Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circleby Lois W. Banner
A uniquely revealing biography of two eminent twentieth century American women. Close friends for much of their lives, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead met at Barnard College in 1922, when Mead was a student, Benedict a teacher. They became sexual partners (though both married), and pioneered in the then male-dominated discipline of anthropology. They championed racial and sexual equality and cultural relativity despite the generally racist, xenophobic, and homophobic tenor of their era. Mead’s best-selling Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), and Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934), Race (1940), and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), were landmark studies that ensured the lasting prominence and influence of their authors in the field of anthropology and beyond.
With unprecedented access to the complete archives of the two women—including hundreds of letters opened to scholars in 2001—Lois Banner examines the impact of their difficult childhoods and the relationship between them in the context of their circle of family, friends, husbands, lovers, and colleagues, as well as the calamitous events of their time. She shows how Benedict inadvertently exposed Mead to charges of professional incompetence, discloses the serious errors New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman made in his famed attack on Mead’s research on Samoa, and reveals what happened in New Guinea when Mead and colleagues engaged in a ritual aimed at overturning all gender and sexual boundaries.
In this illuminating and innovative work, Banner has given us the most detailed, balanced, and informative portrait of Mead and Benedict—individually and together—that we have had.
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Pioneering Women and Men
Puritan moralism, Revolutionary idealism, the movement west-these major themes of the American experience resonate in the backgrounds of Benedict and Mead. The ancestors of both came from the British Isles in the early years of colonization: Benedict's from England, Mead's from there and from Ireland and Scotland as well. Benedict had forebears among the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620 and among followers of Roger Williams, the dissenting Baptist preacher who founded the Rhode Island Colony in 1636. Mead traced branches of her family to English Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 and to Scottish Presbyterians who immigrated to America in the late seventeenth century after the Stuart Restoration brought the reestablishment of Anglicanism in Great Britain and the outlawing of nonconforming religions. With a typical dramatic flourish, Mead recounted that Presbyterian forebears of hers hid in caves on the Scottish coast to elude soldiers of the crown before they sailed to America.
Both women had male ancestors who fought in the American Revolution; Mead claimed no fewer than seven and Benedict six. For the most part these men were farmers who temporarily took up soldiering and who returned to farming once the war ended. Mead's ancestor Josiah Fogg from New Hampshire achieved a higher rank than most: commissioned a lieutenant colonel, he assumed the title of major once he went back home. Benedict especially honored the Revolutionary patriotism of her paternal great-great-grandfather, Samuel Fulton. A Baptist minister in Nova Scotia, he proposed a toast to George Washington at a public banquet in Halifax in 1799 that so enraged the loyalist majority who had immigrated there from New England that he was charged with sedition. To avoid arrest, he fled from Canada to upstate New York. Finding a congregation in the city of Poughkeepsie that needed a minister, he took the post and stayed.
In the decades after the Revolution, forebears of both Benedict's and Mead's went west. They were farmers, businesspeople, doctors, and ministers-mostly middle class. Some of them carried on the dissenting traditions of their forebears by becoming abolitionists, reformers, and women's rights advocates. From the 1870s on, some of the women among them graduated from college and then taught school before marrying; some of those women participated in the culture of female romantic friendships that was a key experience of Victorian women. And these elements of Mead's and Benedict's backgrounds-migration, dissent, moralism, and female bonding-played a role in shaping them as adults.
In 1801, three years after Benedict's paternal Fulton great-great-grandfather fled from Nova Scotia to Poughkeepsie, her maternal Shattuck ancestors migrated from Connecticut to upstate New York. They settled as farmers near the town of Norwich, some forty miles northeast of Binghamton, in a territory recently opened to Anglo settlement. Benedict honored their adventuring spirit as well as her maternal lineage among them by describing them as traveling west in the dead of winter, through rugged forests, on a bobsled, "with a cow tied behind to give milk to the babies." They participated, she wrote, in "the rugged individualism of American pioneer life, giving zest and initiative to human existence."
Those Shattuck and Fulton families living in upstate New York didn't meet for some seventy years, until in 1876 a grandson of the Nova Scotia rebel, another Samuel Fulton, moved to Norwich with his wife and children after years spent as a homeopathic physician in Michigan. Buying the practice of a Norwich doctor who had retired, he hung out his shingle, established himself in the community, and along with his family attended the same Baptist church as the Shattucks. It was there that Samuel's nineteen-year-old son, Frederick-who would become Ruth Fulton's father-met the sixteen-year-old Bertrice Shattuck-who would become Ruth's mother. According to family legend, they fell in love at first sight.
They waited ten years to marry-until Bertrice graduated from Vassar College and taught for a year at a girls' school in Ohio and Frederick graduated from Colgate University and the New York City Homeopathic College, becoming a homeopathic physician like his father. Frederick established a practice in New York City, and he and Bertrice married and settled there. Ruth was born a year later, in 1887. Margery, their second daughter, was born a year and a half after Ruth. Shortly after Margery's birth, however, Frederick tragically died of Bright's disease (kidney failure), leaving Bertrice with two young children to support.
