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social sciences

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Mead, Margaret (1901-1978)  
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Mead authored or co-authored some forty books, including both scholarly and popular works, biography and autobiography, and books for children. As a contributing editor to the magazine Redbook, she wrote essays on a wide range of topics from parenting issues and environmental concerns to Christmastime reminiscences and even the question of UFOs.

Although she had some differences with the leaders of the feminist movement, she spoke out strongly for the rights of women.

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Mead remained active until the very end of her life. In the summer of 1978 she organized a conference at which she, her ex-husband Bateson, and their daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, also an anthropologist, all gave presentations. Mead succumbed to cancer a few months later, on November 15. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Mead's Bisexuality and "the Isolation of Secrecy"

Such was the public persona of Margaret Mead. What only the people closest to her knew was that this very visible and highly respected woman who wrote extensively about aspects of behavior, including sexuality, was herself bisexual.

Among the most important relationships of her life was that with Ruth Benedict. In two books on Benedict, An Anthropologist at Work: The Writings of Ruth Benedict (1959) and Ruth Benedict (1974), and in her own autobiography, Blackberry Winter (1972), Mead represents her as an inspiring mentor and a dear and valued friend but says nothing of their romance. Furthermore, Mead, who edited Benedict's writings after the death of the latter in 1948, included examples of Benedict's poetry--without revealing that some of the love poems had been written for and about her.

Mead's only child, Mary Catherine Bateson, did write about the women's love in her 1984 memoir With a Daughter's Eye.

The relationship began during Mead's graduate school years and continued through her three marriages. Bateson calls Benedict and Gregory Bateson "the two people [Mead] loved most fully and abidingly, exploring all the possibilities of personal and intellectual closeness." She recalls that her mother always kept two special photographs on display, one of Benedict on her mantel and one of Gregory Bateson on her bureau.

Bateson further notes that "through the major part of her adult life, [Mead] sustained an intimate relationship with a man and another with a woman. This double pattern must have been very satisfying and sustaining, but at the same time it created a kind of isolation, an isolation of secrecy."

Although Mead was known as an outspoken person, it is not surprising that she chose to remain silent on the subject of her bisexuality. As a young woman planning a career in academia in the 1920s, she was entering what was still largely a man's world in which obstacles to progress for women were already numerous.

Even after achieving prominence, however, Mead still worried about the effect of scandal on her career. Bateson recalls telling her mother about a girl who had had a crush on her during a high school year abroad. Mead responded by giving Bateson a copy of Rosamund Lehmann's novel of bisexual love Dusty Answer (1927), but also warned her against becoming involved in a scandal since it could harm Mead professionally.

For the January 1975 issue of Redbook Mead wrote an essay entitled "Bisexuality: A New Awareness" (reprinted in Aspects of the Present, 1980). Mead spoke with the voice of a dispassionate observer, but her words take on poignancy when one knows that she was in fact writing about herself.

Mead begins her article with the statement, "The time has come, I think, when we must recognize bisexuality as a normal form of human behavior." She goes on to assert that "a very large number of human beings--probably a majority--are bisexual in their potential capacity for love."

Mead supports her argument with references to the cultures of Asia and ancient Greece, the use of gender confusion as a device in Elizabethan plays, the "frankly bisexual" associations of creative people such as members of the Bloomsbury Group and the artistic community of the Left Bank in Paris around the time of World War I, and to the marriage of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.

Mead calls for everyone to have "the right to be a person who is unique and who has a social identity that is worthy of dignity and respect" and to be able "to elect single blessedness, to choose companionship with a member of their own or the opposite sex [or] to decide to live a fully communal life."

That Mead, one of America's best known and most admired women, chose to write from the "isolation of secrecy," however, clearly reveals her fear that the hoped for time when bisexuality is recognized as normal had not yet come, at least in her own culture.

Linda Rapp

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social sciences >> Overview:  Ethnography

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social sciences >> Benedict, Ruth

Among the first American women to study anthropology, Ruth Benedict rose to the top of her profession; her "patterns of culture" theory explains human behavior and concepts of deviance as cultural constructs.

literature >> Sackville-West, Vita

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social sciences >> Westermarck, Edward

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Bateson, Mary Catherine. With a Daughter's Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. New York: William Morrow, 1984.

Holmes, Lowell D. Quest for the Real Samoa. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey,1987.

Lapsley, Hilary. Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict: The Kinship of Women. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Mead, Margaret. Blackberry Winter. New York: Morrow, 1972.

_____, and Rhoda Metraux. Aspects of the Present. New York: William Morrow, 1980.

Murray, Stephen O. "Mead, Margaret." Who's Who in Gay & Lesbian History from Antiquity to World War II. Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon, eds. New York: Routledge, 2001. 304.


    Citation Information
    Author: Rapp, Linda  
    Entry Title: Mead, Margaret  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated March 2, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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