Margaret Mead: Editor-in-Chief

Margaret Mead, Class of 1925, Mortarboard

Margaret Mead, Class of 1925, Mortarboard. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives

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?

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.

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

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

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Jeannette Mirsky: In the Words of an Archivist

“In drawing on the letters and unpublished personal narratives, I have taken the liberty of letting the story run along without denoting ellipses; the pages filled with dots looked unseemly… I have utilized whatever books and articles would carry the story ahead fully and honestly and so obviated the repetitiousness of an archivist’s bibliography.”

-Jeannette Mirsky, from the Preface of Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer

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Last month I referred to Barnard alumna, author, and world traveler, Jeannette Mirsky, as “the coolest person I never heard of until last week.” Considering that her personal papers, recently acquired by the Barnard College Archives, remained unprocessed until this week, it is not surprising I had not encountered Mirsky previously. Last week I completed processing Jeannette Mirsky’s personal papers and reading her book, To the Arctic! Having spent so much time with her collection, and because there is so little information online about her, I found it fitting to pay her a brief tribute by sharing a few words about Mirsky and her work.

Jeannette Mirsky was born in New Jersey in 1903, and raised in New York City where she went on to earn her A.B. from Barnard College in 1924. From 1935-1938 Mirsky did graduate work at Columbia University, where she studied under Franz Boas and Margaret Mead. Mirsky’s academic records from this time and a notebook from a 1935 Anthropology course entitled “Social Organization,” are included among her papers.

As Mirsky embarked on her graduate studies, her inaugural book, To the North! was published. This time period is documented by extensive correspondence with publishers, manuscript drafts, and a collection of maps, illustrations, and photographs to be considered for inclusion in the publication. To the North! recounts the history of Arctic exploration, utilizing primary source materials to detail Arctic journeys in the words of the explorers themselves. To the North! begins: “Not so long ago there was a custom among sailors that accorded to all those who had sailed round Cape Horn the right to put one foot on the table after dinner, while those who had crossed the Arctic Circle could put both feet on the table. Here will be found the stories of those men who have both feet on the table, told whenever possible in their own words.”

Despite Mirksy’s extensive research and utilization of primary source documents, To the North! was controversial for largely discrediting Frederick Cook’s claims of discovering the North Pole. Mirsky wrote, “Cook was an extraordinary figure. It is impossible to dismiss him simply by calling him a liar. Rather it may be said that he was a great teller of stories, a fiction-writer who on a certain amount of fact built a vivid and absorbing yarn. For a man of his ability and experience he harbored too puissant an imagination…The story told in Cook’s My Attainment of the Pole is exciting and well written, but it nevertheless appears to be mainly fiction.”

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Jeannette Mirsky outside a bar

To the North! subsequently went out of print for a number of years due to a lawsuit by Cook, but was re-released in 1946 under the title, To the Arctic: The Story of Northern Exploration from the Earliest Times to the Present. In addition to English, the book has been published in German, Spanish, and French. Although the book is largely remembered for the controversy ignited by Mirsky’s assertion that it was Robert Peary, and not Frederick Cook who first reached the North Pole; the vast majority of To the North! is interested in what happened prior to the so-called attainment of the Pole. Near the end of the book, after devoting a chapter to the North Pole claims, Mirksy concedes: “It has been many years now since the Pole was reached, and viewing Peary’s exploit from such a vantage-point, it would seem fair to say that if any man were to reach the Pole, that man would be Peary…But like all deeds whose import is self-contained, it seems a strange goal on which to have lavished so much energy and planning and money. Like so many grand gestures, when seen in retrospect, it does not seem to matter greatly.”

 Mirsky expressed a lifelong interest in travel and exploration. Her personal papers are full of her research on explorers, letters and correspondence from around the world, and boxes of postcards and photographs documenting these pursuits. Her years of research culminated in a number of publications, which includes The Westward Crossings, The World of Eli Whitney, Elisha Kent Kane and the Seafaring Frontier, The Great Chinese Travelers: An Anthology, Houses of God, and Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer.

Prior to Barnard’s acquisition of Mirsky’s personal papers, the extent of our knowledge ended with her non-fiction and anthropological writings. It is my hope that with the availability of the Jeannette Mirsky collection that interest is sparked and a biographer of Jeannette Mirsky will emerge to tell her story, in her own words, just as she spent her life doing for others.

Written by: Heather Lember, Barnard College Archives Graduate Assistant

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.”

Barnard Fraternity Ban of 1913

Ever wondered why you have to slog over to Columbia in your micro-mini and pearls to find a suitable sorority to rush? In 1916, Barnard banned sororities (then called fraternities) for good.  The issue of fraternities was first raised in 1910 due to growing dissent among non-fraternity members who thought that the organizations promoted snobbishness and exclusivity.  At the time, Columbia University was in talks over whether or not to abolish their orders as well.  In 1910, the rush process was restricted to non-first years only.  In 1913, the Faculty Committee on Student Organizations invited four alumnae and four undergraduates to join the board to hear testimonials from both sides of the debate and make a decision about the continued existence of fraternities at Barnard.  After a three year suspension of fraternal activities in 1913, students at Barnard voted by 244 to 30 to abolish fraternities on campus.

During the six year period of debate, students, faculty, and alumni wrote in to both the college paper and alumni magazine to voice their opinions on the matter.  Telegraph wires were ablaze with messages to and from Sorority sisters and alumni attempting to save the place of their beloved sisterhoods.  Some fraternities tried to change the bylaws of their organizations to sidestep complaints–in 1912, Chi Omega re-released a mission statement that put new focus on “sincere scholarship,” keeping girls active in at least two other realms of the college, and having rich members do more service work to “connect with the disadvantaged.”

Those in favor of fraternities held that the organizations helped undergraduates make friends, created a close-knit and welcoming social environment, and allowed younger members to be mentored by alumni.  Those against fraternities claimed that they fostered snobbishness, established race lines, created “artificial barriers against natural intercourse,” caused emotional distress to those not invited to rush, and distracted members from academic achievement.  Among the dissenters was then-Dean Gildersleeve, even though she had been a part of a fraternity during her undergraduate years.

Fraternities had existed at Barnard since the school was first founded.  The Alpha Omicron Pi society was started by two Barnard students, Jessie Wallaces Hughan and Stella George Stern Perry.  Defying the popular notion that girls involved in fraternities were less academically able than their peers, the two went on to become relatively well-known public intellectuals–Hughan ran for a seat in the US Senate and founded the War Resisters League in 1898, and Perry became a well known art historian.

What did Barnard lose and gain by disbanding fraternities?  We did, perhaps, do good in supposedly placing “intellectual pursuits over social polarization” and regaining focus on academia.  (Margaret Mead, popularizer of anthropology and Barnard alumnus, was once turned down during a rush event for membership of Kappa Kappa Gamma at DePauw University for being “too frumpy.”)  But in 1915, Dean Gildersleeve admitted in a New York Times article that the social world dearly missed the fraternities, and that she was scrambling to introduce new social organizations/environments for Barnard girls to flourish in.  I do think we can still feel the effects of the ban today, when we realize that Barnard women wishing to pledge sororities go over to Columbia, and that the social life of these students becomes less centered around Barnard as their time spent across Broadway lengthens.

Written by Johana Godfrey, BC ’13

Five members from the Barnard classes of 1889 and 1890. Virginia C. Gildersleeve is second from the left while still in her fraternity days. Courtesy of Barnard College Archives.

A sketch of the gold pins that members of the Delta Delta Delta Society were required to display on their blouses at all times. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.