This essay was published in the October 31, 1953 issue of The Nation. [This article is based on an introduction written by Margaret Mead, noted anthropologist, for “Women: The Variety and Meaning of’ Their Sexual Experience,” edited by A. M. Krich, and just published as a soft-cover original by Dell Books.]
THROUGH the ages, women’s lives have centered about their sex role. Little girls have been told as soon as they could toddle that some day they will be brides, and a little later, mothers, and, finally, if they live, grandmothers. Every other activity–learning to spin and weave, cook and bake, dance, sing, and skate, whatever the current accomplishments of young girls are–has been directed at achieving a lifelong career as wife and mother. Where for men actual sex activity, however insistently it may intrude upon attention, is a matter of a few minutes, for women each of these few minutes is laden with commitment before and commitment afterward.
But men and women are also human beings, and although their sexual equipment and roles are so different, in many other respects they are extraordinarily similar–differences may go across sex lines, as artistic gifts, executive ability, body skills are found in each sex. In both sexes we find high intelligence and dull mentality, great emotional responsiveness and apathetic indifference to other people. As long as human beings have been elaborating their lives–building houses that were more than shelters, conducting courtships that were more than a prelude to an immediate sex satisfaction, composing music, inventing new ways of producing and preparing food, developing ways of worshiping God and political systems that bound them to one another–the question of how much and how little men and women are to share equally in these discoveries and inventions has been an important one. How much of the economic load of fishing and hoeing, carrying and marketing, how much of the personal load of sexual pursuit and courtship, how much of the religious load of prayer and sacrifice, was to be put on women, how much on men?
With the change in woman’s economic position that came with her frontier role in the United States, and in the Western world with freedom to work outside the home, there has come within our own history a change in the expectation of what a woman ought to appear to be like. In coeducational schools girls and boys are educated alike and taught to be individualistic, assertive, active, eager to make something of themselves. Boys learn to dislike girls who are “silly” and unlike themselves, and the term “sissy” is applied to girls as well as to boys. We have developed as our ideal of human sex relationships one between a girl and a boy of almost the same age, with the same education and the same interests: if he skis, she should ski; if he likes sailing, she sails.
With this demand that the perfect girl should also be a perfect companion, have come early dating, a preference among boys for the company of girls far earlier than is usual in most other countries of the Western world, a picture of marriage as a relationship in which one does what one wants to do together with the other. The boy wants the girl to be independent, to have something to say for herself, to be able to make her own living whenever it is necessary before marriage, before the children come, when there is a pinch, or after the children are grown, to keep her from wearing him out because she herself is bored. As he expects to stand on his own feet, to get along by his own efforts, after his parents have given him an education, so he wants a wife who can do the same thing.