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Mommies are people

Revisiting Free To Be…You and Me

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

June 2007

Generationally speaking, I fell through the cracks of the feminist movement. I was seven years old when The Feminine Mystique was published, a young teenager when Women's Liberation was hot among twenty-something activists, and over 30 by the time Third Wavers were claiming the right to a distinct -- and distinctively corrective -- feminist voice. Although my personal experience of second wave feminism is based mostly on acquired knowledge rather than direct participation, I'm old enough to understand why one generation of feminists would attack marriage, motherhood, and high-heeled shoes as sources of women's oppression, and young enough to see why a later generation might reject their mother's feminism as narrow, reactionary, and unnecessarily dogmatic.

Yes, it's true the banishment of body hair was considered politically incorrect in certain feminist circles during the late 60s and early 70s -- but to be fair, the unshaven look was also popular among other counter-culture cliques that favored nature over artifice in fashion and other lifestyle matters. In high school, my wardrobe vacillated between the outdoorsy unisex look of flannel shirts, blue jeans and hiking boots, ultra-short miniskirts paired with tight knit tops, oversized denim overalls and tie-dyed t-shirts, and flowery Victorian-inspired granny dresses worn with platform shoes. Sometimes I shaved my legs -- sometimes I didn't. I didn't feel compelled to self-identify as a "feminist," but was sympathetic to the principles of the women's rights agenda -- particularly the call to treat girls as people with brains and ability rather than future bedmates or housewives. (Contrary to conventional wisdom, Generation X and Y women are not the first female cohort to resort to the "I'm not a feminist, but…" disclaimer.) And since I was well past the story book stage in 1972, I completely missed out on the Free To Be…You and Me phenomenon.

As discussions about the paucity of viable options for combining paid work and child-rearing -- and mothers' accounts of feeling blindsided by reality -- move into the public domain, I've noticed that women born in the late '60s and 1970s often use Free To Be…You and Me as a reference point in their reflections on "how it was supposed to be." For the generation of girls who grew up with the refrain "mommies can be almost anything they want to be," the discovery that our society and workplaces are not set up to support maternal employment is bound to be a bit of a let down. It's the qualifier -- "almost" -- that calls for closer inspection today.

As someone whose feminist consciousness is wedged between the revolutionary project of women's liberation and the personal empowerment politics of the third wave, I've been wondering about the ripple effect of Free To Be…You and Me as a popular feminist text.(1) And since the personal is political, I'll never know whether my life would have turned out any differently had I grown up listening to cheerfully subversive scripts of William's Doll and the story of Atalanta instead of Make Way for Ducklings and Winnie-the-Pooh (the real Winnie-the-Pooh, thank you very much, not the witless Disney version).

For the uninitiated, F2BY&M was released in 1972 as a long-playing record album of children's poems, songs and stories. In 1974, the project was adapted as a bestselling story-and-songbook and award-winning television special. Produced by Marlo Thomas in collaboration with the Ms. Foundation for Women, the original material in F2BY&M defines and challenges restrictive gender stereotypes and celebrates self-expression, friendship and a respect for others. Writing talent was supplied by Shel Silverstein, Mary Rodgers, Dan Greenburg, and Carl Reiner, among others. The LP features a diverse voice cast of popular actors, celebrities, and musical artists; the television special combines live action sketches, Muppet-like puppet skits, and animated stories, with appearances by then-superstars such as Roberta Flack, Michael Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Milton Berle, Alan Alda, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, and football player Rosey Grier. All proceeds from the project were donated to the Ms. Foundation for Women, with Ms. Magazine editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin acting as editorial consultant. (The book, audio, and video versions of F2BY&M remain widely available, and all sequences from the television special have been posted on YouTube.)

All good children's literature -- from Harry Potter to David Pilkey's wacky Captain Underpants series -- functions as a morality tale, even when it aims to foster a unique children's culture by subverting adult authority and conventions. While F2BY&M promotes unity, harmony, and self-acceptance, its primary target is sexism, and its principal strategy is portraying traditional gender roles as limiting, hurtful, and old-fashioned. For example, in the song Girl Land (album only), an anti-amusement park where "good little girls" are forbidden to climb trees and have to pick up after the boys is slated for demolition:

They're closing down 'Girl Land'
Some say it’s a shame
It used to be busy
Then nobody came

…And soon in the park
That was 'Girl Land before
You'll do what you like
And be who you are.

