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Michael Kimmel Headshot

How 'Free to Be' Heralded the Most Successful Revolution of Our -- or Any -- Era

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In a recent opinion piece in Time magazine, conservative writer Christina Hoff Sommers celebrates the failure of "misguided" feminism efforts to change American society into a gender-free land of androgynous neo-hippies, populated by gender-neutered female firefighters and male nurses. She takes particular glee at lambasting the failure of "Free to Be" on its 40th anniversary. That effort at cultural transformation, she writes, "is a cautionary example of how an idealistic social fantasy can turn into a blueprint for repression."

Along the way to the androgynous feminist future, she explains, these happy androgynes ran headlong into human nature, the biological differences between males and females that underpin all social relationships. Happily, she notes, these innate differences are so powerful, so determinative, that the evidence of the failure of "Free to Be" lie strewn across countless feminist tracts and in the inner recesses of Women's Studies departments everywhere.

Males and females are fundamentally different, she argues, and 40 years of failed social engineering bears this out. Don't mess with Mother Nature, she seems to say.

This might be a compelling just-so story on Mars or on Venus, like the convoluted Kipling-esque claims about how tigers got their stripes, but here on planet Earth, even the most ardent biological determinist would have to concede that nature doesn't replace nurture. It provides the raw materials, but these are shaped and molded -- and that we shape and mold -- into the people we become.

And, by the way, serious neuroscientists would never say that the small differences in brain chemistry are not "plastic" enough to be amplified, reduced or modified depending on the society. Any small mean differences between males and females -- on pretty much every single dimension -- pales before the remarkable, glorious variations among women and among men.

In fact, "Free to Be" heralded, announced and championed the most dramatic and most rapid transformation of gender relations in our nation's history. Little girls grew up "free to be" doctors and lawyers and business executives, and astronauts and soldiers, and professional athletes and firefighters and police officers -- as well as moms and nurses and teachers and librarians. "Free to Be" expanded horizons that suddenly stretched around the entire globe.

My female students take this so utterly for granted that they declare that they are not feminists -- because, they believe, that feminism has been such a massive success that it is now politically unnecessary. They believe that as women, they can be anything they want to be from raunchy Miley Cyrus to the athletic Abby Wambach, to the brilliantly understated Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (I should point out that they return, five years after they graduate, to tell me that they were wrong, that feminism is still necessary. Why? Because they've now been in the workplace and have now experienced discrimination, harassment, and the like.)

With boys, some, but less. While young girls today believe they can be anything they want to be, which is sort of the point of "Free to Be," many boys are still afraid to take that imaginative leap. Not because their brain chemistry won't permit it, or their neural wiring would short-circuit, but because other boys make damned sure they don't even try, by calling them "gay" or other words that police them and keep them conforming. And yet, even with that, young men have crossed the Rubicon of parenthood, changing from Don Draper to Diaper Daddy in a single generation.

Today, we are, in the U.S., incontestably more gender equal than we have ever been. Don't believe me? Look around your workplace. I invited the editor at Time who worked on this piece to look at his own office. Forty years ago, before "Free to Be", Time's editors would have likely refused to hire women as journalists since everyone "knew" that women didn't have the nose for the hard news or couldn't get the story. (They assumed, I suppose, that journalists had to look like Spencer Tracy, with a stubby pencil stuck in the ribbon of his fedora.)

But, just because we are more gender equal does not mean that we are the same. The goal of "Free to Be" -- the goal of feminism in general -- was to de-gender traits, not to de-gender people. It was to say that there is nothing inherently masculine about being ambitious, competent or assertive (these were coded as "masculine" traits), nor anything inherently feminine about being loving, kind or nurturing (though these were coded as "feminine" traits). These, we now understand, are human traits, and both women and men are capable of these, expressing a fuller humanity. If men were incapable, biologically, of nurturing or care, we'd never let them near children; if women were biologically incapable of ambition or competence, we probably would have prohibited them from earning Ph.D.s in philosophy and becoming writers in residence at the American Enterprise Institute.

The most amazing thing about the gender transformation that has been so successful is not that it has accomplished this de-gendering of traits so amazingly quickly -- and with little serious opposition, it's that it managed to take place without de-gendering people. Women and men are still women and men; we've not collapsed into some androgynous stew that flattened all differences between us and rendered us bland and the same. We're different still, thank heavens. We're just more equal, thank heavens again.

The truth is, the gender revolution has been the single greatest success story of our -- or any -- era. And there are millions of nurturing dads and working moms who prove it every day.