Free To Be...You and Me -- a retrospective

If you read Boing Boing, you probably know that I was raised on Free To Be...You and Me, the brilliant book/record/film about gender equality and self expression (I even donated to the foundation that controls the series). So I was fascinated and delighted (and a little saddened, see below) to read Dan Kois's excellent a three-part series on Slate about the origin, aftermath and present-day status of F2BY&M.

Mary Rodgers recruited her neighbor and friend, Fiddler on the Roof lyricist Sheldon Harnick, to collaborate with her on “William’s Doll,” based on the one book suggested by children’s publisher Ursula Nordstrom that Thomas liked. (It was written by Charlotte Zolotow, Nordstrom’s protégée.) Harnick, on the advice of all the feminists he was meeting through Free To Be, read Sisterhood Is Powerful, and one chapter on the politics of cleaning inspired him to write a poem about how no one likes housework; Thomas added it to the roster. (A decision the team would later regret.) Hart’s literary agent suggested she contact children’s author Betty Miles; Hart assigned Miles an adaptation of the Greek myth of Atalanta, a princess racing against young Melanion, who desires her hand in marriage. Miles rewrote the tale’s original ending—in which Aphrodite helps Melanion win the race and get the girl—to reflect a more liberated time.

For Carol Hall's second assignment, “It’s All Right To Cry,” she went to the Little Red Schoolhouse in downtown Manhattan and quizzed her son’s classmates on their feelings about crying. “Crying gets the sad out of you,” one child suggested. “It’s like raindrops from your eyes,” said another. Chuckles Hall today: “Poor little darlings, their names are not on the copyright. Thank you, children!” Once again hoping Thomas might sing the song, Hall tailored it to her. “How am I going to say this so that in print it sounds graceful?” Hall muses now. “Marlo is a wonderful, wonderful performer, but she is such a perfectionist that I knew that singing was not something she was accustomed to doing that much. So because I thought that Marlo might sing it, I wanted to aim it to her, melodically, so I made it very, very simple.”

The song was accepted, and then, Hall says, “I was about to pop to get a third thing on the record, because nobody else had three.” (She was getting updates from her agent, Shukat.) She composed a song for Kris Kristofferson, who’d written the liner notes for her first album and sent it to him without telling anyone. “Oooh, Carole Hart was mad at me because I sent it to Kris directly.” Kristofferson turned the song down; he would later appear on the Free To Be TV special. And Hall did eventually land that third song, about friendship between boys and girls, “Glad to Have a Friend Like You,” which wound up closing the album.

The third part, which describes the reversals suffered by feminism in the last few decades, the widening wage-gap, and ongoing systematic discrimination, left me feeling very sad. I want my daughter to inherit the world we saw in Free To Be, and I'm going to work for it (and I know she'll join me).

Free To Be (via Kottke)


  1. Thanks for this trip back to the old days!  I didn’t know any of this backstory.  I just grew up idolizing Margo Thomas. I had the Free to Be album and I remember reading the liner notes and wondering what the words all really meant.  I liked the music, too!

  2. Yeah, I was completely entranced by F2B when I was growing up (I’m now 45). To this day, you could tell me one of the song titles from the TV show, and I could hum the melody, and maybe even get some of the lyrics right.

    I remember enjoying this so much mainly because I was a big fan of Marlo Thomas as a very young boy, and my parents were fans of Alan Alda. I remember my dad receiving a handwritten letter from Alan Alda in response to his fan mail (at the height of M*A*S*H), and it struck me – what a great guy, who would personally answer a piece of fan mail (I sure hope it wasn’t written by an assistant).

    One of the topics I would have added in the discussion about a new Free to Be would have been tolerance, particularly religious tolerance. Then we could ship a few million copies of the new Free to Be to both the American ultra-conservative-mega-cult-churches and the Taliban. I wonder if that would help things (lol)?

  3. I raised my twins on the DVD re-release.  I have some favorite moments from the TV Special and Rosey Greer singing It’s All Right to Cry has to be on of the tops.  And Mel Brooks as a baby puppet. 

  4. I’m in my early 40s and remember that there were two movies that seemed to be shown in grade school (mid 1970s) every year — F2B and the one about the carved Indian in a kayak making its way to the sea.

    1. Our secondaries were either The Winter of the Witch (you know, who made blueberry pancakes), and one year, The Selfish Giant, or lastly, the SEX ED film.

  5. I saw the television special several times–at least three times at school that I remember (on an old projector), and at least once at church.

    Sadly I feel like the message of some parts of it, particularly “William Wants A Doll” would be considered too controversial now, even in the relatively liberal Presbyterian church where I was brought up. Then again I haven’t been back there in twenty years, so it may not be “relatively liberal” anymore. And I wonder what kind of ruckus would be raised if it were shown in school.

    I’d rather live in a world where the story of “William Wants A Doll” wouldn’t be controversial but also wouldn’t make sense because there would be nothing odd about a boy wanting a doll.

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