Margaret Mead was a feminist of her time, whether she considered herself one or not. Born in 1901, she studied with Franz Boas, her mentor, and Ruth Benedict, her romantic partner. During this time in the early half of the twentieth century, Margaret Mead developed many of her ideas. Her belief in cultural relativism, passed down from Franz Boa, led most of her research in her journey to open the mind’s of American citizens. Her feelings of being different from most of society and her closeted relationship with Ruth Benedict created dissatisfaction with the gender role expectations in American society motivating her to make a change.
This dissatisfaction led to her study of gender roles in three primitive societies, which later turned into her ethnography, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. Within the book, Margaret Mead’s goal was to show sex-specific roles are not universal and that each society has equally valid patterns of life. The first society she described was the Arapesh. Men and women were more equal within this society. Stereotypes weren’t as gender-based due to both genders being thought of as acting similarly: gentle, responsible, and cooperative. The second society that Mead wrote about was very similar to the last society in regards to equality. The women and men of Mundugumor viewed each other as both violent, aggressive, jealous and competitive. The only inadequacy that was brought to the public eye was that women were not as physically strong as the men. The Tchambuli was the last society that Mead wrote about and the least similar to our culture in the United States. Tchambuli women are considered energetic, managers of households, uninterested in self-expression, and fishers or manufactures. The men in this society relate closely to the women in the United States as they are considered self absorbent due to their interest in art, dancing, carving and painting. These societies, explained by Mead, showed a large variation in gender role expectations throughout cultures hopefully leading to change within ours.
Mead’s study included the notion of configuration and deviance. Each culture has their own configuration that affects behavior within that culture. Mead and Benedict both explain this as approved rules in a society that motivates behavior. A good example of this is our culture in the United States. Throughout our history, the rights of members in the LGBTQ community have been ignored and dismissed. This has always been “justified” by close-minded members of our society using our cultural configuration against us -a cultural configuration that has put the expectation of “traditional” relationships ahead of our needs and feelings. This is where Mead and Benedict’s ideas of deviance come to play. Yes, we have a cultural configuration in the United States that is strict and firm, but this does not mean we have no free will. Deviance is Mead’s explanation for the feminist activists, movements, and LGBTQ rallies that have taken place since her time. This deviance make us strong, independent people grasping to our freewill in a binding cultural configuration filled with gender expectations that have forced many of us in the past to hide who we are.