Although the book, LP, and television special are filled with the kind of offbeat humor and outside-of-the-box creativity found in the best kind of children's programming, few listeners today will fail to recognize F2BY&M as serious polemic.

"Free To Be…You and Me is a courageous first attempt at breaking new ground in uncharted areas of concern to children and grown ups alike," one child development expert wrote for the liner notes of the original LP. "By raising doubts about traditional restrictive models for men and women alike, the record opens up for children the happy vista that all individuals, male or female, are people above all." Yet stories and poems acknowledging the typical sources of growing children's conflicts, fears and self-doubts are oddly absent in the audio and video versions of F2BY&M.(2) Thirty-five years after its debut, even a cursory review of the project suggests that the bold contours of the wondrous land where boys and girls live free from the shadow of sexism are molded by adult concerns about the perils of the feminine mystique and the gendered division of labor. More specifically, the creators of F2BY&M seem intent on discouraging the formation of romantic illusions in little girls and imparting the value of female autonomy. Instead of outdated fairy tales of sleeping princesses waiting to be rescued by a handsome prince, F2BY&M offers a child-size guide to human liberation through self-actualization.

Pink dresses and perfume

One of the strangest -- and strangely somber -- songs from the F2BY&M television special is "I'd Rather Be the Sun." (Vocals are provided by Dionne Warwick; the poem, by Elaine Laron, appears in the book but is not on the LP.) Accompanied by images of child-like paintings of the sun and moon, the sequence concludes with a stick-figure portrait of a blue-eyed, curly-haired girl and the lyrics, "I think I'd rather be the sun/that shines so bold and bright/than be the moon, that only glows/with someone else's light."

Even back in the bad old days before Betty Friedan, my life as a five year old did not include obsessing about the prospect of living in someone else's shadow, unless it happened to be the shadow of my older siblings or parents. I was much more concerned about getting through kindergarten in one piece and hanging out with my best friend, Jenny. (Instead of playing with Barbies or consulting the Ouija Board about who we would marry, our favorite pastime was playing "all-girl rock band" -- in the land of make-believe, our chart-busting group, The Daisies, was on a world tour.) Fast forwarding to 1973, it's hard to imagine the average 4- to-6 year old (F2BY&M is clearly targeted to younger learners) would be consumed with anxiety about having her full human potential eclipsed by "someone else's light." On the other hand, grown women in the early 1970s -- particularly those whose consciousness had been raised about the nature of women's oppression -- may have been quite sensitive to the effects of internalizing their subordination.

Obviously, the intended message of "I'd Rather Be the Sun" is open to interpretation. The song could easily apply to power relations in childhood friendships -- progressive parents usually agree that children are better equipped for a lifetime of happiness if they learn to value their own interest and skills and avoid attaching their self-esteem to how popular their friends are. But the image accompanying the final notes of the song is a child's drawing of a single, unambiguously female face surrounded by a halo of sun rays (the only human image seen in the entire sequence). Why not an picture of a boy? Or a boy and a girl? Or a whole field-full of shiny, happy children, holding hands?

On the surface, "I'd Rather Be the Sun" offers a positive, pro-girl message -- everyone can shine, and living vicariously through the people we love or admire never leads to lasting happiness. But as a subject of feminist analysis, the poem and visuals raise several red flags. First off, there's that feminine face. (If the goal is to encourage girls and boys to think of each other as equals in every way, why do girls need this message more than boys?) There's also the small problem that in mythology and modern culture, the sun is traditionally associated with male power and the moon with female fertility -- few adults who've spent time in a pre-school classroom have escaped the tuneful entreaty to "Mr. Golden Sun" to "please shine down on me." And because the album and video versions of F2BY&M are presented as complete works with an overarching narrative, "I'd Rather Be the Sun" should be considered as part of text that suggests the first step to freedom and self-respect for girls is do the same things that boys do.

