TIME feminism

Marlo Thomas: Free to Be… All These Years Later

Marlo Thomas in the Free to Be ... You and Me ABC-TV Special on March 11, 1974.
Marlo Thomas in the Free to Be ... You and Me ABC-TV Special on March 11, 1974. Getty Images

It was only a giggle and five words, but it told us our work was cut out for us.

The year was 1974, and my friend, producer Carole Hart, and I were deep into creating a TV special based on our children’s LP that celebrated gender and racial equality. Filled with songs and stories and poems, the project encouraged kids to realize that their dreams were not only boundless, but achievable. Our title for the project: Free to Be…You and Me.

For one scene in the special, we’d decided to interview children about how they envisioned their lives one day. This segment, we felt, would underscore that people had to be taught to be sexist; and that little children had not yet been socialized with gender stereotypes.

“What would you like to be when you grow up?” we asked one precious, curly-headed preschooler, the tape rolling as we waited for her answer.

“I want to be a singer or an ice skater,” she chirped.

Okay, we thought, so far so good. But we needed more.

“Would you like to be anything else?” we led the little witness. “Like a doctor, maybe?”

That’s when the giggles erupted.

“Oh, no!” the little girl said emphatically. “Mans is doctor.”

Oh, my God. She was only four, and we were already too late.

So we dug in, kept writing, and the Free to Be…You and Me special would go on to win the Emmy and the Peabody, adding to its track record as a gold record album and a New York Times bestselling book. It is the TV special that is celebrating its 40th birthday this week.

And all these years later, those of us who created the project remain proud of the impact it had. It had entered the public consciousness as an entertainment, but remained in the public conscience as a firm-footed declaration that we are all free-to-be. And, most important, it planted the seeds of gender equality in a positive, uplifting way. In story after story, song after song (“Boy Meets Girl,” “When We Grow Up,” “Glad to Have a Friend Like You”), we focused on the friendship between girls and boys. Unlike when I was growing up, when we actually had separate playgrounds, Free to Be would give all kids one glorious playground on which to run free.

For all the critical acclaim the project earned, our greatest vote of support came from librarians and educators across the country, who began to teach from the book and the record (and still do today), making it part of the education curriculum in 35 states.

The funny thing is, the project had begun for the smallest of reasons: because I couldn’t find a decent bedtime storybook for my little, four-year-old niece, Dionne — one that would not put her and her mind to sleep. I wanted a book that would celebrate who she was and all the possibilities of who she could be. So I decided I would create my own.

When we first began to work on the LP our collaborators (smart and funny people like Carl Reiner, Betty Miles, Mel Brooks, Carol Hall, Herb Gardner, Shel Silverstein, Bruce Hart and Stephen Lawrence) and I realized that we were, in effect, rewriting our own childhoods, imbuing them with the freedoms we’d often longed for as kids.

Like, it was perfectly fine for a boy to have (and love) a doll.

And that girls didn’t have to marry to feel fulfilled (and, if they did marry, they could certainly pick their own partner).

And that, yes, it was all right to cry.

We were on a mission, all of us, obsessed with changing the world one five-year-old at a time, and the reaction to the project was beyond our wildest dreams. But our gratification for the immediacy of Free to Be’s success is nothing to compared to how our message eventually took hold among ordinary people. More than 40 years later, I am still approached on the street by new moms and dads who tell me that they’re counting the days until their daughters and sons are old enough to begin listening to the record. Or the many men — straight and gay — who hold my hand and thank me for “William’s Doll,” and tell me how much it meant to them to see William, a boy who loves and cares for his doll (though it could as easily have been a teddy bear or a stuffed turtle), giving vent to emotions that are not male or female but desirable and human. Or the letters I get from people everywhere, who still have their original dog-eared edition of the book on their shelves and are now reading it to their grandchildren.

But the most rewarding comment would come just a few years ago, when I interviewed Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for a book I was working on. When I left a message at her office, I wondered if she’d even know who I was. But when she returned my call, the first thing she talked about was Free To Be, telling me she loved it.

“Really?” I said. “Did you read it to your children?”

“Oh, yes,” she replied. “And I always take it with me when I speak on feminism.” I’ve never had a better review.

There are some outliers who insist that Free to Be threw a permanent wrench into the natural order of things; that it sparked the Mommy Wars and tipped over the male-dominated corporate ladder and created an entire generation of wimpy men and bossy women who “lean in” to their ambition. And yet I have drawers full of the most moving letters from men and women who grew up on “Free To Be,” and are now sharing it with their children. So if grenades are still being tossed, and these conversations are still being had, then I would contend that Free to Be…You and Me remains as relevant as when it was made, and just as cutting-edge. The whole purpose of the project was to open little eyes and ears to a message of freedom. And, as always, it’s important that grown-ups open up their eyes and ears, too.

Happy Birthday, Free to Be. You still look great!

Actress, author and activist Marlo Thomas writes commentary and hosts video programming for AOL and The Huffington Post at marlothomas.com.

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