hateful and societies in which children are prized possessions. Mead thus promotes a greater awareness of the way in which the differences and the similarities in the bodies of human beings form the basis on which all one’s learning about one’s sex, and one’s relationship to the other sex, are built. Mead then writes of family life: How does it function, and what is the relationship between family life, with its strains, prohibitions, sacrifices, and rewards? After comparing the male-female relationships in postwar America and those of other societies, Mead finally tries to suggest ways in which Western civilization can make as full use of women’s special gifts as it has of men’s, and in so doing develop forms of civilization that can make better use of all human gifts. All three parts of Male and Female stem from the discipline of anthropology, the science of customs through which humans have learned to look at the patterned ways in which they have built different and challenging human cultures on their common biological inheritance.

Mead, in a simple and frank yet vivid style, offered her analysis of...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Cassidy, Robert. Margaret Mead: A Voice for the Century. New York: Universe Books, 1982. Although Cassidy’s analysis tends to be simplistic, his work provides a useful overview of Mead’s varied achievements, including a chapter on her views and her impact on feminism. His book is arranged topically, with only a brief paragraph following each chapter describing the sources he used.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963. In her seminal work, Friedan devotes chapters to Freudian psychoanalysis and to Margaret Mead as primary influences on the “feminine mystique.”

Mead, Margaret. And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America. New York: William Morrow, 1942. Mead provides a rationale for the implementation of national character studies and develops many of the ideas and explanations that she uses in describing American culture in Male and Female.

Mead, Margaret. Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1989. Mead’s autobiography provides insight into her early influences, philosophies, and personal relationships and discusses her professional work. Illustrated and indexed.

Metraux, Rhoda. “Margaret Mead: A Biographical Sketch.” American Anthropolo-gist 82 (June, 1980): 262-269. Metraux, Mead’s friend and collaborator from the American Museum of Natural History, offers a concise but detailed biography of Mead that provides a description of her early life and influences as well as information on her professional career.

Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1989. Tong provides an excellent introduction to feminist theory and theorists by analyzing a variety of women, including many who operate from the premise that gender is culturally specific. Organized topically, the book has sections on liberal, Marxist, radical, psychoanalytic, socialist, existential, and postmodernist feminism. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Yans-McLaughlin, Virginia. “Margaret Mead.” In Women Anthropologists: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Ute Gacs et al. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. A concise biographical essay on Margaret Mead that helps to place Male and Female within the context of her prolific career. Provides a selected bibliography of work about and by Margaret Mead.