Marlo Thomas Reflects On What’s Changed For Women Since "Free To Be You And Me" — And What Hasn’t

“In 1972, there was no woman in the Senate. Now we have 20 women in the Senate, and all of them are married, and they all have children.”

Marlo Thomas in the Free To Be You And Me TV special Courtesy of Marlo Thomas

One of my earliest memories is being probably 3 or 4 years old, and listening to the Free to Be You and Me album on my Holly Hobbie record player, over and over. It was the early ’80s, my mom had a subscription to Ms. Magazine, the Equal Rights Amendment hadn’t failed yet, and the promised land of gender equality seemed, if not immediately within sight, then perhaps not too far off. Free to Be — which had come out as an album and book in 1972 and aired as a musical TV special on ABC in March 1974 starring co-creator Marlo Thomas, along with Alan Alda, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and many others — told the stories, through a series of songs and brief sketches, of little boys who have dolls, little girls who want to be engineers, princesses who don’t want to get married, moms who are ranchers and doctors, and dads who take care of their kids. It was an indelible turning point in the conversation around male and female roles, and particularly for the generation that was raised singing along to its music (and their parents), its legacy endures in the zeitgeist even 40 years later. In the new Amazon pilot Transparent, the ringer of one of the mom’s phones is the first few bars of the opening song: “There’s a land that I see / Where the children are free / And I see it ain’t far to this land from where we are…”

But certainly much of what felt revolutionary in the ’70s and ’80s feels dated, or obvious, now; Dick Cavett has a 30-second bit from the perspective of a little kid trying to figure out if his dog is a boy or a girl: “Perhaps he’s a girl, which kind of makes sense — since he can’t throw a ball and he can’t climb a fence. But neither can Dad, and I know he’s a man. And Mom is a woman, and she drives a van.” And it’s a world where same-sex couples just don’t exist. But it’s also somewhat dispiriting to listen to the album again, in this age of leaning in and having it all, and realize just how much farther we have to go — and how in some ways, particularly when it comes to rigidly gender-normative children’s toys, we seem to have slid backward. (I was, however, heartened to discover that I still remembered almost all the words to the songs.)

The 40th anniversary of the TV special will be commemorated this weekend when the Paley Center for Media screens Free to Be in its entirety in New York and Los Angeles, and then again on Tuesday, March 11, when the New York location hosts a panel on Free to Be at 40, moderated by Marlo Thomas and Gloria Steinem.

When I spoke this week with Thomas, who is now 76, she had a lot to say about Free to Be’s continued relevance, women in entertainment, princesses, and who she’ll be campaigning for in 2016.

Michael Jackson and Roberta Flack in the TV special ABC Photo Archives / Getty Images

Which of the songs do you feel like are really timeless? And which ones feel dated to you now?

Marlo Thomas: Actually, none of them feel dated. I wish they did. If they felt dated, then maybe our culture would have progressed further along.

That’s a good point.

MT: I think really all children need to hear that it’s all right to cry and that boys and girls are pretty much the same except for something in their underwear, and that mommies and daddies are people, and that we’re all sisters and brothers. I don’t really think there’s anything on Free to Be that is dated. I think the one thing that’s dated is we don’t have anything about same-sex marriage and families with two moms or two dads. But other than that, I think we pretty much cover it, about what it’s like to grow up in a family.

On songs like “William Wants a Doll” — do you think it’s still weird for boys to have dolls? Is the message in that song still resonant?

MT: I think the terrible thing is that it’s even more so. It seems to have snapped back. Right after Free to Be and in the decade after that, toys did start to change and become a little more unisex, but now when you walk through FAO Schwarz, there’s the pink section and the blue section. So unfortunately, it’s interesting that you bring that one up because that’s kind of sad that that isn’t dated. But also, it’s about bullying too, isn’t it?

What do you mean?

MT: Well, the children bully William. They make fun of him and they mock him: “William wants a do-oll.” They laugh at him. It’s a lot about bullying too.

Bullying wasn’t as much of an issue then as it is now.

MT: We didn’t have the cyberspace then — we just had school and then it would be over. But now it follows you home and it’s on the web, and it’s pretty devastating, what it can do.

The original album cover Courtesy of Marlo Thomas

To go back to what you were saying about FAO Schwarz — why do you think that’s happened?

MT: What’s interesting is that the books are progressive. The books have changed forever. The schoolbooks, the showing of ethnicities, showing mommies at work and daddies caring for children, and equal sharing of the family chores, that’s all in the schoolbooks, that’s all in books everywhere, so the books have just leapt forward. The toys — I’m not quite sure why, but the princess thing really has caught on. And that had to do with the princess movies. So I think once they got their foot in the door, those toy companies, and saw that princesses work, then it was a downhill thing after that.

Did you see the letter that a 7-year-old girl wrote to Lego a few weeks ago?

MT: What was it?

She wrote a letter to Lego basically saying, “Why are all the Legos for girls about princesses and the ones for boys are about adventures and space and cars?” That was really sad to me, that even Lego has become so gendered in this retro way.

MT: No, I didn’t see that, but that’s great. I don’t know much about Lego — I don’t have little kids. But that’s great that a kid wrote that.

It went all over the internet, so people were really responding to that.

MT: Oh, how great.

So what about Free to Be seemed most revelatory or revolutionary at the time?

