In my ears

Smart Women by Judy Blume

13 May 2024

For the past couple of weeks, I have been listening to a chick-lit audiobook by Judy Blume. She’s best known writing books for kids and teenagers, not adults. This adult novel, Smart Women, was set (and written) in the early 1980s. We all have an idea of what life was like for women during this period. Who would want to relive it?

But I had two reasons for choosing this book. First, I loved Blume’s books as a young adolescent. I read all her books. She has an honest, clear voice and a knack for creating memorable, believable characters. Second, my daughter was in a locally produced musical last summer, 9 to 5, which primed me to be interested in reading a book set during this period. For some reason, it seems acceptable to read historical fiction from World War II and before, maybe even the 1960s or 1970s. But I almost felt like I had to apologize for reading/listening to a book about women set in the 1980s. But I didn’t let that stop me.

If I’m being honest, I have always resented feeling the backlash sting resulting from the women of the 80s wanting to “have it all.” Having it all also meant doing it all—family life, career, and passion for life, right? An impossible, exhausting trifecta. And why were we pushed by the women before us to strive for this? While listening to Blume’s novel, for the first time I wondered whether, by saying they “wanted it all,” maybe, instead, these women meant that they wanted all the options available—choices and opportunities.

Because this book was written during the period it depicts, I feel that it is a more honest look at what women were really thinking during that time. In the audiobook version of Smart Women, Blume reads her own introduction, penned for the republished edition. She explains why she wrote Smart Women, her choice of setting (Boulder, CO), and what “freedom” meant to her and other women at that time, including the ability to “have it all.” Blume wrote, “Freedom didn’t mean freedom from responsibility, because we had children and most of us cared deeply about them. Maybe it meant freedom to make our own decisions, to make our own mistakes.”

That gives me the inkling that the women of the 80s already knew that having it all at once wasn’t the answer because then they would have to do it all. They wanted rights, freedom from restricting social norms, but not necessarily an endless amount of work without help.

And as for the women who came after them (me!)—did I mistakenly hold the torch too high? Again, I must ask ask myself, did I misconstrue “having it all”? Did I misinterpret our mothers’ actions, thinking that they were working and challenging social norms to pave the way for us to have it all? Could they have been just pushing for more, which to them symbolically meant having it all?

I bought copies of Smart Women to send to a couple of my close friends. I’m interested to hear their thoughts. Don’t get me wrong—Blume’s book is a great beach read. I laughed, and I cried. But Smart Women also reminded me that, like women of my generation, the women before me didn’t have all the answers. And, now, I don’t believe that they were even pretending to have all the answers.