Caitlin O'Keefe, MA ’19

Caitlin from a distance

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background before you joined the Women's History Program at Sarah Lawrence?

In 2015 I graduated from Fordham University, where I studied history and French. Upon graduating, I took a teaching position with the French Embassy’s Teaching Assistant Program in France. Throughout my time at Fordham, I had taught at the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan. My year teaching in two schools in the Académie de Paris confirmed my sense that I wanted to spend my career working in education. When my post in Paris ended, this led me to a job teaching in family programs at the New-York Historical Society. 

What made you interested in this field of study, and what prompted you to pursue a graduate degree?

Part of my job at the New-York Historical Society entailed working with the museum’s phenomenal archive each month to prepare public programs. This was a totally new experience to me. I had studied history at Fordham, but I had never worked in an archive before. I fell in love with the process of research—sifting through files, the sense of touching the past, and placing the documents in conversation with one another to create a cohesive narrative for my public programming. Within a few weeks of starting at the N-YHS, I started filling out my application for Sarah Lawrence. As an undergraduate I had always gravitated toward questions of gender in my studies. In the fall of 2016, however, I found myself thinking even more critically about gender, culture, and history. The political questions everyone I knew seemed to be asking themselves compelled me to take gender seriously in my scholarship and pushed me in the direction of women’s history. Ultimately, I felt as if women’s history was a place where I could combine my passion for history with my deep-rooted personal interest in the way that gender is discussed and the way that women are represented in history. 

Why did you choose Sarah Lawrence for your graduate studies?

I was struck by the fact that the program at Sarah Lawrence was the first one of its kind in the United States. I immediately gravitated toward being a part of an intellectual community that had been instrumental in creating and evolving the field I wanted to enter into. When I met with Mary Dillard to discuss the program, it became clear to me that the program remains a dynamic space where new scholars, activists, and historians found the room to grow. The proximity to NYC also proved to be a deciding factor. Because Sarah Lawrence is so close to Manhattan, I was able to continue teaching at the New-York Historical Society throughout the duration of the program and regularly use the nearby archives at the New York Public Library and Princeton University. In the end, I was convinced that Sarah Lawrence was the only place I wanted to start my graduate studies and was the only school I applied to. 

Who influenced you most during your time in the program?

To say that I cannot imagine my time at Sarah Lawrence without Lyde Sizer would be an understatement. To this day, I know that my work with Lyde informs the sorts of questions I ask in my research, and she remains the model of the sort of professor I hope to be one day. As the instructor of our first-year seminar, Lyde made me a more critical thinker about history and a more precise writer. As the primary adviser to my project in my second year, Lyde’s enthusiasm and support for my research helped me to continuously find the joy and life in my project, even as stressful deadlines loomed. 

What was your thesis title, and why did you choose this topic?

My thesis was entitled “Sylvia Beach and Les Amies des Livres: The Forgotten Feminist Roots of the Shakespeare and Company Lending Library.” I had a sense that I wanted to work on the 20th-century feminist movements and transnational history when I started the program. The idea to explore the foundations of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop sprang from a chance reading of an interview with Sylvia Whitman, Lauren Elkin, and Krista Halverson in the Paris Review. As they walked around Paris, they discussed the gendered way that the original Shakespeare and Company bookshop and its sister shop, La Maison des Amis des Livres, have been remembered. Because Shakespeare and Company’s founder, Sylvia Beach, published James Joyce’s Ulysses, she was remembered as a “midwife” to history, rather than an independently autonomous actor. While I was living in Paris, Shakespeare and Company was my favorite place in the city, so the story immediately caught my attention, but the question of gendered memory intrigued me. I started to dig into some of the questions that the article raised for me, and realized that through this project I could explore questions of community, culture, transnational connections, and early feminist activism. 

Describe your career path and what you are doing now.

From Sarah Lawrence, I went directly into a PhD program. I am currently a PhD student at the Institute of French Studies at New York University, where I am focusing on gender history. I hope to teach history at a college level upon completing the program. 

How did your Sarah Lawrence degree prepare you for what you are doing today?

On the most essential level, my MA research led directly into my PhD research. The subject area I chose to focus on at Sarah Lawrence, questions of gender and feminism in interwar France, has evolved into my focus at NYU. However, I find that my work at Sarah Lawrence has prepared me in less obvious ways as well. The theory and the practices that I learned at Sarah Lawrence became the foundation from which my approach to history grew. 

What is your greatest professional accomplishment?

In November 2019 I published my first article, which was based on the research I conducted at Sarah Lawrence. “The Secret Feminist History of Shakespeare and Company” was published in the New York Review of Books on the centenary of the bookshop. Since I had the opportunity to be in Paris at Shakespeare and Company for the centenary celebration, this was an especially rewarding moment. 

Do you have any advice for current or prospective students?

Personally, I found the first and second years of the program to be vastly different experiences. The first year resembles what I was used to as a history undergraduate. The seminars, classes, and historiographical papers felt familiar to me. The second year felt like entirely new terrain. The research and subsequent writing process is much more solitary and almost entirely driven by your own choices and planning. Because of this swift change between the first and second years, my biggest piece of advice is to seek out community in the second stage. Retrospectively, the biggest influence on my second year was the community I found while living and working at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore during my research time in Paris.