Edwards comments on gender roles and marriage: then vs. now


Photo by Milena Martinovic

Distinguished emeritus faculty Ann Edwards lectures and leads the discussion on gender and family.

Milena Martinovic, Reporter

“Sex is more cultural than biological,” said famous cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead back in the 1930s, according to distinguished emeritus faculty member Ann Edwards. On March 12, Edwards hosted another interactive discussion with the Diversity Engagement Center. Edwards spoke fondly of both Mead’s professional and personal work. At the time, in the 1930s, only men obtained doctoral degrees. Edwards found it amazing that Mead received one, studying under “the father of anthropology” Frances Boas.

Edwards discussed Mead’s study of sex roles in the tribes of New Guinea and Samoa in the 1920s. At that time, a female studying alone on a foreign island was itself a groundbreaking phenomenon. Mead discovered that Samoan girls enjoyed a significantly larger amount of sexual freedom than women in the U.S. Sex was not a taboo subject, and neither was extramarital sex. She then discovered that marriage in the Pacific Islands took place only because boys needed father figures.

Mead was criticized heavily for exaggerating some conclusions, especially after her death. Edwards forgives Mead for “having the wrong statistics” due to the magnitude of her influence on cultural anthropology as a study; she was the first to say “we must study babies and families, not chiefs.”

Edwards visited Samoa recently and was surprised by the number of churches in close proximity to each other. “Why do [missionaries] want to convert them?” she asked. “Other than that, the culture is open and beautiful.”

Edwards is an immigrant originally from former Yugoslavia, now Croatia. She met her American husband in Yugoslavia while he was on an engineering assignment. That was it for her — she was off to New York.

She experienced deep cultural shock when it came to female roles in the 1960s in Long Island. Having come from a Communist proletarian country where women had to work like men, she was not used to so many women embracing the role of traditional housewives. According to Edwards, before the men came home, the women would dress up and put makeup on. She discussed modern challenges in the U.S., such as women not receiving enough maternity leave, especially compared to other developed countries, and the high cost of childcare. She pointed out that 30 years ago, most of her students wanted marriage, whereas more recently, most of the students do not want marriage. This may be because marriage is linked to childbearing.

Edwards disagrees with Mead’s pessimism regarding the family unit. After years of study, Mead believed that the family unit would dissolve. Edwards thinks “No, people will adapt,” meaning that the family unit will instead move toward more nontraditional forms.

Before her retirement, Edwards had 35 years of experience teaching anthropology at UNO, often with more than 400 students per semester. Her specialty is cultural anthropology, involving a wide array of topics found in linguistics and archaeology.

Nest, Edwards will continue the Diversity Dialogue series with “Religion and Spirituality” on Tuesday, April 9 at 12:30 p.m. at the University Center room 201C.