The Intersection of Roe v. Wade and “Free to Be You and Me”

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.

You can find guest contributor Sarah Buttenwieser on Twitter at @standshadows and at her blog, Standing in the Shadows.

 Image via iStockPhoto/Pathathai Chungyam

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Charlize Theron, Mad Max, Hollywood and women's age
Psst! You Can’t Handle the Truth About Women!
Betty Draper is Finally Likable. There’s Just One Problem With That.
bitchy resting face, resting bitch face, plastic surgery, cure for bitchy resting face
11 Feminist Ways to Cure “Bitchy Resting Face” That Don’t Involve Plastic Surgery
Mad Men finale, Mad Men and women
Six Months, 65 Episodes: What I Learned Catching Up With “Mad Men”
Josh Duggar, Sexual molestation, 19 Kids and Counting
Josh Duggar, Mike Huckabee & the Complicated Relationship the South Has with Sin & Denial
women's reproductive health, birth control
When Good Men Need Convincing on Women’s Repro Health
wife bonus, working mothers, mommy wars
Wife Bonuses, Mad Men and The Mommy Wars
Waco biker gang violence, Baltimore, Freddie Gray, police violence, police response
Waco vs. Baltimore: What’s Wrong With This Picture?
Yearbook Quotes of the 2016 Presidential Candidates
Hillary Clinton tears, Hillary Clinton 2016, The Hunting of The President, Bill Clinton,
The Secret Weapon for a Hillary 2016 Victory? Channeling Her Inner Queen Elsa
Dad-bod, #dadbod, Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley, shirtless Martin O'Malley, politics
Watch Out, Hillary. Here Comes Shirtless Martin O’ Malley!
Baltimore and Freddie Gray, police violence, racism, racial tensions in Baltimore
The Real Action Baltimore Needs in the Wake of Freddie Gray
women's reproductive health, birth control
When Good Men Need Convincing on Women’s Repro Health
wife bonus, working mothers, mommy wars
Wife Bonuses, Mad Men and The Mommy Wars
Waco biker gang violence, Baltimore, Freddie Gray, police violence, police response
Waco vs. Baltimore: What’s Wrong With This Picture?
mindfulness app, designated worrier, mom as designated worrier, Headspace, Judith Shulevitz
In Our Era of the “Designated Worrier,” Mindfulness Apps Are the Future
yoga, work/life balance
The Pose You Don’t Want Is the One You Need
The author and her father in 1968
Coming to Terms With an Abusive Father
Mother's Day, imperfect mothers, imperfect daughters, mothers and daughters, family relationships
To Mom, Warts and All
Mother's Day, parent with Alzheimer's, dysfunctional families
What She Gave Me: A Mother’s Day Reflection
Amy Schumer’s Brilliant Take on Sexism and “Women of a Certain Age”
The Space Between Love and Fear
sexual women on TV, sexual role models
Powerful Sexual Female Role Models of a “Certain Age”
reinvention culture, Oprah and reinvention, More Magazine and reinvention, women stop reinventing yourselves
Reinvention Culture is Killing Me

Get our new weekly email
Broadly Speaking

featuring our best words for the week + an exclusive longread