Caitlin O’Keefe is a PhD student in history at New York University’s Institute for French Studies. She has an MA in Women’s History from Sarah Lawrence College. While researching in the Parisian archives for her thesis on Sylvia Beach and the women readers of the interwar period, Caitlin lived and worked at Shakespeare and Company as a “tumbleweed.” (November 2019)


The Secret Feminist History of Shakespeare and Company

Sylvia Beach in front of her bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, Paris, May 1, 1941

“Certain people are meant to be midwives—not mothers of invention. Sylvia was one,” wrote Noël Riley Fitch, author of Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation (1983), in the most recent introduction to a collection of Beach’s letters. Yet to characterize Beach as merely a “midwife” and to remember her primarily for bringing into being the work of Great Men is to misrepresent her and the everyday work of her shop. Revisiting the story behind Shakespeare and Company’s creation reveals that its roots lie in early twentieth-century feminist activism and, in particular, Beach’s own deep-rooted conviction that women had a right to an intellectual life.