Returning to her parents' farm, Bertrice taught in the Norwich public high school; demonstrating a significant independence, in 1895 she took a teaching position in a high school in St. Joseph, Missouri. Two years later she became lady principal (dean of girls) at Pillsbury Academy in Owatonna, Minnesota, and in 1899 she accepted a position as head of circulation at the Buffalo Public Library in Buffalo, New York. She remained there until she retired, some eleven years later. In her moving she took along her daughters and her older, unmarried sister, Hetty, who cared for Ruth and Margery while Bertrice worked. They spent summer vacations at the Shattuck farm in Norwich. Bertrice never remarried.
Margaret Mead, for her part, condensed decades of the migrations of her ancestors by way of New England and Pennsylvania into one broad sweep when she wrote that forebears of hers journeyed "across the ocean [from England] to the prairies from Kentucky to Ohio." In fact, some went farther west, to Illinois and Wisconsin. In the 1800s forebears of hers migrated to the Western Reserve territory, where two of her great-great-grandfathers helped found the town of Winchester, Ohio. One of their sons, a Methodist circuit rider and a justice of the peace, was the father of Martha Ramsey Mead, Margaret Mead's paternal grandmother and the mother of Edward Mead, Margaret's father. After Martha's husband died when Edward was six, she took up schoolteaching. Like Bertrice Shattuck, also a schoolteacher, she didn't remarry, and again as in the case of Bertrice, an unmarried sister helped her with housekeeping and child care.
Emily Fogg, Margaret Mead's mother, was the daughter of Foggs in Chicago whose ancestors had migrated there from New England via upstate New York. Mostly well-to-do, related to the Fogg who provided the funds for the Fogg Museum at Harvard, they were Unitarians, abolitionists, and women's rights advocates. James Fogg, Emily's grandfather, was a Free-Soil candidate from Buffalo for the House of Representatives in 1852 and then the founder in Chicago of a wholesale seed company with sales throughout the Midwest. After he died his son James, Emily's father, took over his business. Emily attended Wellesley College for two years before enrolling in 1894 in the new University of Chicago. She met Edward Mead in a class there. A graduate of Methodist DePauw University in Indiana, he was a doctoral student in economics.
After Emily graduated from the University of Chicago, she taught for several years in a private girls' school near New York City and then entered the doctoral program at Bryn Mawr, while Edward finished his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1900 Edward was appointed to the faculty of the university's Wharton School of Commerce and Finance, and he and Emily married. Margaret, their first child, was born a year later. They had three more children: Richard, born in 1904; Elizabeth, in 1909; Priscilla, in 1911. Another child, Katherine, was born in 1905, a year after Richard, but she died six months after her birth.
Like Bertrice Shattuck moving around the country with her daughters and her sister, Margaret Mead's family moved a lot, although they stayed near Philadelphia. Edward wanted to live close to his work at the university, but Emily wanted to be in Hammonton, New Jersey, fifty miles south of Philadelphia, where she was doing her dissertation on an Italian immigrant community. They compromised by buying a large house in Hammonton and living there in the fall and spring and in rented houses in Philadelphia in the winter. During the summer they went on vacation to the Jersey shore or to Nantucket Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. They moved as often as four times a year. They didn't worry about schools for their children because Martha Mead, Edward's mother, now in her sixties and a retired schoolteacher, moved in with them after Margaret was born, and she taught the children at home. In 1910 they sold the house in Hammonton and bought a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, near the village of Holicong. They settled down there until Margaret entered high school in nearby Doylestown, where they rented a house for a time.
Benedict and Mead were both proud of their pioneering heritages. Those ancestries encouraged their adventuring as anthropologists, furthered their friendship, and bolstered their adult efforts to challenge gender conventions and forge careers at a time of substantial discrimination against women in the professions. During the early twentieth century many individuals among the Anglo majority in the United States revered such backgrounds, given the huge "new" immigration of people from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean in that era. As "Old Americans," Benedict and Mead had clout. At conferences Mead sometimes introduced herself as a tenth-generation American. Benedict identified herself in Current Biography as an "Old American" and wrote that "all the arguments are on the side of the Founding Fathers who urged no discrimination on the basis of race, creed or color."
California educator Roger Revelle, a friend of Mead's, characterized her as "thoroughly American." She took pride in her long family history in the United States, he stated; "she felt like she was a product of this country in a very profound way." Benedict, in noting her ancestors' migration to upstate New York in winter on a bobsled with a cow tied behind, had praised their pioneering spirit and their maternalism; Mead implicitly did the same when she wrote that Indians had attacked a wagon train carrying ancestors of hers going west and spared "only a blue-eyed mother and her blue-eyed baby." Mead knew that the harsh U.S. government treatment of the Native Americans and the Anglo incursions on their land had provoked their violence. Yet she was proud of her family for settling in frontier regions and she was especially proud of their women, whom she regarded as heroic in leaving kith and kin to face unknown dangers, including childbirth, in the unsettled West. Mead's "blue-eyed" mother with a "blue-eyed baby," the Madonna with her child, was a symbol critical of the male violence of the massacre, not of Indian culture.
