Next to Margaret Mead’s yearbook photo in the 1923 Barnard Mortarboard it says:
Economics, social science,
Peggy has advanced idees!
Discourseful quite, with forceful might,
She ponders immortality.
Margaret Mead passed away in 1978, but her anthropological legacy has certainly proved to be immortal. As a graduate student at Columbia University under the teachings of Franz Boas, a man considered to be the “Father of American Anthropology,” Mead attained her Ph.D. in 1929. Despite having such a prominent instructor, Mead was not overshadowed and gained prominence herself. She is best known for her work in Polynesia, her most famous publication probably being Coming of Age in Samoa, an ethnography exploring adolescence in Samoa. Mead also examined the U.S. anthropologically, as in And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America (1942). Mead also worked at the American Museum of Natural History for most of her career, and taught at Columbia as an adjunct professor of anthropology.
Mead’s professional life is well known, but what about her time at Barnard? What did Mead do before she became a disciple of Franz Boas and travelled to New Guinea to conduct fieldwork?
It seems that Margaret Mead’s yearbook quote holds many truths of Mead’s personality. She was assistant news editor of the Barnard Bulletin during the 1921-1922 school year and became editor-in-chief during her last year at Barnard. Mead used the Barnard Bulletin as a platform to share her “advanced idees” with the student body. In her editorial note, “Voicing the Unpopular,” from the January 12, 1923 Bulletin, Mead responded to a call for a column to be dedicated to the expression of unpopular opinion. Writes Mead: “Must such a group be tricked into coming from under cover for a new column, made to order just for its use? Surely students who have really valuable criticisms and suggestions which they wish to put before the college need no such stimulus.” Despite its short length, Mead’s piece about the necessity for well-informed criticisms and dissenting opinions in our society is very effective. (http://barnardcollege.newspaperarchive.com/barnard-bulletin/1923-01-12/page-2/?tag=voicing+the+unpopular&rtserp=tags/voicing-the-unpopular)
I wish I could share all of Mead’s editorials with you, but I will just highlight a couple more. In an editorial published on April 13, 1923, Mead defended the administration’s ban on smoking in Milbank due to fire hazard regulations. She scolds students who defied the ruling because they thought it was a type of “moral regulation.” Keep in mind that Margaret Mead was not a woman to put much investment in propriety, so I think it makes her words even stronger. She says: “Some of the Faculty offices contain the results of years of research; every cigarette lit in Milbank places them in danger. We are sure that those students who, careless of prohibitions, have permitted their escorts to smoke, will be willing to safeguard the life work of others, and consider it a point of honor to stop this dangerous abuse.” I wonder if, during her professional life, Mead forbade people from smoking in her office to protect her own life’s work and intellectual treasures. (http://barnardcollege.newspaperarchive.com/barnard-bulletin/1923-04-13/page-2/?tag=danger&rtserp=tags/danger?page=7)
If you thought that was spunky, check out this editorial from April 20, 1923 titled “An Empty Gesture,” about the rumor that the Barnard debating team was going to be sent to England. As a result of this rumor, many Barnard women tried out for the team. Mead did not approve: “It would be an empty spectacular gesture to send, at enormous expense, three practically untrained speakers to represent to English colleges and activity which has no vital existence in Barnard…Under present conditions the trip would be a meaningless piece of conceit.” (http://barnardcollege.newspaperarchive.com/barnard-bulletin/1923-04-20/page-2/?tag=an+empty+gesture&rtserp=tags/?pep=an-empty-gesture)
Do I need to add that Mead had been on the debating team in 1922, the year before these editorials were written? Perhaps the Barnard debating team helped her craft her effective persuasive writing or maybe she was so accomplished the Barnard debating team wasn’t enough for her!
Margaret Mead certainly had a lot of opinions about the goings-on at Barnard, but it seems she concluded that it was exactly right for her. In her autobiography Blackberry Winter: Earlier Years (1972), Mead says: “I came to Barnard, where I found—and in some measure created—the kind of student life that matched my earlier dreams. In the course of those three undergraduate years [she transferred from DePauw] friendships were founded that have endured a lifetime of change, and by the end of those years I knew what I could do in life.”
-Alice Griffin, BC ’15