The Way We Were (And Still Are) – The Status of Women In The World

“Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” – Margaret Mead

During this Women’s History Month, United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon addressed the General Assembly with his analysis of the social position of women in the world, and it isn’t pretty. Concurrently, a New York Times story commented on persistent violence against women. “The evidence is ubiquitous,” noted the Times. “Despite the many gains women have made in education, health and even political power in the course of a generation, violence against women and girls worldwide persists at alarmingly high levels.”

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Interview With An Original

The day in 1977 I was sent to interview Margaret Mead she was speaking at a U.N. Conference on the Status of Women in the Third World. During my Washington assignment at the State Department I’d prepared diplomats for network interviews, interviewed members of congress on the Hill. But on this November day I was terrified of one of the most influential cultural anthropologists in the world. Famous and feisty, Dr. Mead had been curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History when I was an admiring teenager. Now I was about to do a one-on-one with this 20th century icon. From single female trailblazer and innovative scientist, to wife, mother and grandmother – Mead could not be categorized except maybe by her critics who sought to discredit her work.

Butterflies And Blasphemy

My bosses sent me to interview Dr. Mead for a documentary I was preparing on American Peace Corps volunteers and embassy/USAID workers in Samoa. She had done her research there in 1925 where she went at a time when young American women did not travel alone to offbeat exotic places. After living with and studying these primitive native women, Mead wrote about her findings and their sexual mores in her ground breaking books, “Coming of Age in Samoa, Sex and Temperament In Three Primitive Societies; Growing Up In New Guinea.” Though she had her debunkers, Margaret Mead’s legendary work and charismatic persona endure to this day.

We had arranged to meet in the lobby of the Dupont Circle Hotel in Washington, D.C. where I found her on a sofa surrounded by disciples on the carpet at her feet. When she spotted me and my camera crew moving toward her I thought she was going to throw her walking stick at me. She had aged greatly and looked ill, but her physical condition had not dampened her spirit. “What the hell’s going on?” she shouted. “This is supposed to be a recorded radio interview. I told you no god damn television cameras!”


The setting could not have been worse: Me in red cardigan. Mead in flowing red cape in front of a red wall! But the controversial anthropologist who had made history researching sexual cultural patterns in the Western Pacific; whose home away from home was the American Museum of Natural History in Central Park; who inspired a feminist movement that continues today-all while collecting three husbands and a variety of lovers-was mine for the afternoon if I didn’t let her flummox me. With a smile and deep yogic breath, I reminded her she had agreed to do the interview on videotape far in advance of the conference.

“What difference does it make whether it’s radio or television,” I said. “You belong to the world and the world has a right to a part of you.”

One Culture From 100 Cultures

I always regretted that arrogant response, but something shifted. Maybe she was too ill and tired to dispute the point. She certainly looked it. Once into the conversation she relaxed, forgot about the camera and spoke about one of her favorite themes-family. Mead placed great importance on having intense contact between young and older generations, a given in developing countries, largely absent in American life. She considered grandparents absolutely essential to the growth and development of the whole person, something I greatly missed in my own life.

Unceasingly vocal about world peace and reducing international violence, Mead said: “Americans need to learn from other cultures in order to build one culture from one hundred cultures; to build a better understanding of others, even our enemies and give the world a very human gift.” Snug in our North American continent, we Americans are reluctant to fully embrace this concept. (Could it be that Secretary of State Kerry’s diplomacy is attempting this delicate balance with Iran today?)

A Tree Grows in New Guinea

Her manner of speaking was simple and direct: “I’ve spent most of my life studying the lives of faraway peoples, so Americans might better understand themselves,” she said. “Because of history and geography, these cultures had developed so differently from ours that knowledge of them could shed a light on us, on our potentialities and our limitations.”

I still have photographs of me and Dr. Mead that day in 1977. It was to be her last “blackberry winter.” A year later she was gone. A tree grows in New Guinea, planted there by locals in her memory. Still with us is unspeakable violence against women and girls abroad and at home.

Emails and Females – The Secret Is Still In the Closet

Margaret Mead has been gone thirty-seven years. Yet, at the General Assembly this month, Hillary Clinton addressed violence against women, which she did as First Lady twenty years ago. On what story does the American press focus? The specter of illiterate women living in squalor, peeking furtively from under a veil or burqa while forced to wed at age 8 and be circumcised at puberty? The dirty little American secret of terrified women hiding in inner city shelters because of abusive relationships? Or a politico’s personal email? We’ve had enough of winter. It’s time to harvest the berries.

“Blackberry Winter, the time when the hoarfrost lies on the blackberry blossoms; without this frost the berries will not set. It is the forerunner of a rich harvest.” From Blackberry Winter, My Earlier Years, an autobiography by Margaret Mead.