Coming of Age, but Not in Samoa
Reflections on Margaret Mead's Legacy to Western Liberal Feminism
In the case of anti-colonial critique, it is the similarity of past and present that defamiliarizes the here and now and subverts the sense of historical progress.
Nicholas Thomas, Colonialism's Culture ( 1994)
Coming of Age in Samoa, one of the most famous and popular works ever published by an American anthropologist, first appeared in 1928, when its author Margaret Mead was twenty-seven years old. 1 By the mid-1930s, Mead had gained a national reputation as an expert on "primitive cultures" and was recognized by the public, if not by her colleagues, as one of the leading anthropologists of her day. Prolific, out- spoken, charismatic, unconventional, provocative, controversial, and brilliant, Mead achieved a widespread public renown that was remarkable for a woman who constructed herself as a scientist and intellectual. She recognized instantly that her audience extended far beyond the elite worlds of the university and museum, and she cultivated her public by publishing hundreds of articles in such venues as American Anthropologist, Natural History, Redbook, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, Seventeen, and the New York Times Magazine, to name just a few. Mead also gave numerous interviews on domestic issues and international politics. From the appearance of Coming of Age in Samoa until her death fifty years later, Mead was sought after for her opinions on marriage, homemaking, childrearing, feminism, civil rights, and race relations. 2
Among the general public old enough to remember her, Mead is probably best known for the role she played in the 1930s in prompting Westerners to question their sense of cultural superiority, using so-called primitive societies to critique patriarchal gender relations in the United States. Mead was not alone in this endeavor, as she wrote at a moment when artists, professionals, and other elites were drawing from such cultures to reinvigorate Western arts--literature, music, dance, visual arts, photography, and film. 3 Among historians of anthropology, Mead is remembered as one of the many students of Franz Boas who helped bring about a paradigm shift from evolutionism to cultural relativism by challenging biological explanations of