A new book celebrating the 40th birthday and impact of one of the greatest cultural touchstones of 1970s American childhood, “Free to Be… You and Me,” has just been published. “When We Were Free To Be You and Me: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference it Made,” is a rich compendium of essays from people involved in the Free To Be project and others who, like me, were children affected by its lessons.
The new book, edited by Lori Rotskoff and Laura Lovett, with a prologue by “Free to Be” creator Marlo Thomas, features essays looking back with fond nostalgia. Other writers assess the ways in which the hopes that the “Free to Be” creators had when they first met in 1972 have yet to be fulfilled.
The messages in the original book and television special reflected the enormous changes sweeping gender roles in 1974. Previously fixed social norms were in flux. I was 10 years old then, and loved my big “Free to Be” book. Even as I watched my mother try career paths she had not been raised to consider, it seemed that my own possibilities would be limited only by ability and drive. There was something freeing about watching Marlo Thomas and Harry Belafonte sing about mommies and daddies having any job they wanted. The wonderful silliness of Mel Brooks voicing a baby puppet while sounding more like a Miami Beach retiree, and the sweetness of burly pro football player Rosey Grier singing “It’s All Right to Cry” were obvious even to children.
It seems the gender wars are trickling down…to preschool. This recent article in Slate is about a new preschool in California called “The Pink Academy” which features pink everything and no boys.
Preschool founder Donna Wood told The Santa Cruz Sentinel, in this article, “It’s about empowering girls, and they like pink right now.”
It sounds less empowering than limiting, if you ask me. Generalizations like Wood’s are troubling because they are so reductive. They offer too limited a notion of who girls are and what they can be interested in.
I am the proud mother of a feminist, Deborah Kolben, who was inspired by the iconic “Free to Be… You and Me” album wrote this recent Sisterhood post about her decision to stay home with her infant daughter. In that post, she wonders whether she is fulfilling the dreams of her mother, who worked outside of the home. The answer is a resounding yes.
In addition to being Debbie’s mom, I’m also the executive director of Center for Children’s Initiatives, an organization devoted to shaping childcare polices and helping parents find appropriate day care. I have devoted the past few decades to changing the way we value parenthood and young children by removing child care as a barrier to parents having real choices — the theme of “Free to be… You and Me.”