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Still Free to Be…

Thirty years ago, five women came together to start a revolution from within. Their fellow fighters were going to be young. Really young. Boys and girls as little as three, four and five. “We wanted to put to death the notion of masculinity and femininity being prescriptive,” said author and activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin. To wage war against the tyranny of gender stereotypes, they would use stories and songs that told children they were free to be and grow up to be anything they wanted. The project was the brainchild of TV and movie star Mario Thomas, who’d found that all the books on her niece’s shelves were the same “garbage” about woebegone princesses and dashing princes that she was still trying to “get over” as an adult. To change that, Thomas pulled in feminist icon Gloria Steinem, author Francine Klagsbrun, Sesame Street writer and producer Carol Hart, and Pogrebin. Together they produced “Free to Be…You and Me,” a children’s recording and book that have become staples of progressive American culture and of the feminist movement. All five women recently gathered for a panel discussion at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan to celebrate the recording’s 30th anniversary. As they looked back on their revolution, Thomas recalled that in the 1970s, ABC nearly pulled the plug on the “Free to Be…You and Me” TV special because of “William Wants a Doll,” a story (and song) that teaches boys that it’s good to be soft and nurturing and play with dolls, because one day they’ll grow up to be fathers. “They thought we’d make every boy in America homosexual,” Thomas said.

Throughout the evening, Klagsbrun stressed how far we’ve come. When her grandson listens to “No One Likes Housework” now, the idea that men don’t do it is utterly perplexing to him. From the audience, Klagsbrun’s daughter, a doctor, rose to say that her son recently asked her, “Mommy, can men be doctors too?”

Still, no one was arguing that the revolution was complete. Asked what “Free to Be… You and Me, Part 11” would look like, Klagsbrun suggested that working grandmothers be included. Thomas talked about the show she’d made in the 1980s, “Free to Be a Family,” which celebrated single-parent, multicultural and stepfamilies. A sign of how times have changed, what they hadn’t thought to include, she said, were families headed by two mothers or two fathers. Pogrebin bemoaned the steps backwards we’ve taken. In the 1970s there was a cadre of elementary school educators who believed in challenging gender-stereotyped play. Today, she said, those initiatives are seen as “too expensive or too politically correct.” But when questions were opened to the audience of reverential 30-somethings who had absorbed “Free to Be.. .You and Me” as children, the answers were less satisfying. One woman, who had recently left the workforce to be a full-time mother, wondered why the burden of domestic labor and child-rearing still fell so heavily on women’s shoulders. Steinem’s answer—that women don’t hold men to high enough standards—sounded borderline blame-the-victim.

Another woman, who had followed the path of “Free to Be’s” Princess Atalanta, exploring the world instead of marrying young, also sought advice. The story of Atalanta tells girls they are sure to live happily ever after, whether they marry the prince or choose not to. But now in her early 30s, the woman looked at her recently married and mommied friends and felt unsure of her choices. “If you think it’s hard not to get married today, try not getting married in the ’50s,” Thomas responded. “If you haven’t found a man to be your soul-mate,” Thomas added, “women are having children without them.” What Thomas glossed over were the significant questions of single-parent emotions and economics, and the reasonable desire, even of liberated women, to be cared for, protected and loved.

For a moment, 1—33 and unmarried—was irritated by their impatience. And then, to my surprise, I was motivated by it. Here were women who were unusually defiant, so— naturally—they were impatient with those who were, perhaps, not equally so. Their defiance had changed gender relations in our country, and I was grateful for it.