Marlo Thomas: "It's amazing the impact 'Free to Be ...' had. Yet nobody followed it up. It's gone bad"

The feminist icon and former TV star talks about her pride in the movement, and her grief over how we've regressed

Published February 26, 2013 4:45PM (EST)

Marlo Thomas   (Reuters/Gus Ruelas)
Marlo Thomas (Reuters/Gus Ruelas)

Before “Girls,” “New Girl” and “2 Broke Girls,” there was “That Girl.” First premiering in 1966, it was the first sitcom about a single woman who wanted a career — an unprecedented feminist concept for TV at the time —  pitched by its star, who just happened to be carrying a copy of "The Feminine Mystique" with her to the meeting.

Hers is only one story from the huge, multifaceted women’s movement chronicled in the new three-hour documentary “Makers: Women Who Make America,” airing Tuesday night on PBS, which profiles women on the front lines of the 50-year struggle for women’s rights. Marlo Thomas, who starred as Anne Marie, the title role of ”That Girl,” appears in each of the three hours of the documentary — Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem are the other two stars of the documentary.

Years after her sitcom ended, we watch as Thomas speaks at a rally for the Equal Rights Amendment, the proposed amendment to the Constitution to guarantee equal rights for women that passed in Congress and the Senate in 1972, but failed to get enough states to ratify it by the 1982 deadline (thanks to anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, who succeeded in getting conservatives to shut it down). Behind the scenes, Thomas co-founded, with Steinem, the Ms. Foundation in 1973, which took on everything from economic justice to ending violence against women. Thomas, with the sponsorship of the Ms. Foundation, created the now-classic album and ensuing TV special, “Free to Be … You and Me” (which just celebrated its 40th anniversary), enlisting the big stars of the day, like Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson, Michael Jackson singing about self-acceptance, football player Rosey Grier (who told boys that it's all right to cry), and Alan Alda (who said it was OK for boys to play with dolls).

“Makers” co-executive producer Betsy West says she, like most people, was aware of Thomas’ roles in “That Girl” and “Free to Be,” “but I don't think we realized until we did the research the role that Marlo played in the movement throughout.”

Salon had the opportunity last month to talk to Thomas, now a youthful-looking 75, who spoke about the era and her lifelong activism for women.

You suggested the idea of “That Girl” while carrying a copy of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.” Was it your first show?

I had done a lot of things, but I had done a pilot for ABC called ‘Two's Company" — not "Three's Company," "Two's Company" — and it didn't sell. But Clairol saw it and told ABC that they would like to have a show that starred me that they could sponsor, so the network called me and said, "You have a sponsor, you have a network, and now you've got to come up with a show."  So I was thrilled. I was 22 years old. So they sent me a bunch of scripts and they were all about being the daughter of somebody, the wife of somebody, the secretary of somebody. I said, "I don't understand. Why can't you do a show about a girl who's the somebody?"  And he literally looked at me as if I was talking in Swahili. He literally didn't know what I was talking about. He said, "Do you think anybody would watch a show like that?" And I said I think they would, and I pulled "The Feminine Mystique" out of my bag and said, "Read this, this is what's happening, this is where it's going." And he did read it. I think I really hit a nerve in him. Whenever you sell something to a network, you've hit a nerve in somebody. That's how you sell something to anybody. That's how I sell St. Jude's to donors and to sponsors: You have to see what this is, feel it. And I think he felt it because of his daughters. 

But it took a year or so to come up with a show, and I went to London to do "Barefoot in the Park" for almost a year and by the time I came back we made the pilot. We based the show on my life. I was a college graduate who wanted to be an actress, whose parents were afraid of her losing her virginity, whose parents didn't want her moving out of the house. My mother almost had a heart attack when I said I wanted to move out after college and get my own apartment. I think the most important thing, and I'm sorry I didn't say this in the ["Makers"] special, is that everybody thought this was a revolutionary show: A girl doesn't want to be married, a girl who wants to get a job, a girl who doesn't want to live at home, who wants to live on her own, have her own apartment. And it was seen by all these men as a revolutionary idea.

But the fact is when I went on, the first night we got a 40 share, which nobody gets today anyway, but we were a gigantic hit and it's because she was not really a revolutionary figure, she was a fait accompli, she was in every home in America. Every home in America had a "That Girl" in it. Every girl wanted to get out, and have a dream and go for it, and maybe not get married, and maybe not do all those things right away and find a career. That to me is the excitement of what "That Girl" did. What was bubbling under the earth with Gloria Steinem doing what she was doing in New York and what Betty Freidan was writing about, what Bella Abzug was fighting about, what Erica Jong was writing about, I was doing, we were all doing it at the same time; it was all happening at the same time and that's what created this thing called the movement. We were all there at the same time. Nobody knew anybody. And that's what's exciting to me about it, is that it became a tsunami, it became this wave that everybody rode.  

When did you meet some of these other women?

I met Gloria in '68. An agent brought us together with the idea that I should play the Playboy bunny thing that she did. She had done this exposé of the Playboy bunnies and the meeting did not go well. I had never met Gloria before, by now I had read about her and she had seen my show, so we had this admiration from afar because we each saw what the other one was doing. But we sat down and we were in our 26-year-old glory with the wild hair and the big eyelashes and we were sitting opposite this man, and he looked at us and said, "My God, I don't know which one of you of you I want to f--- first." We both just, honest to God, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't even hear what he said after that. I absolutely hated him. I couldn't wait to get out of that room, and then Gloria and I went out for a drink and became friends. We both deflated at the same time. And that's what we were living with. That's how people talked to women. Who would ever do such a thing now? Nobody would ever dare to do such a thing. Anyway, I think that probably bonded us, we really became friends after that.

