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  • Coming of Age, but not in Samoa: Reflections on Margaret Mead’s Legacy for Western Liberal Feminism
  • Louise M. Newman (bio)

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

One of the most famous and popular works ever published by an American anthropologist, Coming of Age in Samoa first appeared in 1928 when its author Margaret Mead (1901–1978) 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, outspoken, charismatic, unconventional, provocative, controversial, and brilliant, Mead achieved 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 time that Coming of Age in Samoa appeared in 1928, until her death fifty years later, journalists sought [End Page 233] Mead for her opinions on marriage, homemaking, child-rearing, 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 time when other artists, professionals, and elites drew from such cultures to reinvigorate western arts—literature, music, dance, visual arts, photography, and film. 3 Historians of anthropology remember Mead as one of Franz Boas’ many students who helped bring about a paradigm shift from evolution to cultural relativism by challenging biological explanations of cultural differences and refuting the explicit racism in eugenics and mainstream anthropology.

This article, however, situates Mead in a different intellectual context. In addition to seeing her as someone who helped foster cultural relativism within anthropology of the 1930s, we can also place Mead within a history of feminism and, more specifically, within a tradition of white feminist thought on racial questions. Recent scholarship has exposed the racism within much white feminist practice and history. Scholars such as Hazel Carby, bell hooks, Paula Giddings, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, among others, have analyzed the ways feminist theory has universalized white women’s experiences, perpetuating racist hierarchies of racial difference. This critique has precipitated new work (as exemplified by Vron Ware and Ruth Frankenberg) that explores the racism still embedded within a purportedly antiracist white liberal feminist politics. Informed by this recent scholarship, this study of Mead explores the vestiges of nineteenth-century racism that form part of Margaret Mead’s legacy to western liberal feminist thought today.

Repositioning Mead in this way requires that we view Mead as an integral part of a Victorian tradition that combined notions of white or “civilized” women’s sexual restraint and black or “primitive” men’s bestiality to reinforce the dominant cultural taboo against miscegenation. Whereas historians of anthropology usually understand Mead as challenging the racism implicit in such constructions, such dualisms nonetheless informed her work. In other words, this article reconsiders the nature of Mead’s antiracism, highlighting the continuities between Victorian and modern anthropology. Such an approach to Mead’s work [End Page 234] risks eliciting severe criticism from scholars who can only see Mead as a cultural relativist and racial egalitarian, as an opponent of western ethnocentricism and racial bigotry. 4 To grasp the central point—that Mead’s work was implicated in and shaped by Victorian race politics—we must be willing to embrace the idea that oppositional movements retain residues of that which they oppose. To put it most simply, Mead’s substitution of cultural theories...

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pp. 233-272
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