Three Tales of Feminism and Friendship

Over the course of her esteemed career, Distinguished Professor Nancy K. Miller (The Graduate Center, CUNY) has authored more than a dozen books, taught French, comparative literature, and autobiographical criticism, and co-founded the Gender and Culture series at Columbia University Press, to name just a few things on her resume.

But those accomplishments, while reflective of her passion for scholarship and writing, didn’t happen in a vacuum. Miller got by with a little help from her friends: the powerhouse scholars and writers Carolyn Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, and Diane Middlebrook.

Sadly, beginning in the 21st century, all three passed away within just seven years, leaving Miller not only bereft but lost. “Suddenly, these people I completely relied for my sense as a writer and an academic were gone,” she says.

In her new book, My Brilliant Friends, Miller recounts those three friendships, especially the feminist underpinnings which helped each woman navigate the fraught nature of academia at the time.

When Miller began pursuing her Ph.D. in French at Columbia in the ‘70s, academia was still largely a boys club. “The French Department had one tenured woman,” Miller says. “She was marginalized, and that did not look like it was going to change.”

The hope, for many women, lay in their writing. While studying 18th-century French literature, Miller met Schor, an assistant professor who was teaching 19th-century French literature. “She took her work really seriously,” Miller says. “When I saw that she was passionate about these subjects, it was a kind of intensity I had never encountered about writing, about creating a book, and about having ideas.”

Nancy K. Miller and friend Naomi Schor
Nancy K. Miller and Naomi Schor

Schor’s passion helped Miller recognize and pursue her own. More than that, she found a friend with whom to share equally pressing personal concerns. “Relationships and work did not seem like an obvious combination,” she explains. “There was a strain about whether or not you could be happy and have a relationship and also get your work done. We were constantly struggling with that.”

Part memoir, part biography, part philosophical inquiry into the nature of friendship, My Brilliant Friends employs several narrative forms. “I had been teaching memoir, I had been reading memoir, and I thought, ‘This is my life, but these are also stories,’” Miller says.  

The result is an honest look at the necessity and nuance of friendship. As she writes, that very connection let them grow “into ourselves together.”

Miller will be on a panel about The Graduate Center’s new M.A. in Biography & Memoir, taking place March 6.

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Explore This Work

My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism
Columbia University Press, 2019

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Nancy K. Miller (Distinguished Professor, English, Comparative Literature, French) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

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The Graduate Center

Bonus Content

"My Feminist Friends" (GC News)
"Nancy K. Miller and the “pals of her desk”" (Indoor Voices Podcast)
"Interview with Nancy K. Miller" (The Thought Project)