MT: When we showed it to the network, they wanted us to cut “William Wants a Doll” because they thought that we would make every boy in America into a “faggot,” is the word they used.

Oh, wow.

MT: Yeah, so they didn’t like “William Wants a Doll” at all. And they weren’t real happy with “It’s Alright to Cry,” either. But they would kind of negotiate with me — they’d let me keep “It’s Alright to Cry” if I dropped “William Wants a Doll.” And they didn’t like the fact that Harry Belafonte and I were wheeling baby carriages next to each other in the television special because it looked like we were married — and of course, it didn’t look like we were married at all; we each had our own carriage. But I said, “A) It doesn’t look like we’re married; we have our own buggies that we’re wheeling, and B) Who cares?” And they said, “Well, it won’t play in the South.” And I said, “Well, tough. Because this is what it is. I’m not gonna re-shoot it. And I love it.” And so it ran the way we intended it. We didn’t cut anything. But it was a battle. It was definitely a battle.

ABC Photo Archives / Getty Images

That’s so interesting. You brought up same-sex couples before, and I’m wondering, if you were doing a Free to Be album now, what else would you change, what would you keep?

MT: Well, I would definitely have two daddies and two mommies. I think that’s important, so I would do that. I have many, many friends who are in same-sex relationships or marriages and raising kids, and facing all the things that everybody in the world faces with raising children, and I wish we had done that. But it was so long ago that that wasn’t even a thing that was happening in those days.

What about race?

MT: It’s completely non-racist. Harry and I singing together as mommy and daddy, and “Glad to Have a Friend Like You” is about a black child and a friend, so we try to — Michael Jackson is in there. We really wanted to create a non-sexist, non-racist children’s entertainment, because up until then, if you picked up a child’s book in the ’60s and ’70s, they were all white people. But now the world has changed, and we don’t have books like that, where everybody’s white. But Free to Be You and Me was certainly on the cutting edge of that.

As I was re-listening to this to get ready for the interview, I thought about all the debates that are going on right now about women “having it all” and their role in the home and at work, and in some ways it does feel like we haven’t advanced that much in that regard, either.

MT: I don’t know what you mean, “we haven’t advanced.” We have advanced.

Sure, but —

MT: We have 20 women in the Senate. In 1972, there was no woman in the Senate. Now we have 20 women in the Senate, and all of them are married, and they all have children. The first woman ever to be the CEO of an automotive company, General Motors, and that’s a woman, and she’s had a family. I think we’ve progressed immensely. Sheryl Sandberg: She’s, what, the richest woman in the country, if not the world? Billionaire? And she’s a mother of two children with a happy marriage about to celebrate her 10th anniversary. So I think we are leaps and bounds from where we were.

ABC Photo Archives / Getty Images

To me, it feels like we’re still having these debates about the degree to which women are expected to take care of the home versus men.

MT: First of all, that’s a personal discussion. Nobody can tell couples how they should live their lives. So if a woman and her husband decide that they’re gonna share the chores and share the baby-raising and so forth, then they’ll do that. If they decide they only want the woman to raise the children or they only want the man to stay home and raise the children, that’s their choice. The whole point of the women’s movement, and Free to Be, the whole concept of Free to Be You and Me, is to have a choice. So, you know, in my marriage [to Phil Donahue], in my life, we don’t have children. But we have two careers, and each one of us has to allow for the other one’s dreams. That’s a very big part of feminism, is to allow each other — I mean, feminism is just simply humanism. It’s called feminism for whatever reason, and I’m certainly a feminist, but it really is being a humanist. That you want your spouse of each gender to have their dreams come true, and give them the space to have that happen, and I believe in that completely. I don’t think there’s any other way to live.

You’ve been in the entertainment industry for over 50 years now. Why do you think there aren’t more female screenwriters and showrunners and directors?

MT: Well, there are a whole lot more than when I was in television as a young woman. There was just me and Lucille Ball producing our own TV shows. But there’s an awful lot of them now. But the most important thing is, as Cate Blanchett said the other night on television when she won her Oscar, that it’s time for the movie industry, the movie studios, and the backers to notice that women’s films do make money. And once they admit that, then they’ll green-light more women’s films. It’s not like women aren’t writing them. Women are writing them. They’re not being green-lit. So hopefully people like Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts, who have real power, will be able to push forward more stories that they want to do.

Do you watch shows like Girls or Mindy Project or New Girl?

MT: I’ve looked at them all, and I admire them, but I don’t, no, I don’t watch them every week.

You also have a book coming out soon.

MT: I do. It’s called It Ain’t Over…Till It’s Over. It’s based on a very successful hit series that I do on my website, marlothomas.com, called It Ain’t Over…Till It’s Over. Women just love it — it’s a wonderful series about women starting over from 35 on up.

What’s next for you after this book?

MT: Well, I also do a series on the web called Mondays with Marlo. And we’re just about to have our 100th show [on March 17], and my guest for the 100th is Chelsea Clinton. I’ve never met her. I campaigned for her mother. I’ve done a lot of work for Hillary through the years, and for Bill Clinton. But it’s the first time I will be meeting Chelsea. I admire the fact that she’s getting out there on her own and finding her niche in the world, which is very hard to do when you have famous parents. God knows I know that, but I only had one famous parent; she has two famous parents! So it’s even harder.

Will you be campaigning for Hillary if she does run?

MT: Absolutely. I can’t wait. I hope she runs. I definitely will be campaigning for Hillary.

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