"That Girl" remained popular throughout its run. During its time, did anybody ask, Why doesn't she get married?

Oh, yeah. I wanted to quit after five years. I'd done it for five years and I felt I wasn't a girl; I was more of a woman. I was approaching 30 and it was like: OK, I'm out of here. I just felt I couldn't do the same thing anymore. So they said, if we're going to end the show, let's end it with a wedding. And I wouldn't do that. I had talked on so many shows about her independence and for so many shows not getting married, and having a job and having her own life. "I want my own life" -- I must have said that like 100 times. That the idea of suggesting to the girls who loved "That Girl," to say that the only happy ending is a wedding, I just couldn't do it. 

By the time the show was over, do you think things had changed in the world?

It was going pretty well. It was '71. "Mary Tyler Moore" came on (in 1970), and then "Kate & Ally." And in television, the graph is pretty clear: "Kate & Ally" was a big jump, to have two single women be mothers, that was pretty interesting. And the next one after that I thought was a good jump was "Roseanne," as an angry mother who kicked her kids around, that was really interesting. And then '"Cagney & Lacey," two women cops. And the payoff, I think, is "Murphy Brown," the woman who's an alcoholic, has a baby out of wedlock, screams at her staff.  In the "That Girl" day, everybody loved Anne Marie. The postman loved Anne Marie. She was just as good as good could be. To get all the way to "Murphy Brown," who didn't have to be likable, who screamed at everybody, had babies out of wedlock, and was an alcoholic, I mean, can you imagine? Poor little Anne Marie didn't even sleep with her boyfriend.

Was "That Girl" over by the time you did "Free to Be … You and Me"?

Yes, it was  two years later. First I did a television special called "Acts of Love and Other Comedies," which was great because I played six different women in different situations of their life. The last was a woman having a baby, and the woman saying to the baby, "You'll be a better person if I work, really. You'll be so much happier. You'll grow up to be a person who really respects work." She's got tears running down her face, trying to convince her infant that the child would be a better person if she let her work. It was really a wonderful, wonderful show. 

There really is a thread through your work.

There is. I'm a feminist through and through.

And '"Free to Be … You and Me" raised the consciousness of a generation.

I'm very proud of it. 

Have you seen the effects of it?

Not enough. Not in entertainment. I'd like to see more. Somebody asked me if I was gratified that there were so many new "Girl" shows out now -- "2 Broke Girls" and '"New Girl" and everything but "That Girl." I said yeah, but that's taken quite a while to get to that. But the one that surprises me is "Free to Be."  Because "Free to Be" had such a giant impact. It was in 35 states in the school curriculum. It won every award possible: Emmys, Peabodies, whatever, Grammy, everything you can imagine. Bestselling book. Platinum record. And people talk about it, they quote it, they sing it. I go to a network and a network executive will come out and sing to me, "It's Alright to Cry." And he's like 35 or 40 years old. It's amazing the impact it had. And yet nobody followed it up.  Twelve years later we did another one called "Free to Be a Family" which was good, but it didn't hit the same nerve as "Free to be You and Me" did. "Free to Be You and Me" really hit a gigantic nerve. 

And it made a difference in the toy aisle: Suddenly, Barbie could be a doctor; boys could cook.

But it's gone bad. The pink aisles and the blue aisles. I almost had a heart attack, I swear to God. I don't know what the hell's happened. I don't know what happened. It's like, what?!? The princesses started it, I think. My husband has two grandchildren, 16 and 17, and in the last 12 to 13 years I've been struggling with the toys, and not giving her any princess stuff, and not giving him any violent stuff. And it's not like I expect him to play with the doll and her to play with a truck, I don't even care about that. I just want to keep her out of the princess dress and keep him out of the violent toys. And I've given them all kinds of books and games and iPads and iPhones and all kinds of things you shouldn't even give a child, just to keep them out of it. And still they're going to find those violent games. They're going to find it. They all play it.

You appear throughout "Makers" -- even speaking near the end at a rally for the Equal Rights Amendment.

I traveled with Betty Ford for the ERA and I spoke in front of the congressional committees for the displaced homemakers and not valuing women's work in the home. I did a lot of that. And I marched in every march there was. I marched in Chicago, I marched in L.A., in New York. There's so many things in between. It really should be a six-hour special because there's so much each in decade, each five years, there's so much that happened. When I was watching it, I was very emotional. Because it was like watching my life go by. I kvelled -- it's a Yiddish word; I'm Lebanese but I know all these Yiddish words -- I had such pride about the fact about what we accomplished, and sorrow at what we failed at doing, and wonderful memories of the camaraderie of women of all economic classes, and races and ages.  I remember marching, I'm in my 20s, with a woman 70 years old. I was marching with black women and Hispanic women, and holding babies. I don't think there's anything more exciting than when people rise and take to the streets. I mean it just thrills me when I see it in any country. It's just a thrill. Because people are so apathetic, they're so beaten down, and hopeless: "Oh, we can't beat the government. We can't beat the system. The laws don't matter. What's the point of voting?" All that kind of apathy goes on all over the world and then when you see somebody fight for the vote, and have a ballot box in a country, my God, it's such a drama. You see these little paper ballot boxes and the hands going in, it just makes you want to cry. And I get so angry with friends of mine who don't vote. I say: How can you not vote? There are people across the world actually dying, actually being shot for going to a ballot box and you just can't be bothered? You don't think you make a difference? Are you crazy?

“Makers: Women Who Made America” premieres on PBS on Feb. 26.

By Roger Catlin

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