Two distinct fortieth anniversaries are knit together in my mind this month: the Roe vs. Wade decision reaches 40 just a couple of months after Free to Be You and Me got there. One is a Supreme Court decision about the right to abortion and the other is a children’s book and record about challenging gender stereotypes, but please bear with me a moment, because I find shared inspiration there. For many of us the groove we’re stuck in like a decades-long broken record is about equality and autonomy—and both Roe and Free to Be … have evolutions that continue to keep us in perpetual motion regardless of where our beliefs “get” us.
Not to be flippant; I absolutely know a legal case and a children’s media project are in no way the same thing, nor even similar. In terms of legacy, though, there’s something to discuss.
When you learn about Roe—now an historical decision not every college student knows about—you discover that within the legal and women’s health and equal rights communities that united in the push to legalize abortion, there were all kinds of compromises and disappointments surrounding the privacy doctrine. Roe is, in truth, a decision based upon this right and that’s one of the ways access became so penetrable over the ensuing decades. The “personhood” piece of the equation, too, was flawed—and likely became more complicated than most on either side of the issue could envision in 1973, because medical technologies have taken such leaps and the viability conversation thus changed radically over the course of the latter part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The decision itself wasn’t meant for the purpose of assuring women safe, legal and accessible abortions. That was for others to attempt.
In 2013, it’s hard to celebrate the loss of funds for and access to abortion—not to mention the violence experienced at abortion clinics and toward abortion providers over these past four decades. It’s not so incredible to learn that despite all the wars about language and access, when issues are framed around whether government should make decisions about our bodies, people want to make these decisions for themselves (that’s privacy, right?). While abortion rights—and the very flawed notion of fighting for them based upon the idea of “choice” may be a limited platform — there’s a bigger, better “tent” of reproductive justice. While disheartened in so many ways, I’m personally inspired by the way people are championing access.
When you learn about the origins of Free to Be … you discover that Marlo Thomas wanted to make some stories that weren’t entirely stereotypical for her young niece and from there, a happy chain of events ensued. No one involved in the project had a fortieth anniversary in mind at the time. That the messages—William can have doll and parents are people and boys and girls can start bald or with hair and be friends—endure, in the original and in the ways they’ve inspired the lives of adults (now parents themselves) is indeed celebratory. My eldest is now 17. As a young boy, he certainly benefited from Free to Be’s influences; he was supported in his preferences for Dorothy of Oz rather than Darth Vader and books rather than wheeled anything. Free to Be … gave families access to those stories of individual choice.
Sure, in 2013, we can argue that childhood like everything else has become far more commercialized and this is not good for the Free-to-Be ethos. That gender-neutral red tricycle of yore can be found now as a retro item; merchandisers would prefer that you buy your daughter a pink tricycle and your son a blue tricycle.
It’s not only that, though. Cheryl Kilodavis wrote in the anthology When We Were Free To Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference it Made, that her Princess Boy (the book and more so, the child) owes a lot to the messages shared in 1972. Kilodavis praises the “gentle wisdom” of those messages and describes how she evolved from bullying her son into gender conformity when he first wanted to wear dresses at age two to accepting his individuality and transforming herself into his champion. Maybe there is a lesson there about how there is bullying in the discussion of reproductive rights and how we can change that.
To champion is not simply to advocate; it is, when you think about it, to believe so strongly in something—your dress-loving boy, your ability to be astronaut or simply “people” (as parents are) and the ability to have agency over your body—that you will shout to rooftops and celebrate the beauty of your passion.