Now, I'll admit my perspective may be warped by the fact that I was 50 years old, not five, at the time of my first exposure to F2BY&M. And as a parent of school-age sons, I've grown accustom to the baseline of gender neutrality in quality children's programming today. Nevertheless, I was stunned by how overtly gender-specific some of the life lessons imparted by F2BY&M seem by present-day standards. It's alright for boys to cry and wish for a doll to cuddle and give a bottle to (as long as they're also good at sports). But girls are repeatedly cautioned about the perils of being too girly -- and the most hideous fate of all is to grow up to be a "lady."

Exactly what being a "lady" means and why it should be avoided at all costs is never fully explained,(3) but various songs and stories hint that being a lady involves "wearing perfume and gloves," an unhealthy preoccupation with one's appearance, having dainty table manners, taking on airs or expecting preferential treatment, being "sweet" and "tender," and wearing pretty dresses with matching hair ribbons and shiny shoes. But the subtext of F2BY&M implies that being a lady involves more than abiding by stodgy conventions of propriety. For the authors of F2BY&M, "a lady" is shorthand for someone who tolerates, cultivates, and possibly revels in, outmoded ideals of femininity -- and being a girly-girl is coded as early-onset false consciousness that inhibits young women from experiencing the joys of independence and the hard work of creating an authentic life. But it's tough to convey such an abstract and politically-loaded concept to a small child -- even if she cares. (A number of young adults who've written about their impressions of F2BY&M on the web comment that they loved the music, but really didn't get the politics.)

I'm not a defender of conventional gender norms -- quite the opposite -- nor am I proposing that marriage and motherhood are the largest kind of life a woman can aspire to. I'm thankful we've made progress in that regard, and projects such as F2BY&M and Ms. Magazine played an important role in expanding women's horizons. However, I also believe oppressive gender ideology is something we should actively negotiate, rather than suppress by prescribing revised standards of male and female conduct based on how we think liberated children and adults should behave toward one another. Frankly, sexism is so deeply rooted in our culture and self-perception that it's probably impossible for anyone of us to accurately predict how people in a sustainable, non-sexist society would interact -- we can only identify, define and react to the conditions and internalization of our own oppression.

In any case, the prescriptive approach to eradicating sexism seems to have backfired on a number of fronts. As former naval officer Susan Park writes in a commentary for AlterNet, "The suppression of feminine qualities isn't getting us equal treatment. …I don't dress inappropriately or in any way unprofessionally, but I dress like a woman, an attractive one. Why does that still translate to me being silly?"

Moreover, I have a problem with children's literature -- no matter how well-meaning -- that assures boys and girls "A person should wear what he wants to wear/And not just what other folks say/A person should do what she likes to/A person's a person that way," then turns around to suggest that being a certain kind of girl -- the kind of girl who likes to wear perfume and play in "Girl Land" -- will lead to a bad end.

In the story "Ladies First," an obnoxious little girl who prides herself on being a "tender, sweet young thing" calls out "ladies first! ladies first!" as she pushes past other children to the front of the line. Eventually, she is captured and eaten by tigers (because she is sweet and tender, while her hardier playmates are too "bony" and "muscle-y" for good eating). It's made clear that the nameless little girl meets her unhappy fate not because she's self-absorbed and inconsiderate, but because she's over-invested in being a "real little lady."

I don't want to belabor this point, but I think it's worth mentioning that the F2BY&M version of "Ladies First" is adapted (by Mary Rodgers) from a short poem in Shel Silverstein's "A Light in the Attic." In the original poem, there are no references to the central character's vanity or her pretensions about being "a real little lady;" the words "tender" and "sweet" are nowhere to be found. There is no starched cotton dress with matching hair ribbons, no mention of the girl bragging about her "lovely curly locks," no demand that other children clear the path for her on their rugged jungle safari (although in the original version, she does hog all the drinking water). In the Silverstein poem, the little girl is bossy and mean-spirited and seals her own fate by shouting "ladies first!" at an inopportune moment (which happens to involve a cannibal king, not tigers). In other words, the stereotypical femininity of the unlikable little girl in the F2BY&M adaptation was inserted into a perfectly serviceable narrative about the value of sharing and respecting others to make a specific political statement.

