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 dismissed them (that radical-leftist mentor, for instance, who explained to me that women could never belong to the philosophy-department faculty, because they were too distracting). And if I’m not sure that I understand my own experience and culture, how could Mead understand the unfamiliar experience and culture of the girls she observed in Samoa? The project of anthropology has always been to study people who seem very different from the anthropologists themselves. Is that project even possible? And is it worth doing?
In Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century, Charles King, a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown, makes the case for anthropology in a thoughtful, deeply intelligent, and immensely readable and entertaining way. The book is a joint biography of the people who created anthropology at the turn of the last century: Franz Boas, the father of the field, and the women who were among his most influential students, especially Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and Margaret Mead.