Margaret Mead at Barnard

Margaret Mead ’23 sitting on roof of Barnard Hall, circa 1920s. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

In any anthropology class you take at Barnard, the professor will take a few minutes out of the first lecture to tell you that Margaret Mead, the brilliant scholar responsible for introducing anthropology into the public conscience, was once a student at Barnard.  In 1920, a “frumpy” Mead transferred to Barnard from DePauw University as a sophomore.

Mead had trouble fitting in at DePauw.  She was socially ostracized and turned down by many sororities during the rush process because she didn’t dress “in fashion.”  At Barnard, however, she found “and in some measure created–the kind of student life that matched [her] dreams….friendships were founded that endured a lifetime of change.”  By the end of her time here, she knew what she could do in life.

At the time that Mead attended, Barnard only had one dorm and so overflow students lived in Barnard owned apartments near campus, much as upperclassmen do today.  Here, in a Claremont Apartment, Mead began to develop the close circle of friends nicknamed the Ash Can Cats.  The moniker was given them by drama teacher and Barnard legend Minor Latham, whose comprehensive drama survey they all took together.  Noted poet Leonie Adams was, along with Mead, the leader of the group.  Mead described the Ash Can Cats as “unusual” and “half Jewish, half Gentile,” a contradiction which Mead thought sparked debate among the girls.  They thought of themselves as radicals but spent many nights engaged in studies and academic debate rather than partying.  It was clear that they meant “radical” in an intellectual sense.  Mead’s Ash Can Cats belonged to “a generation of young women who felt extraordinarily free.”

Originally an English major, it was at Barnard that Mead took her first anthropology class taught by the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas.  She met Ruth Benedict, who was then serving as Boas’  TA and who encouraged Mead to major in Anthropology, telling her that philosophy could wait but that the field of anthropology was moving now.  Benedict belonged to the culture and personality school of anthropology and was later recognized as one of the other key female anthropologists of the 20th century.  Mead formed a strong relationship with Benedict and Boas, and her interest in anthropology directly affected the Ash Can Cats outside of discussion–she drew up a kinship chart for the group, similar to ones used by field anthropologists at the time, to organize her friends.  At the top were the parents, Deborah Kaplan, Leonie Adams, and Mead and then the children, who included Viola Corrigan and were noted for their “whimsical humor.”  The chart continued and all the way through to a “great grandchild” that the Ash Can Cats “adopted” during their last years at college.

Three “Ash Can Cats” seated on a bench holding balloons. From left to right: Léonie Adams ’22, Margaret Mead ’23, and Eleanor Pelham Kortheuer ’24, the Jungle, circa, 1921. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

In her years post Barnard, Mead made some significant breaks from the teachings of her anthropology mentors, rejecting Boas’ practice of salvage anthropology and moving into a more public sphere of anthropological study.  She always remained, however, unchanging in her gratefulness to Barnard for her undergraduate years, still the girl who wrote, a few weeks into her residence “I love, love, love it here.”

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