A few years ago, when I was searching for feminist discourses published in Seventeen magazine during the 1970s as part of the research for my dissertation, I was disappointed to find only one short article about the popular 1974 children’s television special, Free to Be . . . You and Me—which, along with the 1972 album and 1974 book of the same name, boldly encouraged young people to embrace diversity and transcend limiting stereotypes of male and female behavior. Surely, the importance of Free to Be . . . You and Me for youthful audiences warranted more than one page of commentary in America’s leading teen magazine, didn’t it? And although Marlo Thomas, who conceived Free to Be, was interviewed for the piece, the perspectives of girls and boys who eagerly engaged with its messages were completely overlooked.
I begin with this anecdote to underscore just how valuable Lori Rotskoff and Laura L. Lovett’s edited collection, When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference It Made, is to the history of youth, second-wave feminism, and American popular culture in the 1970s. This captivating and accessibly-written anthology not only sheds crucial light on the production, reception, and cultural meaning of the original album, book, and TV special, but it also goes beyond this to highlight Free to Be’s lasting value in contemporary culture as well as the work that still needs to be done to create a more egalitarian world for children. Indeed, with the release of an updated “thirty-fifth anniversary edition” of the book in 2008 and the release of the TV special on DVD in 2010, Rotskoff and Lovett’s book could not be more timely.
One of the many strengths of When We Were Free to Be is that it brings together an impressive array of diverse voices spanning several generations, including those of producers, artists, audiences, activists, critics, and scholars. From feminist activists who passionately recount Free to Be’s early beginnings to prominent critics who keenly consider how Free to Be shaped their lives, the [End Page 174] anthology is an absorbing and delightfully balanced mix of textual and contextual, popular and scholarly, and historical and contemporary analysis.
When We Were Free to Be begins with an introduction by the authors, a prologue by Marlo Thomas, and reflections by Dionne Gordon Kirschner (Thomas’s niece, who, as a young girl in the 1970s, inspired her aunt’s quest to create nonsexist children’s stories). The remainder of the book is divided into four sections. Part one, “Creating a World for Free Children,” features reminisces from some of the people who participated in creating Free to Be, including television producer Carole Hart, activists Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Gloria Steinem, and actor Alan Alda. Part two, “Free to Be . . . You and Me in Historical Context,” offers insightful analyses of gender and children’s culture in the 1970s by scholars Lori Rotskoff, Laura L. Lovett, and Leslie Paris. Part three, “Parents Are Still People,” explores gender and childrearing across generations, including interesting contributions by Robin and Abigail Pogrebin—both of whom appeared in the original TV special. And Part Four, “How Free Are We to Be?,” provides provocative assessments by artists, scholars, and critics of Free to Be’s cultural legacies.
Scholars, students, and enthusiasts of 1970s children’s culture will be delighted to find peppered throughout the book the opinions of young people who grew up with Free to Be. In her fascinating analysis of letters written by children to the editors of Ms. magazine in the early 1970s, for instance, Lori Rotskoff demonstrates how girls negotiated gender inequities in their communities by employing activist strategies and spreading feminist consciousness. Other chapters, including Leslie Paris’s on 1970s children’s culture and Lori Rotskoff’s on the reception of Free to Be, offer remarkable glimpses into the mindsets of girls who wrote...