What Kind of World Do We Want?


By DR. MARGARET MEAD, Associate Curator of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History

Delivered at the National Women's Conference—New York Times Forum, April 7, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 510-511.

I WISH to speak to you first as a professional anthropologist, thus playing my cooperative role in this carefully orchestrated forum which the Times has brought together. Anthropology is the social science which specializes in knowing about differences—differences in race, in language, in culture. As field workers we go into societies which differ from our own by thousands of years of development, our tongues become accustomed to sounds that no one at home ever hears, we learn to think in thirteen genders instead of two, and to count as delicacies objects which Americans would not call food at all. From these studies it is our job to report to you on the meaning of differences, which ones matter and which ones are negligible, how peoples become as different as they are, how hard it would be to change them so they become more like us or we more like them. And out of these studies we can say that most of the differences which people in America think are important and inalienable are neither important nor inalienable; that when it comes to potential intelligence, potential artistic gifts, potential political responsibility, or technical creativeness, skin color and hair color, and eye color, sex, the social position of one's grandfather, or the street address of one's grandmother don't matter at all; that, in fact, most of the clues around which we now arrange and organize society and. fight wars or develop educational systems are false clues. This, then, the anthropologist can say to those who would build for the future. You can count all the people of the world, regardless of race or sex or previous condition of servitude or previous position in the social register—as raw material for building a good world.

But next the anthropologist—if conscientious—has to report on the differences that do matter. He has to insist that, to be reared in one culture, in one society, makes one irrevocably partake of that culture, and that there are differences between Germans and Englishmen, Russians and Frenchmen, Americans and Chinese, Japanese and Japanese-Americans which are very deep and very important. Thisis a statement which is harder for Americans to believe than it is for them to believe that race and sex and the social status of one's ancestors don't matter. Accepting this fundamental of democracy is something we are used to doing—verbally—however much we may deny it in practice. But it is harder for us to accept differences in culture, in national culture—to accept them and to respect them. We tend to think that all of the world is, if not just like us, why then inferior to us and anxious to become like us as rapidly as possible. Traditionally, we have lived in a country where everyone was scrambling to forget their old ways and learn ours. This has brought us to the conceited pass of believing that our way, our political forms, our religious forms, are superior to all others, and that it is our mission in the post-war world to offer them, like a combination of lady bountiful, school teacher, and psychiatric nurse, to the rest of the world.

This attitude of ours, this willingness, when we wish to cooperate with other nations at all, to go the whole hog and help them be just like us, may well prevent a balanced and fruitful post-war development. The anthropologist knows that every culture known to man has developed some good traits, some good potentialities of human beings, at the expense of suppressing others. To develop a world in which we begin to recognize not merely our own version, but all of the potentialities of the human spirit, we need to use the inventions which other cultures—cultures which are not worse than ours, not better than ours, but just different from ours—have made. We need to show the American people the adventure that lies before them in cooperating, not with a set of their own images, a little pale and distorted because they are Czechs or Serbs or Norwegians—but with a set of countries, each of which has its own special contribution to make to a post-war world more varied than any we—or any other country left to itself—could dream up.

My second point stems directly from what women have specially to offer—it's a case where, as a woman, I can setthe problem and, as a scientist, I can try to answer it. here is one field in which women have had more experience than men—that of developing human beings and conducting smooth human relations within the family in such a way that individual growth is possible. I do not claim that women have innate gifts in this direction—I would be the last to insist that men couldn't learn to take care of babies, just as I believe that girls can learn to manage machinery; they are doing so every day. But I do claim that women have had aeons of practice in bringing up good human beings, and now is the time to use that experience. Women know that, if you are to develop good human beings, then you must leave them free, feed their bodies, guard their footsteps, protect their paths, give them materials and books and words, and let them develop towards their own goals. Where blue prints are necessary for building good factories, they are a very poor way to build good human beings, or good human societies.

So, let us take this knowledge of women and insist thatsocial science make the necessary inventions to set the world's feet on the Tight path, but leave the next generation free. In the name of blue prints, human beings must be distorted and purged. What we need instead is a sense of direction, a minimum behind which we will not retreat, a star high enough to guide us but undefined enough so that the future is left untrammelled. For this, inventions are necessary. Women must demand that these inventions be made. They must insist that our society place back of the social scientist the same resources that have been placed back of natural science, to outlaw the bad invention called war, just as the invention of the automobile and airplane have outlawed the poor invention called the horse and buggy. Women must insist that the job of building a world in which war will be as outmoded as duelling is a technical job, and see that the technical inventions are made. As human beings, we have a moral desire for a better world; as women we have experience in how best to leave development free; as citizens we must demand the tools to work with.