Children’s album Free to Be … You and Me (1972), plus a subsequent book and television special, used kids’ songs and stories to promote gender neutrality and combat stereotyping, focusing in particular on girls’ potential. Conceived and produced by actor and author Marlo Thomas after she was unable to find gender-neutral books for her niece, and starring performers such as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Mel Brooks and Alan Alda, the record unexpectedly went platinum.
Leta Hong Fincher, author of books including this year’s Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China and 2014’s Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China , explains how it changed her life.
My Chinese immigrant mother bought this album for me and my brother when we were very little, living in the United States. She grew up in Vietnam and went to college in Taiwan, then she came to the US to do her PhD, where she met my father. I don’t have many childhood memories, but I do remember going out with my mother and buying it.
I thought I wouldn’t possibly be able to name just one influence on me, but then I realised that I listened to this album just constantly during preschool.
Free to Be … You and Me was a big part of my childhood and a part of the women’s rights movement, at a time when it was pretty strong in the US. I got to know a lot about the movement from my mother. I was strongly influenced by my mother, who was very progressive and unusual, a pioneer for her time.
There are some incredible performers on the album – it’s a great work of art. It wasn’t until I was well into my teenage years that I realised that these were important life lessons. As a child, I just thought it was great fun.
I memorised every song on the album. Not just the songs, but also the skits. There is a monologue called Ladies First [performed by Thomas and written by children’s author Shel Silverstein, about a girl who insists on always being allowed to go first for everything], and I ended up performing it a few times.
Both of my parents were China scholars, so we went to China a lot. When I was 13, my parents were visiting scholars at Peking University for a couple of months, and my mother encouraged me to recite Ladies First on stage in front of all these university students, even though a lot of them didn’t speak English.
I can still remember the Ladies First monologue and a lot of the title song, by [British folk-pop group] The New Seekers.
I have two children, now 12 and 15. I bought the album when the anniversary edition came out [in 2007, to mark the album’s 35th anniversary]. They enjoyed it, but not as much as I did.