On a final note: Whatever objections sixty-something feminists have to younger women's theory that stripping, Cake parties and flashing for Girls Gone Wild videos can be construed as feminist acts, it's doubtful anyone would describe those pursuits as old-fashioned or "ladylike." Nope -- definitely not ladylike at all. But there's more to liberation than defying convention.

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

"What are you watching?," my 14-year old son asked as he wandered through my office when I was reviewing video clips of the F2BY&M television special. I explained I was writing about a children's program produced in the 1970s to call attention to how gender stereotypes harm children's self-image and sense of potential. "Well," he said, "What do you think?" I said the project reinforced some important messages, like it's OK for boys to show tender feelings and for girls to be smart and strong, and it reminds kids that when they grow up and form families, they need to share all the housework. But I added that I thought the stories tried to set a new standard that might make girls feel they can't measure up if they don't want to climb trees or like wearing pretty dresses. "The stuff you listen to is so weird," he said. "I'm going to make myself a sandwich."

"What is that?," my 10-year old son asked when I was listening to a track from the F2BY&M CD. It's a song about an awful place called "Girl Land," I told him, where little girls aren't allowed to have fun and have to pick up after the boys. He frowned. "It's not a real place, is it?" No, I said, not really real -- more like a state of mind. "Hmm," he said. "Your job is so strange. Can I have a popsicle?"

"Free to Be…You and Me" was an ambitious and idealistic project that helped popularize the concept that self-realization and mutual respect are the foundation for transforming oppressive sex roles. As loving parents and concerned adults, we encourage children to dream big and shine like the sun -- and to learn to take care of themselves, and to care about others. But we also need to let them know that the world still needs fixing -- and that even though many more kinds of happy endings are possible today than in the past, life in the here and now rarely turns out the way it does in fairy tales. Even when those fairy tales are the ones we like to tell ourselves.

MMO : JUNE 2007

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of the Mothers Movement Online.


1. F2BY&M has previously been subjected to scholarly analysis, including a personal reflection by Kara Lynn Braun in Volume 1, Number 1 of the Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering. "If we really want a world where boys and girls can be equal," Braun writes, "…they should be told that the world and particularly our culture as it stands today is not equally accommodating for boys and girls, men and women, just as it was not in 1974." Braun also notes that in F2BY&M and other feminist-informed children's literature of the early 70s, "women's roles as mothers are not accurately reflected." For example, there are many stories about mothers who work outside the home from that era, when in fact nearly two-thirds of all married mothers in the U.S. were non-employed.

2. There are interesting variations between the original recording and the follow-up projects in terms of material that is excluded from or added to the book and television special. In addition to the song "Girl Land," the stories "Grandma" and "Dudley Pippin and His No-Friend" appear only on the LP. The book and television special include the friendship story "Three Wishes," and the book includes several other stories that respond to the day-to-day doubts and worries of small children (such as sibling rivalry, divorce and the tensions of becoming more self-sufficient), including Judy Blume's "The Pain and The Great One" and Herb Gardner's short play "How I Crossed the Street for the First Time All By Myself." The book, which is by far the richest iteration of Free To Be…You and Me, also contains an anti-war fable by Ann Riophe ("The Field"), and several original poems, including Elaine Laron's "The Sun and the Moon." The TV special includes the poem "The Sun and the Moon" set to music, plus an all-new production number, "You Were Once a Baby." Regarding heavy-handed attempts to discourage the development of false, romantic consciousness in little girls, the LP is by far the strongest, and least balanced, version of the text.

3. I find it fascinating that the negative stereotype of "being ladylike" has been emptied of most of its original meaning for feminists in my age group, perhaps because popular conventions of dress, comportment and communication have become much less formal over time. The era when it was unthinkable for a professional woman (or any woman) to wear pants in public seems part of a remote past -- although when I was in grade school, girls were required to wear dresses, and the same was undoubtedly true for the creative minds behind F2BY&M. And by the way, wearing a dress everyday was uncomfortable and did restrict active play. But our dresses weren't the problem -- it was the fact that we had to wear them.

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