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Revisiting Free To Be…You and Me
Judith Stadtman Tucker


Running faster than anyone else

Every narrative from the original F2BY&M album is ripe for feminist analysis from a post-second wave perspective, but one more story deserves attention here. The legend of Princess Atalanta, loosely adapted by Betty Miles from the Greek myth, tells of a bright young princess who loves math and science and has ambitions to explore the world on her own. She's also an accomplished athlete, and makes an agreement with her father to marry any suitor who can beat her in a footrace. To assure her victory (and freedom from an arranged marriage), the princess trains in secret until she is sure she can run the course faster "than anyone had ever run it before." Unknown to her, an egalitarian-minded young man from the village (who admires Atalanta for her brains) is also training to win the race -- not because he wants her hand in marriage (because he also has plans to sail off and explore the world before he settles down), but just to have an opportunity to talk to her. They cross the finish line side by side, become friends, and go their separate ways -- and live happily ever after. (In some tellings of the classical myth, Atalanta refuses to marry out of loyalty to a slain lover, and later is tricked by her favorite suitor into losing the race.)

The feminism-friendly version of Atalanta has resonance for high-achieving women today -- not because it offers a formula for lifetime happiness that puts self-fulfillment before marriage, but because in order to gain her independence, the princess has to work harder to win than the men she competes against -- she has to run faster than anyone has ever run before, and equality is her reward. Taken literally, the parable of Atalanta sets a mighty high bar: to earn the right to be treated as equals, girls not only have to run faster than any man -- they also have to be rocket scientists.

Of course, the take-away message from the children's story is more benign: girls are strong and smart and shouldn't limit their ambitions to marriage and motherhood. But the fable also brings to mind what Courtney Martin, author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters (2007), describes as "the oppressive paradigm of the perfect girl." According to Martin, the newly-minted model of the Perfect Girl is "unhealthily driven and fiercely independent." "Some of us with feminist parents were told 'You can be anything.' Somehow we heard, 'You have to be everything'." Instead of triggering the viral spread of female self-acceptance, Martin argues that targeting the free-to-succeed message to impressionable young girls has resulted in an epidemic of self-loathing and obsession with weight control.

But for the most part, the moral of the stories told in F2BY&M is that the road to women's equality is paved with self-esteem.

Grand illusions

The greatest weakness of F2BY&M is that it overpromises. While the title song is clear that the verdant land where boys and girls grow up free and equal in every way exists only in the realm of the author's imagination, young listeners are assured it's "not far from where we are." In fact, some contributors believed it was right around the corner.

In the anthology Woman in the Year 2000 -- first published in 1974, the same year as the print edition of F2BY&M -- Letty Cottin Pogrebin forecast that by the year 2000, traditional marriage and the gendered division of labor would be obsolete. (Of course, as a pro-family feminist, Pogrebin reassures readers that men and women would still be free to form committed and loving relationships and raise children together.) In the first year of the twenty-first century, she wrote, "Women were casually accepted and well represented in politics, education, business and the professions…Women's earning power matched men's in every field. And the male contribution to child rearing was institutionalized in a new kind of full social parenthood, which included paternity leaves, participation in the birth experience, and a role for all men (whether fathers or not) in the lives of society's children." Not to mention, "sexist portrayals of macho men and vacuous women were banned from the public airwaves."

And needless to say, everyone is happy, healthy, and empowered to do exactly what he or she likes to do, including take their babies to work and on extended business trips because every business has on-site child care and relaxing lactation rooms. Children attend schools where "there were no 'you can'ts' or 'you have tos'," and when "occupational choices were described to children," Pogrebin noted, "both male and female counterparts were shown performing the jobs." (The last prediction, at least, turned out to be true. On the other hand, Pogrebin also posited that sometime before the year 2000, fairy princesses "had lost their glamour and kids thought they were the least interesting of all make-believe characters.")

Pogrebin is weaving a futuristic fable, of course, and she chooses to err on the bright side of possibility. (Other contributors' essays suggest that the battle of the sexes over who does the dusting and mops the floor would be passé because most routine housework would be managed with one touch of a button.) But if someone asked me to today to write about "Woman in the Year 2050," I'd be inclined to predict that we'd have overcome some of the remaining barriers to women's progress, but would still be struggling to move many of the roadblocks we're struggling with now -- plus a few new impediments we didn't see coming down the pike. The effects of thousands of years of systematic oppression of women aren't likely to fade away overnight like a minor skin rash. And consider this: just as was true from the vantage point of 1974, things might get worse before they get better.

Mommies are people -- but you and me, we're not really free. Not yet, anyway. In her excellent book Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home (2007), sociologist Pamela Stone found that women under forty were twice as likely as older mothers to justify their exit from the career track as a personal "choice," and many described their departure from the workforce as something over which they had complete control. According to Stone's research, however, "there is ample evidence to suggest that women did not, in fact, have many options about combining work and family and that they did not exercise a great deal of choice in deciding to leave their careers."

But like network news anchor Elizabeth Vargas, younger mothers in Stone's study clearly articulated their "choice" to leave or scale back their careers as an empowered, feminist decision. "I think feminism means we all get that chance to make our choice," Vargas, 43, said in an interview about her decision to leave ABC's World News Tonight for a less prestigious position after the birth of her second child. "And if it just isn't right for me, it isn't right for me." Or as one of Stone's interview subjects said, "To me, feminism meant that women were entitled to their choices, and this [leaving the workforce] was a choice that was as legitimate as any other choice." The privileged mothers in Stone's study were free to make the choice to leave the workforce when the inflexibility of their jobs and family factors made life unmanageable. But as Stone points out, the choice to leave was rarely entirely voluntary, or a true reflection of women's preferences.

As Deborah Siegel explains in her book on the generation gap between second and third wave feminists (Sisterhood, Interrupted, 2007), no one growing up with the assumption or promise of women's equality likes to be reminded that we're not there yet. Linda Hirshman has proposed that women won't get any closer to equality unless they force men to stick to their end of the F2BY&M bargain and start doing more childcare and housework. But I think we might be better off if we allow ourselves to imagine that it was never possible to dispatch the patriarchy and everything that came along with it -- sexism, racism, homophobia and all the other -isms and fears of difference that limit women's power and our potential as a society -- in 30 years, or maybe even 300. And we might need something a little bigger than a book of children's songs to get the job done.

so weird

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