Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Nancy K. Miller took place on February 10, 2007 in Miller’s office at the CUNY Graduate Center. Transcribed by David Cerniglia.
Jeffrey Williams: To start, I want to ask about the trajectory of feminist criticism in the US. It seems that you were at key places at key times—you studied French at Columbia in the early ’70s when structuralism was in its heyday, but you were part of a cohort that developed if not invented feminist literary criticism. How did you come to do the work you did?
Nancy K. Miller: I went to graduate school for a PhD in 1969. It was really the beginning of the widespread development of feminism in the United States, and I started a women’s group with my friend Hester Eisenstein in January 1971. By then I was getting ready to write my dissertation, and there had already been the March for Equality. Sexual Politics was published in August 1970, and the first issue of Ms. Magazine came out in New York Magazine in ’72. So there was this sense that something was happening. It wasn’t particularly happening at Columbia, but it was happening in New York, and I felt that I was part of something. I certainly did not take any classes that had anything to do with feminism or women writers.
In any event, there was almost nothing recognizable as feminist criticism. When I told my advisor that I was very excited about Sexual Politics because it was a model for reading men’s writing, which is what I was going to be doing in the dissertation, he said—I will never forget—”Don’t be a second-rate Kate Millett. She wasn’t first-rate to begin with.” She was a Columbia PhD and had gotten her PhD, I think, in ’69 or ’70, so that certainly set a tone.