12/05/2012 11:24 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

When We Were Free to Be... Revisiting A Children's Classic on Its 40th Anniversary

If you grew up or raised children during the 1970s, there's a good chance you remember "Free to Be...You and Me", the groundbreaking children's record, book and TV special that debuted in 1972. Conceived and co-produced by Marlo Thomas, "Free to Be...You and Me" offered kids a fresh alternative to rigid cultural stereotypes that prevailed in the media during the "Leave it to Beaver" era. Featuring a collage of songs, skits, stories, and poems recorded by celebrated actors, musicians, and singers, "Free to Be...You and Me" changed the way in which parents and children thought (and continue to think) about gender roles, equality, and social justice. Infused with clever wit and charming irreverence, "Free to Be" taught children to respect diversity, value cooperation, and resist blind conformity to social expectations. Armed with an empowering message of self-discovery, "Free to Be" inspired young listeners to challenge conventional wisdom and confront the world with a spirit of unfettered possibility.

"Free to Be...You and Me" is now celebrating its 40th anniversary: a fitting moment for us to look back and take measure of its enduring legacy. For countless "Free to Be kids"--now adults--hearing songs like "It's All Right to Cry" and "Parents Are People" stirs up a heady mix of memories. Some of us can still recite the dialogue from "Boy Meets Girl," the hilarious skit with two talking babies who try to discover what sex they are. Others recall the tale of Atalanta, the brilliant princess who ran "as fast as the wind" and embarked on her own adventures rather than marry a handsome suitor.

But "Free to Be" wasn't just an entertaining novelty for the younger set. And its historical significance runs much deeper than nostalgia. "Free to Be...You and Me" took fundamental ideals about fairness, freedom, racial harmony, and sexual equality and set them to spirited music and lyrics for kids. "Free to Be" was an extraordinary vehicle through which feminism, civil rights, and other social justice movements settled into children's recreational lives. Indeed, "Free to Be...You and Me" can now rightly be regarded as one of the most influential works to emerge from the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s--on par with other second-wave feminist texts such as Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" and Robin Morgan's "Sisterhood is Powerful."

Many of "Free to Be's" biggest fans aren't aware that their favorite childhood album was part of a broader non-sexist child rearing movement endorsed by parents, teachers, and librarians across the country. Just as they fought to ensure equality in the workplace, the halls of government, the university, and the sports arena, so too did activists advocate equal rights for the nation's youngest citizens. From toy stores and TV sets to preschools and playgrounds, from local libraries and Little Leagues to dancing schools and day camps, adults reshaped the material world of childhood to enact a new vision of fairness and freedom for boys and girls alike.

But today, when the landscape of childhood harkens back to the sharply divided sex roles of the post-World War II era, we wonder: What happened to the vision of gender equality and neutrality ideals that inspired "Free to Be . . . You and Me"? Just walk into any local toy store (if you can find one still in business) and notice how the playthings are segregated. One realm beckons girls with Cinderella daydreams, while the other bombards boys with fantasies of manly bravado. When crass commercialism shows its true colors, pink and blue don't make purple, they make green, multiplying profits every time parents buy into the premise that boys and girls require different playthings, books, websites, and computer games.

This exaggeration of children's gender differences is far from a benign predicament. From birth, baby girls are swathed in pink stroller blankets, while boys receive totems expressing the normative power of boyhood sports. For every girl who downplays her interest in asteroids in favor of lip gloss, there's a boy who skips auditions for the school musical because his friends will tease him for doing something "girly." Too often, when youth don't fit the standard-issue gender scripts, they suffer from ridicule, ostracism, and bullying. Children of both sexes--as well as those who resist conformity to a single or "fixed" gender category--lose out when they hide their true interests because they don't fit prevailing social norms. The continuing need for feminist, antiracist, gay rights, and transgender activism speaks to the reality that countless people are not yet "free to be."

Recently, some groups have started to push back against gender segregation in childhood. A small but vocal number of parents and educators are actively supporting boys who choose to wear pink dresses. In many communities, girls who play football or earn black belts in karate seldom raise eyebrows. Across the ocean, the Swedish government is spending millions of dollars to promote policies advocating gender equality in schools and even passed a law requiring teachers to work purposefully to reverse gender stereotypes. One of Sweden's largest toy companies, Top Toy, just published a gender-neutral Christmas catalogue that depicts a boy "feeding" a doll with a baby bottle while a pony-tailed girl wields a Nerf gun.

Some people think that this type of gender-bending in toy advertising goes too far, and can even harm children's development. But in 2012, a boy playing with a doll is hardly revolutionary. Forty years ago, millions of kids sang along with Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas about a little boy named William who "wanted a doll to hug and hold"--and it didn't spell the end of civilization. Since then, gendered expectations have relaxed a bit, but boys who push the envelope too far past accepted norms of masculinity remain vulnerable to teasing and sometimes brutal violence. And while today's girls don't need a song to tell them that they can grow up to be doctors or comedians, the fact that women took home only 77 percent of men's earnings for the same job in 2011 should keep us from feeling too complacent about women's progress in the workplace.

Given this jumbled mix of gains and setbacks, it can be a challenge to gauge where we now stand when it comes to raising "free" children. That's why a critical reassessment of the "Free to Be" legacy seems both helpful and hopeful today. From the first bright notes of the album's title track, children of the 1970s entered an imaginary "land" that was freer and more equitable than the society they actually inhabited. The "Free to Be" vision of boundless potential has always been a fantasy, of course: an illusion that encourages children to imagine a fulfilling future where almost anything seems possible. While some critics may take issue with "Free to Be" for overpromising a world of equality and freedom, a children's song or story can't change the world on its own. Nor should we ever expect it to.

Four decades later, though, "Free to Be" stands as an inspiring example of how children's literature and popular culture can sway hearts and minds in the right direction. Today's kids can still tune in to "Free to Be" -- on i-Pods and YouTube, rather than vinyl LPs. But no matter what technology we use to play it, the messages of "Free to Be" are worth are hearing, loudly and clearly, again. After all, as Gloria Steinem put it in her introduction to the original "Free to Be" book, "the children we once were are inside us still."