Friday, March 14, 2014

Context Matters: Or How to Fisk the Hell Out of Stupid People (History Edition).

Spring is always a busy time here in history-teacher land.  There are classes to teach, papers to grade, and people that are wrong the internet who need to be corrected.  So we have to kill two birds with one stone today and talk about an important history skill and correct somebody who needs more correction than all the spelling mistakes in a second-grade classroom.  Fasten your seat belts, folks; it's a two-fer Friday!

Today's important history skill is context.  Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke identified Context as one of the 5 Cs of Historical Thinking along with Change Over Time, Causality, Contingency and Complexity. (If you haven't seen that article before, read the whole thing, I'll wait).   Context means, among other things, understanding a primary document within it's time frame and how both the author and the audience derived meaning from it.  It means putting aside your agenda, and trying to get into the minds of the people of the time.  It's a really important skill for historians and history students.  And apparently Christina Hoff Sommers missed all the classes in it, or forgot them when she wrote this tripe for Time magazine. [1]

Philosophers, it should be noted, are not known for liking context, having a preference for the universal and timeless.   Maybe that's why she baselessly claimed that Free To Be You and Me was created as a piece of media propaganda designed to create a genderless world.  Sommers was born in 1950 which means she's old enough to remember Free to Be when it came out but too old to have been in the target demographic.  I was born almost two decades later, and not only was I in the target demographic, I practically was the test audience.  Free to Be started as a column in Ms. Magazine called Stories for Free Children.  I know because my mom carefully clipped them out of her issue every month and gave them to me and I read them all (or she read them to me).  And I liked them.  In 1972 if you were a boy who was skinny and uncoordinated, there wasn't a whole lot out there in boy culture for you.  Stories for Free Children helped fill that gap.  They were funny, they were touching, and they never talked down to you or preached at you.  They were just stories about people trying to be themselves and the moral was usually just that:  be yourself.  So when Free to Be appeared on TV with it's iconic theme song (a song so influential college post punk bands would cover it twenty years later and if anybody can score me a copy of the Walt Mink version have at it). 

So let's look at how Sommers misreads the context of Free To Be.  First there is the assertion that Free to Be's main goal was to create gender-free children.  For evidence, she points to a dialogue between two babies wherein the boy wants to be a cocktail waitress and the girl a fireman.  Except she neglects to mention that the babies are voiced by Mel Brooks and Marlo Thomas and the skit is clearly played for laughs.   (Watch it here if you don't believe me).   She also targets Ladies First, which is not about destroying concepts femininity but about pulling your own weight and acting appropriate in a given context.  And again, played for laughs.  She somehow ignored Carol Channing's tour de force takedown on housework.  These stories used comedy and exaggeration to challenge stereotypes - not advocate for a genderless world.  Let's remember what school looked like in 1974. Around 1974, my gym teacher told me girls couldn't be captains for choosing sides in gym (mom called the principal).  In 1974, most girls had extremely limited opportunities to play sports at all.  In 1971, less than 300,000 girls played sports and comprised less than 1% of varsity athletes.  In 2012-13 over 3 million girls played sports in high school and comprising about 40 percent of high school athletes.   That's a pretty hefty increase. But hey, that's just sports, right?  What about the real world?  In 1970, only 10 percent of doctors were women, now it's a third.  In 1970, only 5 percent of lawyers were women, now it's a third.  Women, weren't in those professions in part because of sexism in admissions, but in part because people actively discouraged women from joining those fields.  That's why we needed Free to Be You and Me.  So that

"every boy in this land, grows to be his own man
every girl in this land, grows to be her own woman...

to a land where the horses run free
to a land where the children run free
where you and me are free to be you and me."

It wasn't about making girls play with trucks or making boys play with dolls.  It was about letting kids make up their minds and exercise agency over their lives.  It was about the ability to dream your own future and try to bring it into reality.  It was an important and valuable dream then.  And it still is now.  Sommers does real violence to the past when she claims that Free to Be was something that it clearly was not.  And she diminishes the very real impact the show had and the real change it helped effect.  Sommers is a bad, bad historian.  And she's a bad historian because she doesn't understand context.  But that's ok, the most popular track from the album can help her out.  Take it away two-time pro-bowler, member of the Fearsome Foursome, dude who captured RFK assassin Sirhan Sirhan and all-around general bad-ass and needlepoint god Rosey Grier: 

[1] Sommers, you might remember, is the former Philosophy professor who managed to single-handedly set back media attention on problems in boys' education by blaming feminism rather than (as she later admitted in the new edition) misguided policies often framed as "zero-tolerance".


  1. Yes! Thank you. It sounds like we are about the same age, you and I. And when I read Ms. Hoff's essay, the first thing I thought was, "This woman has no clue about the 1970's."

    For what it's worth, I was skinny and uncoordinated in the 70's, too. :-D

  2. Well met!

    The only good thing that gender stereotypes ever did for me, was motivate my activism. Even as a child of 4 I could tell it was wrong not to give me the same opportunities as my brother (from toy cars, to running around with no shirt, to being excluded from fishing). What I didn't understand was why my simple, straightforward arguments for fair treatment were flippantly ignored. Consequently, I did my first feminist activism (ERA Walkathon) by myself when I was 11.

  3. Meanwhile, I completely missed Free to Be, most likely because we didn't have a TV in my house. Your 70s are not my 70s, bwana. First time I heard it, or even heard of it, was when someone played a record of it in college--which I found grating.

  4. Thanks for the comments all! And welcome to Butterflies and Wheels readers!

  5. Withy, I'm not surprised you found it grating. At the same time, our shared 70s doesn't involved a mass movement of people trying to create genderless kids. The music doesn't hold up all that great. Sommers is just making that crap up because.... deadlines?