Margaret Mead (1901 – 1978) was an American cultural anthropologist who featured frequently as an author and speaker in the mass media during the 1960s and 1970s. Mead was a respected and often controversial academic who popularized the insights of anthropology in modern American and Western culture. Her reports detailing the attitudes towards sex in South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures influenced the 1960s sexual revolution. She was a proponent of broadening sexual mores within a context of traditional Western religious life.
As an anthropologist, Mead was best known for her studies of the nonliterate peoples of Oceania, especially with regard to various aspects of psychology and culture—the cultural conditioning of sexual behaviour, natural character, and culture change. As a celebrity, she was most notable for her forays into such far-ranging topics as women’s rights, child rearing, sexual morality, nuclear proliferation, race relations, drug abuse, population control, environmental pollution, and world hunger.
Her contributions to science received special recognition when, at the age of 72, she was elected to the presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1979 she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honour.
Although in the public mind Margaret Mead has been commonly associated with advocacy for more relaxed and permissive attitudes towards sexual behavior, she was also a staunch supporter of the rights of women and their freedom from sexual harassment, something that has been increasingly put in the spotlight recently.
By 1978 there had been some years of feminist activism on the issue of sexual harassment, which had helped highlight the issue and led to articles in the Wall Street Journal, Harper's and The New York Times, as well as television and radio coverage.
In April of 1978, 7 months before her death from pancreatic cancer, 77-year-old Mead wrote an article for the women's magazine Redbook: “A Proposal: We Need Taboos On Sex At Work.”
Mead wrote that she realized that it must have sounded strange to a generation of young women who have felt the need to break and abandon taboos of many kinds, that she was advocating the creation of new taboos. Her argument was that the deepest taboos in any society keep the social system in balance and that the taboo, even more so than a law, spoke to what a society believed in its core.
She argued that larger numbers of women were entering the workplace and that a new taboo should be created to prevent women in the workplace being the subject of harassment:
How to deal with the problems, the social discord and dissonance, in the relations between women and men? The complaints, the legal remedies and the support institutions developed by women all are part of the response to the new conception of women's rights. But I believe we need something much more pervasive, a climate of opinion that includes men as well as women, and that will affect not only adult relations and behavior on the job but also the expectations about the adult world that guide our children's progress into that world.
What we need, in fact, are new taboos that are appropriate to the new society we are struggling to create—taboos that will operate within the work setting as once they operated within the household. Neither men nor women should expect that sex can be used either to victimize women who need to keep their jobs or to keep women from advancement or to help men advance their own careers. A taboo enjoins. We need one that saves clearly and unequivocally, “You don't make passes at or sleep with the people you work with.”