Six years ago today, members of the 113th Congress awoke to the news that their year-end job approval rating in a new Gallup poll was a paltry 15%. This was not quite as embarrassing as the 14% figure -- an all-time annual low -- racked up the year before. That year, 2013, had featured a 17-day government shutdown, which resulted in the single lowest job approval figure in congressional history: a November rating of 9%.
But in the spirit of the season, let's focus on a happier event that took place on this date.
On Dec. 16, 1901, Edward and Emily Mead of Philadelphia welcomed a baby girl into their lives. From an early age, their daughter was smart and spunky. Her father, who taught economics at Penn, wasn't quite sure what to make of a girl so intellectually precocious. "It's a pity you aren't a boy," he once told her. "You'd have gone far."
Edward Mead meant this as a compliment. He was making a rueful observation about the pervasive sexism of his age, not any preference for a son. But no matter. Margaret Mead did go far, and when you thought she could go no farther, she kept going still.
Margaret Mead's academic journey began at DePauw University and continued at Barnard College, where she got her bachelor's degree in 1923. It was at Barnard that she met charismatic anthropologist Franz Boas, whom she followed to Columbia University, where she earned her master's and doctoral degrees.
By the time she obtained her PhD in 1929, Mead had already published "Coming of Age in Samoa," an examination of adolescent sexual behavior in Samoan society. This book, in nearly equal parts a work of anthropology, psychology, sociology, journalism, and cultural criticism, informed subsequent writing about sexual theory for many decades to come.
Mead said that the scientific riddle at the heart of "Coming of Age in Samoa" was whether "the disturbances which vex our adolescents [are] due to the nature of adolescence itself or the civilization." In Mead's telling, the answer was the latter. Mostly guilt-free Samoan culture, she concluded, minimized the shock of the teenage years.
For the next half-century, much of her work delved into what she viewed as the deleterious effects of sexual repression on women -- and on marriage. It can be said that Dr. Mead practiced what she preached. When she set sail for the South Pacific for the first time in 1926, she was married to young seminarian Luther Cressman, who, the New York Times noted in its Margaret Mead obituary, "often joked unhumorously of having to make an appointment to see his wife."
She enjoyed a shipboard love affair with a New Zealand anthropologist who sported the Dickensian name Reo F. Fortune. Following a brief reconciliation with Cressman, she married Fortune. That marriage ended, too, and here I may as well just quote from the Times' marvelous 1978 obit:
"Dr. Mead and her husband Dr. Fortune met Gregory Bateson, a British anthropologist, in New Guinea. There was a personal crisis among the three, as a result of which there was a divorce, and Dr. Mead and Dr. Bateson were married. They had a daughter, Catherine. They were divorced after about fifteen years."
In time, she became the most famous anthropologist in the world, the top curator in the department of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, a best-selling author, prolific lecturer, and widely quoted social critic. She was a polymath and a dynamo who worked tirelessly at about five different professions until the very end. Diagnosed with cancer, she still went to the museum each day in her mid-70s, before checking herself into the hospital on Oct. 3, 1978.
Two months after her mid-November death, when Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the White House issued the following statement:
"Margaret Mead was both a student of civilization and an exemplar of it. To a public of millions, she brought the central insight of cultural anthropology: that varying cultural patterns express an underlying human unity. She mastered her discipline, but she also transcended it. Intrepid, independent, plain-spoken, fearless, she remains a model for the young and a teacher from whom all may learn."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.