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Kids weren't always 'Free to Be... You and Me' — here's a look at its legacy, at 50

Free To Be Foundation

Updated December 14, 2022 at 10:09 AM ET

Fifty years ago this year, the album Free to Be... You and Me was released. It was a personal project that would go on to become a gold record, a television special, a book, a foundation, and the anthem of a generation. The opening song, with its jangly banjo and skipping rhythm, lays out a vision of a kids utopia:

But 1972, that wasn't the message kids were getting. Actor Marlo Thomas discovered that reading a bedtime story to her 5-year-old niece.

"I said to my sister, these books are so old fashioned," remembers Thomas. "The prince is gonna come along and kiss her and the whole world's gonna be OK? I mean, it took us years to get over that. And that's when I decided that I wanted to create a project for children that said that they were free to be anything they wanted to be."

What would you like to have heard as a kid?

Thomas had grown up in a show business family and was fresh off a successful run in the sitcom That Girl. She used her connections to realize this vision. She gathered celebrities like playwright Herb Gardner, actor Mel Brooks, poet Shel Silverstein, Academy Award-winning playwright Paddy Chayefsky and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ed Kleban. In late-night sessions at Thomas' apartment, they talked about what kind of songs and poems and stories they wanted to tell. And what kind of world they wanted to live in.

"I gathered these people around and I said to them, if you could have anything said to you in your childhood, what would you have wanted it to be?" Marlo Thomas remembers. "And Herb Gardner said, 'I would've liked to have been told that it was all right for a boy to cry.' And I said, I would've liked to have been told that at the end of every fairy tale, the girl, the princess, doesn't have to marry the prince and that she doesn't have to be a blonde all the time."

New messages for the 1970s

In 1972, these messages were revolutionary. When the Free to Be television special came out a few years later, Thomas had to fight the networks to show a scene of her and the Black singer and actor Harry Belafonte just pushing strollers together. Married women couldn't even get their own credit cards. But change was starting to happen.

Harry Belafonte and Marlo Thomas sing "Parents are People."
/ Free To Be Foundation
Free To Be Foundation
Harry Belafonte and Marlo Thomas sing "Parents are People."

Letty Cottin Pogrebin worked on Free to Be... You and Me. "For so long, people had not questioned gender roles," she says. "They just were the norm. And suddenly all around us were consciousness raising groups, and marches, and caucuses at workplaces."

Cottin Pogrebin is one of the founding editors of Ms. magazine, which began earlier that same year. She worked on the New York City's commission to eradicate sexism in the public schools, and wrote columns for Ms. about "Stories for Free Children" and "Songs for Free Children," trying to find the best available offerings for kids. She worked with Thomas to bring that lens to the album, which she thinks achieved its goal.

"It really reaches into the soul of the child and it says, I see you, I see who you are, and we're gonna support the best you that you can become," appreciates Cottin Pogrebin. "And you know, kids have the purest sense of justice of anybody. They just say, It's not fair that I can't do this. Why can't I do this?"

Criticism of gender in children's popular culture was an early project of second wave feminist activism, says Leslie Paris, professor of history at the University of British Columbia who researches American childhood in the 1960s and 1970s. And second wave feminists were eager to pass along to kids both a model of a new world, and the tools for creating it.

"This was an era of tremendous cultural ferment in children's culture," explains Paris. Both children's television and literature began to mention divorce, and make an effort to showcase racial and class diversity, as well as the diversity of possibilities for girls beyond traditional gender roles.

And Free to Be did that. Football star Rosey Grier, with his deep voice and defensive lineman bulk, told kids:

And the spoken-word fairy tale Atalanta ended with Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda telling not of a wedding, but of couple finding personal fulfillment:

"But now Atalanta is still off in the world, visiting towns and cities. And John is still sailing the seas. Perhaps someday they'll be married. And perhaps they will not. In any case, it is certain, they are both living happily ever after."

Top talent pays off

The songs, poems and stories on the album showed kids that parents are just people, that boys and girls could be friends, and that people could be anything they wanted to be. And, most importantly, they did it with an irresistible joy and rhythm. Marlo Thomas says this was no accident.

Thomas initially took the ideological framework and resulting lyrics to children's writers. But when she got the material back, she hated it. "I thought, wow. You know, my niece, at five years old, she's watching rock concerts in her living room on television. I cannot give her a sing-songy song."

Which is when she decided to go to Broadway talent, and composers like Stephen Lawrence.

"We have to get these kids up on their feet, singing and dancing, and be ahead of the curve" she said.

And they did. The melodies and poems are catchy, and delivered by top talent. The title song is sung by The New Seekers, famous for I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing. Diana Ross told kids they didn't have to change, Carol Channing pulled back the lens on advertising, and Alan Alda let parents know that they could give their boys a doll.

This host of celebrity talent offered something for parents, too — role models saying that pushing back on gender norms, and crying, and being yourself, were OK.

It also got the album into schools, libraries and homes across the country.

Growing up 'free to be'

Musician Kimya Dawson grew up with Free to Be. "I don't even remember the first time [hearing the album] because I, too, was born in November, 1972," laughs Dawson. "Me and my best friend Pier used to sit around, and we had the book, and we had the record and we loved William Wants a Doll."

William's doll
/ Free To Be Foundation
Free To Be Foundation
William's doll

For a tomboy growing up in the 70s, this provided affirmation. And as the culture shifted in the '80s, it was a source of support.

"Even as a teen, I was still listening to it. When my older brother was in Desert Storm, I sent him a copy of the book while he was deployed. And I knew the messages that were being sort of forced onto the young soldiers over there, and I just wanted to make sure that he held onto some of that kindness, and friendship, and feeling your feelings."

Kids today who feel alone in their family, or their town, can find community with just a TikTok search. But 50 years ago, this album was a lifeline. Marlo Thomas says she still hears that.

"So many people stop me on the street," says Thomas. "Gay men who say when that song came out, you saved my life. When I heard 'William Wants a Doll,' I thought, I'm gonna be OK."

Marlo Thomas
/ Free To Be Foundation
Free To Be Foundation
Marlo Thomas

When this album came out, its hope for a better world was palpable. And some like Ms. magazine co-founder Letty Cottin Pogregin, are dismayed about what still hasn't changed — or has backslid. "I wish someday it would be looked at as some weird antique representing another era," sighs Cottin Pogrebin.

Since 1972 there have been huge changes when it comes to gender and family in this country. Some of the album is dated. But so much of it still resonates — both because of what hasn't changed, and because of what will always be a question for people growing up, even in the most free of societies.

"Every generation needs this album or something like it because the issues are the same," says Marlo Thomas. "The world continues to question these things, and I think we have to be ready with the answers."

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Deena Prichep