Emilyn Kowaleski, MA ’20

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

Emilyn KowaleskiI grew up just outside of Berkeley, CA, and started finding my voice in the performing arts as a young kid. I came to New York over a decade ago to pursue an undergraduate degree at NYU in experimental theatre with a double major in psychology. Prior to coming to Sarah Lawrence, I spent seven years working in several different facets of theatre, performance, and event production. Most passionately, I pursued a career as writer and director, focused primarily on telling stories about women, non-binary, and queer folks. I create work through my company, Exploding Knot, whose mission is to generate explosive inquiries into body politics and power dynamics through a combination of artistic mediums. 

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

As I was generating this work, I developed a nagging sensation in my gut that was restraining my voice as a self-proclaimed feminist artist—I really didn’t know what the earth under me was made of, whose stories, whose sweat, whose ideas, or whose blood. I got deeply curious about what “womanhood” meant and how I even identified it. I came to Sarah Lawrence to build more solid foundations for a research-based practice and to deepen my artistic inquiries. Apart from this, my mother is an avid feminist who instilled in me the value of independence and a lasting commitment to smashing the patriarchy and all systems of oppression. I believe that collective liberation and healing can be cultivated through challenging dominant historical narratives and telling stories that allow us to see one another for the fullness of one another’s humanity. 

Why did you choose Sarah Lawrence for your graduate studies?

Mary Dillard. I met Mary on a visit to an open house and thought that if Mary’s warmth was any indication of the type of care that I would receive as a student in the Women’s History Program, this was the place for me. It was clear to me that this program was built from a rich history as the first of its kind and would offer me the kind of individual attention I craved and needed as a student coming back to school after several years.

Describe the Women's History Program in three words.

Rigorous. Whirlwind. Revelatory. 

Who influenced you most during your time in the program?

There is not a single teacher I had—Lyde Sizer, Mary Dillard, Priscilla Murolo, and Nadeen Thomas—who did not have a profound influence on me. However, Lyde Sizer, who became my thesis adviser second year, had the greatest impact. Lyde’s demanding curriculum first year taught me how to ask good historical questions, how to read both quickly and thoughtfully, and how to surpass my expectations of myself. Lyde’s guidance on my thesis was instrumental in helping me distill, clarify, and organize my ideas into a cohesive piece of writing. 

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

I wrote on the history of the roots of sex-segregated bathrooms. Lyde had assigned an article by labor historian Dana Frank; in it, Frank depicted how working-class white women used collective action to fight to keep Black women out of the labor force. They claimed that if forced to share bathrooms with Black women, they were liable to catch sexual diseases. I scribbled in the margins: “How does this parallel discrimination against transgender people? How has the ‘protection’ of cis white women in restrooms been used to justify discrimination in this space across history?” My initial idea was to trace this connection across the 20th century, but after doing some initial research I discovered that the roots of sex-segregated bathrooms in the Victorian and Progressive eras (1870‒1920) told a fascinating story. The design was steeped in sexism, xenophobia, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and moral superiority, and I found it an endlessly intricate topic to research. 

Describe your career path and what you are doing now.

I am pursuing a multidisciplinary practice as a writer, director, facilitator, and consultant. I am continuing my work with Exploding Knot with a greater clarity of focus and more expanded sense of practice. As a writer and scholar, I am currently working on publishing a couple of essays and articles based on my thesis research, as well as expanding it into a book. I work part time supporting a diversity, equity, and inclusion firm called Collaborate Consulting, that does consulting and education around anti-racism and trans inclusion.  I am also building my own consultancy practice to assist other writers/artists in understanding and rigorously incorporating historical contexts of gender, race, and class into their work. I continue work as a freelance director and am pursuing further training as a facilitator in anti-oppression work. 

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

Everything I am doing now is built on a foundation of radical curiosity, which Sarah Lawrence fostered. My professors taught me the ins and outs of how to conduct historical research and analysis. They taught me how to ask deeper questions and sift through impossibly complex answers and the myriad more questions that would result from the first question. It taught me to get deeply inquisitive about whose stories weren’t being told, why, and how to move through the challenge of telling stories about people whose lives were not well documented due to the powers of oppression and erasure. 

What is your greatest professional accomplishment?

Finishing my thesis! 

Do you have any advice for current or prospective students?

I started writing daily intentions my second year that helped me not only accomplish my goals in the program but dictate how I wanted to accomplish them. The program can feel overwhelming at times, but it helped me to root back to the joy of discovery and my love of learning. Make a solid semester plan for your conference papers and thesis work. You don’t have to (and probably won’t) stick to it exactly, but it is imperative that you break larger projects down into manageable chunks that can be tackled over time. Trust your professors and know that their knowledge and care will guide you. Trust yourself and what excites you.