Skip to main content

Ever since a friend called my Neapolitan Novels book club un branco di ferrantiste fanatiche (a pack of fanatical Ferrantists, for the novels' author, Elena Ferrante), I've been noticing that female friendship is having a moment in the sun. The novels, a four-part Italian series translated to English, are, together, a coming-of-age tale strongly centered on female friendship. As my own friends and I have read them, I can't help but think of the messages they hold that ring true today. 

The fascination over lifelong friendship at the heart of Ferrante's bestselling series, as well as the institution of the book club itself (and what is that other than a modern-day quilting bee or prayer circle?), shows that women are indeed "the social sex" (incidentally, the title of a wonderful new cultural study by Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown). With their emotional intensities, tell-all openness, physical affection, and eager support, female friendships make for some of the most enduring, and endearing, relationships. Who doesn't love Tina & Amy or Taylor & Karlie

Worries over our social bonds crumbling due to social media be gone. We can breathe a sigh of relief because reach-out-and-touch-someone friendship isn't going anywhere. Female friendships have proved significant for centuries, and here are four that will surprise you.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

The first was a mother of seven, the second was an imperious "spinster" who declared that "the woman who will not be ruled must live without marriage." Yet the two became fast friends after Anthony read Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments. They remained close for over half a century, both living long enough to see the reforms they worked so hard for (women's rights, the abolition of slavery, and temperance . . . okay, two out of three isn't bad).

Stanton has been called the philosopher of the women's movement, and Anthony its organizer (eventually spearheading the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment), but it's hard to think of a better example of Aristotle's maxim that "friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies." Stanton wrote of Anthony, "so closely interwoven have been our lives, our purposes, and experiences that, separated, we have a feeling of incompleteness—united, such strength of self-assertion that no ordinary obstacles, differences or dangers ever appear to us insurmountable."

Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance

Really, Lucy and Ethel? you might ask. Aren't they almost a cliché of female friendship? Well, not quite. When Vance was cast on I Love Lucy in 1951, she was roughly the same age and shape as Lucille Ball. Ball reportedly put a mandated weight gain into Vance's contract, so for her run as Ethel Mertz, Vance was made to look older, heavier, and dowdier than she actually was.

You might have bet on theirs becoming an onscreen-friendship, offscreen-rivalry, as was allegedly the case with Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall on Sex and the City. Instead, the two grew very close. Vance was a professional, and she didn't let having to carry around an extra twenty pounds stop her from appreciating Lucy's talent and the years of steady work it provided for her.

Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald

"I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt," Ella Fitzgerald was quoted as saying. After Monroe intervened to help Fitzgerald book a 1955 gig at Mocambo on L.A.'s Sunset Strip (promising she'd sit in the front row every night if they booked her), the paparazzi showed up for Monroe, heard Fitzgerald, and a star was born: "After that I never had to play a small jazz club again."

Jeanne Manon Roland and Sophie Grandchamp

Before she met Sophie Grandchamp, Madame Roland had befriended men exclusively, usually those working alongside her husband, the minister of the interior in the court of King Louis XVI. She considered women to be intellectually inferior; instead, she preferred welcoming writers and political leaders (including Robespierre) to her Paris salon, and she strongly influenced her husband's political writings.

After she helped her husband escape Robespierre's 1793 purge, Roland was jailed in his place and spent her five months in prison writing her remarkable eyewitness account of the French Revolution.

This account survives only because Sophie Grandchamp smuggled Roland's notebooks out of prison. The depth of her first female friendship seems to have taken Roland by surprise. Cured of her dismissive attitudes about women's intellectual capabilities, she not only trusted Grandchamp with her memoirs but asked her to witness her death by guillotine: "I shall at least be sure that a being worthy of me will render homage to the firmness which will not abandon me in such a dreadful ordeal."  

As you can see, the bond of female friendship is one that has survived centuries. From politics to Hollywood, there's nothing like a good girlfriend to have your back in good times and bad. 

Photo Credit via