by Rachel Blustain

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.

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