The Atlantic

The Students of Sex and Culture

Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Zora Neale Hurston—spurred on by Franz Boas—revolutionized the way we think about humanity.
Source: Illustration: Emily Haasch; Library of Congress

In 1968, when I was 13, I read Coming of Age in Samoa, by Margaret Mead. Her landmark 1928 study of adolescence had just been reissued as a 95-cent paperback for the counterculture generation. The book offered a vision of how to be a teenage girl. I could be the seductive young woman on the cover in a red sarong with a blossom in her hair—free, fearless, and lighthearted, especially about sex. It also offered a vision of how to be an intellectual woman. Mead, with her signature cape and walking stick, after all, was the most famous anthropologist in the world. And, sure enough, in that glorious period after the pill, I grew up to be free and fearless and sexually adventurous. I also grew up, naturally and effortlessly, to become a scientist and a writer. The visions came true—the possibilities were real.

But is that actually what happened? In light of the #MeToo movement, I ask myself whether I have simply edited the threats and slights and misogyny of hippie culture out of my memories. Did I really escape the sexism of academia? I can easily call up moments that contradict my version of my past, even if at the time I

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