Berkshire County resident Letty Cottin Pogrebin talks about her collaboration with 'Free to Be You and Me,' which is marking its 40th anniversary.
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — Forty years after "Free To Be ... You and Me" began challenging gender stereotypes, there are myriad examples of strides made by the women's movement in America.
And almost just as many examples of how far that movement has to go.
Three collaborators from the groundbreaking "Free To Be" project — Marlo Thomas, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Alan Alda — will talk about the triumphs and challenges of the last four decades in a panel discussion on Sunday at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.
Actress and activist Thomas created "Free To Be," which began as an album of children's songs celebrating inclusion and expanded to include a book, television specials and a play.
One of her first creative partners was Pogrebin, the founding editor of Ms. magazine, who met Thomas through Gloria Steinem.
"I met with Letty and it was instantly obvious that we were soul mates," Thomas writes on the website of the Free To Be Foundation. "We both wanted to save the world and agreed the place to start was with its children."
Pogrebin has gone on to try to save the world in other ways, including as a co-founder of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East. But the Berkshire County resident remains an outspoken and well-known advocate for women's issues.
She took a few minutes from her busy schedule to share some thoughts about that movement and the place "Free To Be" holds in it.
Question: The 40th anniversary seems like an appropriate milestone to celebrate 'Free to Be,' but who had the idea to put together this panel, and was it difficult to coordinate everyone's schedules?
Pogrebin: It was the idea of Patty Ellis, a friend of mine and a longtime Stockbridge resident. I met Patty when we were both working on the Elizabeth Warren campaign last year.
This past winter, Patty asked if I might be able to pull together a few people from the 'Free To Be' project for an event to be held at the Mahaiwe. Since I already knew the dates when my old friends, Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda, and their spouses would be spending their annual weekend with my husband Bert and me at our Stockbridge home, I asked Marlo and Alan to be on the panel that Sunday night and they immediately agreed.
Had their visit not been on my schedule, I doubt I could have coordinated all our schedules so easily.
Q: Looking back on the project 40 years later, I wonder, first of all, if you had a sense back in 1972-73 that the basic idea would take so many different artistic forms: first the record, then the book then the TV specials, stage productions, etc. ...?
Pogrebin: I had no idea that 'Free To Be ... You and Me' would be such a success in all its incarnations. But since it was Marlo Thomas' dream and she always makes her dreams come true, I shouldn't have been suprised.
What astonishes me to this day is how timeless the message is and how enduring its appeal. We are now on our third generation of 'Free To Be' fans. Not just my children and grandchildren, but lots of grown-ups in their 30s, 40s and 50s — and their kids — can sing practically every song by heart.
Q: And, perhaps more importantly, did you have a sense in 1972 that women would still be fighting some of the same battles 40 years later?
Pogrebin: Absolutely not. I thought all of the inequities and inequalities would be solved by 1975 at the latest. I thought it was simply a matter of raising people's consciousness to the ill-effects of sexism, stereotypes and patriarchy, and that once the problem was clearly articulated everyone would rush to correct the injustices and join the revolution.
I thought laws would quickly be passed, attitudes would change and the world would be permanently altered for the better.
I never anticipated the strength of the right wing backlash or the virulent pushback on battles we thought had been won once and for all, most especially on reproductive choice.
Q: 'Free To Be' obviously played a big role in those battles and changing perceptions. With everything else that you've accomplished professionally, what kind of particular pride do you take away from this endeavor?
Pogrebin: I played a very small role in the 'Free To Be' project, having served as its editorial consultant. But I've always felt that it was one of the most meaningful interludes in my life because it had such a positive impact on so many children and families.
Q: As the father of a 7-year-old girl today, I can tell you that at least in children's literature, the stereotypical books may still be out there, but there is much more material with inclusive themes post-'Free to Be' than you must have seen when you started. Certainly in that area alone, there must be a sense of accomplishment for you and your collaborators?
Pogrebin: Children's literature is the one area where the progress has been clear and lasting. Today, kids, parents and teachers can find countless picture books that are devoid of the stereotypical nuclear family (active working dad, passive mom in apron), chapter books with strong female protagonists, biographies on accomplished women, and volumes that acknowledge women's contributions in human history, be it in the arena of science, space exploration, medicine, sports or the arts.
Q:In getting ready to frame these questions, I called up some of the animated shorts on YouTube, and I was struck by a couple of things: One was that one of the videos was preceded on YouTube by an ad for the Disney theme parks. I would think that kind of thing might grate on the creators of 'Free to Be.' Would I be right?
Pogrebin: Speaking for myself, what grates most painfully is the return of gender role ghettos in the advertising, display and packaging of toys. I absolutely cringe when I go through the toy departments or toy catalogs and see the incessant labeling of 'girls' toys and 'boys' toys and the blinding forest of pink packaging that assumes girls only want to be princesses and dress Barbie dolls and illustrations showing only boys on boxes for train sets, action toys or electronics.
We keep telling girls and boys they can be anything, but the playthings we give them suggest that we expect them to conform to the old 'feminine' and 'masculine' stereotype. In that sense, we have a long way to go to reach equality.
Q: Finally, one more question from my YouTube research. I watched the 'Princess Atalantis' short and I felt like I was watching the source material for the recent Disney feature 'Brave.' While no one would accuse Disney with its princess empire of being feminist, it must feel like a bit of a victory for the movement to see a character like 'Brave's' Merida, no?
Pogrebin: One or two breakthrough film characters does not a movement make. For every strong female protagonist, you'll find a hundred such male protagonists and the discrepancy in the number of 'bankable' movies about girls and women, animated or human, remains wide. I'm not ungrateful for the progress you cite, but I'm not willing to declare victory.
Q: Changing gears, what are you working on at the moment? Any new books in the works? Any other projects?
Pogrebin: I'm currently busy promoting my 10th book, 'How To Be a Friend to a Friend Who's Sick,' which was published in April.
The first round of my book tour took me across country twice. I've been interviewed by Phil Donahue, Leonard Nimoy and Gloria Steinem at a variety of venues. I've appeared on the 'Today' show and 'Morning Joe' and my interview with Dr. Sanjay Gupta will air on CNN within the next few weeks. This fall, I'm back on the road to make more than 40 book talks around the country.
Of local interest, I appeared at the Lenox Library in July, and I look forward to talking about my book at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox on Sunday morning, Aug. 25, at 10:30 a.m.
The live "Free To Be ... You and Me" panel discussion and audience Q&A will be held on Sunday, Aug. 18, at 7 p.m. at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $35 to $200 with proceeds to benefit the Free To Be Foundation and Mahaiwe Education programs.
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