There’s a land that I see where the children are free, and I say it ain’t far from the land where we are. Come with me, take my hand and we’ll live…in a land where you and me are free to be, you and me.
If you recognize this musical lyric, then you were most likely raised in America in the early 70’s, and there’s a good chance you were a girl. This verse is from the opening song to a compilation of stories and songs published in 1972 that worked to promote gender equality, celebrate individual differences and encourage tolerance. The idea came from the actress and social activist, Marlo Thomas (That Girl, at the time) who apparently was looking for stories for her young niece yet couldn’t find anything that lived up to the values she wanted to instill. With the help of Gloria Steinem’s then nascent Ms. Foundation for Women, Thomas recruited a crew of stars to collaborate, lend their name to and back the project. Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Harry Belafonte, Carole Channing, Shel Silverstein, Alan Alda, Sheldon Harnick were among the luminaries involved.
It’s stunning to me that with this star power behind it, the album has not been more enduring. A few of us have passed it on, but in terms of broad impact, it seems to have lasted about one generation at best. Musicals and movies from this period involving lesser known names and more mundane themes have had a more lasting following among a broader audience than Free to be You and Me.
Perhaps, as one friend remarked to me, the message was soon no longer needed. Today, boys playing with dolls isn’t a big deal. More realistically, I expect, the practical implications of the message were too easy to sweep under the rug and ignore. And, while we loved our daughters being raised with Free to be You and Me’s message, fewer were comfortable exposing their sons.
I can’t say that my mother was much of a feminist – if she was, she kept it to herself, my father –certainly not; but, somehow I came into possession of the book and record. I was 7 years old when it came out, and I consider it to be one of the first examples of pop culture that I was aware would shape my identity. The themes, the stories, they struck a chord with me. I listened to it endlessly.
This was a world I was going to experience: one in which gender did not determine how I acted or what I would grow up to be; one where having to wear white gloves need not confine me to the expectations of being a quiet and obedient “lady;” one in which differences instead of conformity were valued. One in which boys can cry and girls can be firemen. One in which young girls could train to be a brave knight and then go off traveling the world instead of leaving adventure behind to put on a dress and get married. I remember imagining how my life would be so different from the one generations of women before me experienced.
On the one hand, my world is very different then that which generations before me encountered. The very fact that I stand here on this bema doing this job is testament to that fact. There were no women in the Rabbinate or the Cantorate when I first listened to Marlo Thomas and her crew. I may have grown up watching independent single women such as That Girl, Mary Tyler Moore, and that other Rhoda, but there were few women in my world living out that vision. It was still, in large part, a TV land fantasy. And even then, That Girl had to have Donald, the perpetual fiancé in the background; and, so much of Mary and Rhoda’s adventures were consumed with dating and finding a mate.
Our world has certainly changed. Today, women are welcome in an array of professions that my mother couldn’t have imagined. I recall an interview with the comedienne Jane Curtin where she commented that while she worked steadily, in the public eye even, throughout the 70’s, she couldn’t, as a women, get a credit card in her own name. Yes, the world has changed. But, in so many ways, our world is not nearly different enough from the year Free to be You and Me was published.
Phrases like “man up” still pepper our dialogue. Lack of parity exists in salaries for men and women working in the same professions. And, despite Carol Channing’s insistence that everyone hates housework, even the “lady we see smiling on TV,” women still find themselves burdened with the lion’s share of household duties even as they have entered the paid workforce in greater numbers. Studies indicate that in cases where women do less housework, it isn’t so much due to a sharing of tasks, but rather the tasks now don’t get done.
Why over four decades after the publication and release of Free to be You and Me are we still grappling with the very issues it strove to tackle? I believe a large reason is that most of its listeners were girls. In an attempt to obtain some anecdotal evidence on this matter, I turned to Facebook. Out of 48 women who responded to my query (by 11 PM last night), 43 knew of the project. Most of them replied with enthusiastic comments such as “loved it,” “raised my kids on it,” or “still singing it.” Only 24 men responded, a possible sign in and of itself that it was less known or less memorable among men; though, clearly that is just conjecture. Of those 24, 13 recalled it and 11 did not. A couple claimed to grow up with it. While this is far from a scientific study -- the PhD part of my brain is screaming: “how dare I put this in my sermon,” -- it does appear to indicate that girls were far more likely to be have been raised on these songs then boys. Interestingly, too, one 19-year old woman, born of course long after its release, replied that she heard about it in a Women’s Studies class. No wonder it’s impact was less than we might have hoped. How can we expect to create meaningful change with only half an audience?
Our Torah portion, Behar, demands u’karatem dror ba’aretz l’chol yoshveha, you shall proclaim liberty (as we now translate it) in the land to all of its inhabitants. This verse became emblematic of liberty in this country beginning in the early decades of the 19th century. It was taken up as a slogan of the abolitionist movement, which can be credited with popularizing the name The Liberty Bell for that iconic American symbol of liberty that is adorned with this biblical verse from our Torah and sits today on Independence Mall in Philadelphia.
The intention of that verse clear: L’chol yoshve-ha, this release, this liberty, was not intended for only one segment of the population. It was meant for all of us. We can’t achieve parity across society if we only address parts of that society. Whether we are advocating for justice in the way we treat individuals of different genders, races, or sexual orientations, we must address the entire community in order to create meaningful change; otherwise, too many miss the message.
Gender equality is not a woman’s issue. Racial equality is not an African-American issue. LGBT rights and marriage equality are not homosexual issues. These are human rights issues. We, l’chol yoshveha, all of us who dwell here, are responsible for addressing them; and frankly, when we stand back, ignore, and/or refrain from being part of the solution, we contribute to the problem. We may not be eager to face that reality, but our lack of action matters as much as the actions we take. The only way in which we can create meaningful change and long lasting justice, is by making a commitment to pursue justice l’chol yoshveha, to all the inhabitants of our society. We must be willing to provide equal opportunities, and we must work to nurture a culture of equal expectation and entitlement. We must be willing to engage in what we too often perceive as someone else’s problems and not our own. We must own them so that we can begin to remedy them.
Over 40 years ago, Marlo Thomas imagined a land … where all would be free. She could see it, it ain’t far from the land where we are, lyricist Bruce Hart wrote for her. Sadly, I fear we are farther from it than we should be. I expect we are much farther from it than the cast of writers and performers who participated in the Free to Be You and Me project imagined for the year 2015. I hope we are learning. I hope we on are way to getting there. I hope we leave a world where our children and their children can indeed not only see it, but experience justice. Only then will they truly be free to be, you and me.