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Marlo Thomas: 'Free to Be' Then and Now

Long-ago project meant lasting change for a generation

FREE TO BE AT 40: In this video and accompanying article Marlo Thomas explains how and why she created the album Free to Be ... You and Me, which was released in November 1972 to great acclaim and soon inspired a book, television special, stage play and more. Four decades later, the album is still a favorite among children — and their parents.


I have never been one to wallow in the past — good or bad — but recently quite a fuss was made about this big anniversary of mine. Decades ago, I launched an album (and, later, a book and a TV special ) that set out to assure children they could achieve anything, no matter their gender or race. When the 40th anniversary arrived recently, reporters wrote stories about Free to Be, academics held panel discussions, and two historians even published a book. So I had no choice but to look back, and it made me realize how connected that project is to me — and vice versa.

I think age allows us to do that. Whether we're remembering an important merit badge we earned or recalling that first political campaign we volunteered for, reflecting on youthful accomplishments gives us a vivid glimpse into the values that formed us.

In the case of Free to Be, I was trying to share a new perspective with my 4-year-old niece, Dionne. I loved to read to her, but all of her books seemed to scream of an older, narrower time — with the same old princesses and the princes who could make their dreams come true. I wanted to create an entertainment for kids that would ignite their minds with possibility.

So I got together some pals — writers, actors, musicians — and posed a question: What would we have wanted to know about the world when we were little? Playwright Herb Gardner confessed that he had been ashamed to shed tears as a boy, so composer Carole Hall wrote the song "It's Alright to Cry." I rejected boilerplate happily-ever-afters, so author Betty Miles gave a new spin to the Greek myth of Atalanta, in which a princess must marry the winner of a footrace. (Our princess decides for herself whether to marry at all.) The album was designed to help kids cast off old ways of thinking and embrace their wildest dreams. We wanted a pint-size revolution!

And we got it. The Free to Be record went platinum, and the project became a centerpiece of a cultural movement that saw seismic changes in the perception of gender and racial roles. But what has surprised me is the depth of its impact: I am frequently approached by grownups who tell me how Free to Be helped them follow uncharted paths in their own lives.

As I reflect on that exciting time, I realize that all of us involved in it saw something we wanted to change; our passion and deep belief in that change are what drove us. We all do this in smaller but no less significant ways every day — in the new jobs we choose to take, in the new challenges we choose to tackle. And whether those choices turn out exactly the way we planned them is almost immaterial. The fact that we make them is what's really important. And, in the end, that's what makes all of us Free to Be.

Actress, author and activist Marlo Thomas blogs at marlothomas.com.

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