Mead saw the immigrants to the United States as connected in a broad way, beginning with the Native Americans. The accepted view of her day was that the American Indians weren't indigenous to the American continent but rather had slowly migrated into it from Siberia over a land bridge that had once existed at the Bering Strait. Drawing from that hypothesis, she regarded them as part of a migratory stream that included Anglos like her ancestors and continued on to embrace the more recent immigrants from Germany, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and the Mediterranean. Mead thought of herself as "Old American," but she also identified herself as part of that broader immigrant stream.
Benedict was more critical of her ancestors than Mead, for she felt a sense of alienation from mainstream society that Mead didn't share. She celebrated her frontier heritage, but she was ambivalent about her Puritan ancestry-those Pilgrims on the Mayflower and the Baptists in Rhode Island. Like many intellectuals in the 1920s she criticized the Puritans for moral repression and a commercial mentality that led to nineteenth-century Victorianism and modern materialism, while she denounced the sexual Puritanism of her Baptist upbringing. She wrote in her journal that she had been "born of the Puritan distrust of the senses, of its disgust at the basic manifestations of life." In Patterns of Culture she called the Puritan divines of the seventeenth century "psychopathic neurotics" who had put women to death as witches in Salem. As for Mead, in Growing Up in New Guinea, which she wrote during the economic crisis of the Depression, she criticized the Puritans for their competitive materialism and their repression of sexuality. In And Keep Your Powder Dry, which she wrote partly to inspire national confidence during World War II, she praised them for their moral determination and their practicality.
In 1948, in a eulogy, Mead separated Benedict from her Puritan ancestors to locate her roots among the "yeoman" farming families in upstate New York from which she was also descended. "Yeoman" is an old English term, denoting the virtue of closeness to the land-as in Thomas Jefferson's yeoman farmers, his natural nobility in his plan for a virtuous democratic nation. Mead maintained that Benedict's background gave her a sense of security and distinction that recent immigrants often lacked. "Her firm sense of her sturdy yeoman antecedents was a refuge, which she particularly recognized, from the uncertainties and incompatible leanings that accompany more recent migrations or shifting urban backgrounds."
Mead further declared that her friend's connection to the land enhanced her sensitivity as an anthropologist because it gave her a special bond with the tribal people she studied, people who also lived close to nature. Mead could have applied this statement to herself as well. Like Benedict living on her grandfather's farm in upstate New York during her childhood, Mead spent much of her childhood close to nature, first in the community of Hammonton, New Jersey, and then on the farm in Buckingham, Pennsylvania. Both Benedict and Mead liked city life; each had her primary residence in New York City during much of her adult life. Yet both also loved the rhythm of the seasons, the sounds and smells of the outdoors. In the 1920s both wrote poetry, and both set their verse in the landscapes of their childhood. Benedict wrote about "haws," "surfeited bees," "the gold broken stubble" of November, and the "bleak long winter" in upstate New York. Mead wrote about "pinewoods" and "daisies on a cowpath." Such words and phrases are farm America to the core.
As adults, both Benedict and Mead decorated their homes with furniture inherited from their families, not with artifacts from their fieldwork. As a curator at the American Museum of Natural History for over fifty years, Mead collected artifacts for the museum when she went on field trips, but she furnished her apartments with family antiques: she described her various living rooms as replicas of her mother's living room when she was a child. She appreciated "the table my grandmother started housekeeping on and my brother used to pound with his Latin book."
The few photos of Benedict's homes reveal a taste for the straight lines of colonial and craftsman design and the sinuosity of Victorian curves and patterned Oriental rugs. They point to a personality both controlled and passionate, both rational and emotional. They reflect her identification with her family lineage and with the history of the nation. That identification of Mead's and Benedict's gave them the security to assume critical stances, while it reminded them of the force of tradition, that the past matters in planning for the future. They flirted with socialism, adopted Deweyian liberalism, and saw their anthropology as furthering social reform as well as scientific understanding-with Benedict's sense of alienation from the mainstream and Mead's sense of belonging to it coloring their work.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Lois Banner has taught at Rutgers University, Princeton University, the University of Scranton, Hamilton College, the University of Maryland, and George Washington University. She is currently Professor of History and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California and is a past president of the American Studies Association and the Pacific Coast Branch, American Historical Association. Her previous books include American Beauty; In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality; and Finding Fran: History and Memory in the Lives of Two Women. She and her husband live in Santa Monica, California.
From the Hardcover edition.
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