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Reflections on Free to Be You and Me Turning 40

Last month I mailed a copy of the CD version of Free to Be You and Me, the 1974 musical collection developed by Marlo Thomas to my feminist friend who is having her first baby.  Thomas got her “famous” friends together (Alan Alda, Rosey Grier, Tom Smothers, Diana Ross, Mel Brooks, Billy de Wolfe, Carol Channing, Dick Cavett, and Shirley Jones) to make this album of songs and stories as an antidote to the lack of gender free toys and books on the shelves as she searched for a birthday gift for her niece.  (Imagine getting this present from your Aunt Marlo?).

I don’t know how old I was when my parents gave me this album, but it came with a songbook of the words and I learned every one of them.  As I entered adulthood, I made copies for baby shower favors for my brother and for my best friend.  And while a 40 year old songbook seems dated, it is still very relevant.

220px-Free_to_Be..._You_and_Me_(album_cover)

Christina Hoff Sommers provides a trenchant tribute in her March 11th Time Magazine article “‘Free to Be’ Boys and Girls: 40 Years After the Failed Gender Revolution.” She negatively summarizes some of the songs and stories, stating “the songs drive home the idea that we are all androgynous beings unfairly constrained by social stereotypes.”  Then she goes on to use the example of the American Girl Doll franchise to demonstrate how boys do not go for dolls; and that is another failure of the women’s movement for gender equality.  WHAT?

Ms Hoff Sommers, you are clearly missing the point.  The point is not that boys want dolls.  The point is that men want to be active engaged daddies and that mommies want help.  And yes, Ms Hoff Sommers, there has been a shift in 40 years toward this endeavor I call equality.  I know many of you would cite examples like this, but my little brother and his wife are true equal parents to their little boy.  They take turns doing all the parenting pieces required to raise a child in today’s world.

But then Ms Hoff Sommers begins her descent down the slippery slope of stereotyping.

But, after 40 years of gender activism, boys and girls show few signs of liking to do the same things. From the earliest age, boys show a distinct preference for active outdoor play, with a strong predilection for games with body contact, conflict, and clearly defined winners and losers. Girls, too, enjoy raucous outdoor play, but they engage in it less. Girls, as a rule, are more drawn to imaginative theatrical games — playing house, playing school — as well as exchanging confidences with a best friend. Boys playing kickball together in the schoolyard are not only having a great deal of fun, they are forging friendships with other males in ways that are critical to their healthy socialization. Similarly, little girls who spend hours in deep conversation with other girls or playing theatrical games are happily and actively honing their social skills.

To suggest that the ways in which boys and girls like to play, as socialized by their parents and our culture, is a prediction for whether they will parent in sex stereotyped roles is a reach.  Free to Be You and Me was about looking ahead to the future where limits wouldn’t be placed on what girls and boys wanted to do with their lives. (This was really happening in 1974.  Remember “Help Wanted” ads for men only or girls only?)  Free to Be You and Me was not, and is not, what Hoff Sommers calls “a cautionary example of how an idealistic social fantasy can turn into a blueprint for repression.”  Sex stereotyping and limiting women’s and men’s ability to develop their own free expression is repression. Patriarchy, which still exists, Ms Hoff Sommers, is the blueprint for repression and continues its architecture in many places across the globe.

Marlo Thomas and her friends planted within me, from this album, a passion for equality, justice, freedom, and theatrical expression.  And forty years later, I am thankful to her for that.

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The Childless Feminist

A few weeks ago I posted a link to The Current Conscience, a blog by LA feminist and writer, Yashar Ali (yes, he is a man!).  I Don’t Want to Have Kids.  There were 13 likes and 10 comments.  The article struck a chord with many of my friends, particularly those who are women.  It felt good to see that many women felt like I did:  frustrated, pressured and not valued for our choices. So for today’s blog I thought I would write down all the things people have said to me about my choice, my very personal choice, to contribute to society in a different way than my friends and family who have children.

“That’s the biggest mistake you’ll ever make.”
“It’s good you know you’d be a bad parent.”
“You’re too young to make that decision.”
“You’re not too old” (Told this at 42 & 43 years old)
“There’s nothing better in this world than having children.”
“Why?”
“But you’d make such a good mom.”
“But being pregnant is so amazing.”
“Who will take care of you when you are old?”  This question assumes that ALL children care for their aging parent, and this we know is not the case.
“Wow.”

I would love to have readers add to this list.  My sister, who is 28, and her fiance, are starting to feel this same pressure.  What’s frustrating about this is that she is 15 years younger than me, yet she is getting the same exact pressure from society.  Why do we continue to remain stagnant or even go backwards as a culture?  I also wonder if I would be questioned the same way if I was in a relationship with a woman rather than a man?  Is this compulsory heterosexuality at work or some other term we haven’t coined?  Compulsory motherhood?

Take for instance the recent debates about contraception.  Really?  In 2012 a hot button topic of the Republican race for President is going to be whether women should have the right to contraception or not?  It makes me sick.  Our Ophthalmologist recently told us of a study she read (she is the mother of twins) that the happiest people in U.S. society are actually couples without children.  Remember the term DINKs?  Apparently as much as people claim that having children is the “best thing ever,” it turns out the happiest people are those without the pressures of children.

Yet I remain proud that I have chosen, with my own free will, and in deep discussion with my partner, that we will choose to be a wonderful Aunt and Uncle to our nieces and nephews.  We will continue to value the precious time we have together as a couple.

 

my feminist praxis

critical reflections on my feminist praxis: activism, motherhood, and life

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The official blog: My personal manifesto on living your best life, every day.

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The Feminist Critic

Providing weekly critiques of theatre, film, books, politics and pop culture from a feminist perspective.