The Gender Theory of Margaret Mead

“Gender: the masculine and the feminine, the woman and the man. Traditionally, both sexes have been differentiated and it has been considered that they have different characteristics and roles. The passive, obedient and affectionate woman who raises and cares for children and their home. The hard, dominant and aggressive man, whose job is to work and provide the family with sustenance.”

These roles have been throughout history held by certain and natural, and have been the criticism and repulsion towards those people who deviated from it. Even today it is not uncommon to hear as criticism that someone is a little masculine / feminine. But gender roles are not natural but a social construction, which in different cultures may not be shared. The knowledge of this fact, which has allowed gender equality over time, has contributed greatly to Margaret Mead’s gender theory.

Who was Margaret Mead?

Born in 1901, at a time in history when it was considered that the differences between men and women were due to their innate biological differences being the productive man and the expressive woman, Margaret Mead was an American psychologist and anthropologist whose field of interest was focused on the investigation of culture and ways of raising infants in different cultures, and how these have an effect on the development of the human being.

Mead made numerous trips throughout his life analyzing different cultures and the differences between them and with respect to Western culture, noting among other aspects that the consideration of the role of each sex could vary greatly according to the beliefs of the population.

In this context, she would be one of the pioneers in describing the concept of gender, unlocking the gender roles of biological sex.

Analysis of cultural groups in Nueva Guinea

One of Mead’s most emblematic works with respect to gender appears in the book Sex and temperament in three primitive societies, based on his analysis of different ethnic groups in New Guinea in which the roles attributed to both sexes differed greatly from the traditional roles considered by the western world.

Specifically, Margaret Mead analyzed the Arapesh, Tchambuli and Mundugumor tribes. In the Arapesh society he observed that regardless of the biological sex, all the individuals were raised in a way that assumed a calm, peaceful and affable behavior close to what in the West would be considered feminine.

His observations on the tchambuli would reflect that in that society the woman is dedicated to the search for sustenance in activities such as fishing and runs the community, while the male performs household chores, assuming behaviors attributed to the other gender in other societies and showing They are more sensitive in aspects such as art and the search for beauty. In other words, the gender roles of that society could have been considered the reverse of the Westerners.

Finally, the behavior of the mundugumor is practically the reverse of that of the arapesh, both sexes being educated in a way that they are aggressive, violent and competitive in a way similar to what would be considered typically masculine at that time.

The gender theory of Margaret Mead

The observations in these and other societies reflected that in different cultures the roles attributed to men and women were different. From this it follows that, contrary to what was thought at the time, the biological differences between both sexes do not determine the social functioning that men and women must have, but it is the upbringing and cultural transmission that incites the existence of most social differences.
In this way, the behavior, roles and traits attributed to each sex are not linked to sex itself. The reason that in some places the role is one or the other can be found in that each culture, in its beginnings, establishes a desirable character or pattern of action for its components. A pattern that ends up being internalized and replicated through the generations.

Based on it, the author considered that the rigidity of gender roles and the differences that these imply should be reduced, so that both sexes could be fully developed.

Consequences of Mead’s theory

Mead’s gender theory, which reflects this as a social construction, has had repercussions in various ways. The search for gender equality and the progressive blurring of gender roles and stereotypes have been facilitated by these investigations.

Likewise, although the author did not place great emphasis on this in her research, she has also contributed and encouraged other researchers to contribute to demolish myths and beliefs regarding sexual orientation and identity.