Thoughts on Theses: Samantha O'Brien
Issue   |   Tue, 04/17/2018 - 21:46

Samantha O’Brien is a senior law, jurisprudence and social thought major. Her thesis is on the Mann Act of 1910 and its connections to the literature of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Her thesis adviser is Professor Adam Sitze in the LJST department.

Q: What is your thesis about?
A: Basically, it’s about the Mann Act, which was passed in 1910. It criminalized the transport of women across state lines for the purposes of prostitution or any other purpose, that was the language of the statute. Essentially, the Mann Act incited a lot of juridical problems and a lot of legal and constitutional problems about federalism, and I could get into what all those questions are, but it’s really jargony. But there’s four different problems that I outline essentially that jurists are dealing with. I wrote a literature and law thesis. There’s a growing movement in law schools to look at literary works to see how they can help us better understand the law than the law itself. It’s especially important when you’re trying to understand marginalized populations, like women. What I looked at is the question of prostitution in conversation with the literary works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and seeing how she can help us better understand these juridical problems.

Q: How did you come up with this idea for your thesis?
A: Last year, my junior year, in December, I read, just for fun, a kind of autobiography, or a compiled blog of a prostitute. I’ve taken a lot of SWAGS classes and I was a SWAGS major, but I dropped the major. I have a really clear sense of how I would argue that question through my basic feminism, so how I can talk about prostitution, but I really wanted to construct something principled and legal and look at the legal history of prostitution. So, to make a legal argument for or against prostitution and see how we can even talk about it. From there it got me digging deeper into what laws had been passed in the U.S. surrounding prostitution. Then the thesis all shifted around and it was really not even about being for or against prostitution, but looking at how we didn’t even understand this piece of legislation in the first place, so even just getting beyond the initial question.

Q: What conclusion did you end up coming to?
A: There’s no singular conclusion, but basically that Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her thinking as a woman, essentially excluded from the conventions of laws, has this keen eye on the law in a way that traditional scholarship doesn’t see. It’s excluded from the traditional jurisprudence of the Mann Act, which is what this feminist perspective can offer. I put “feminist” in scare quotes because she didn’t really identify as a feminist, but a lot of her works and thinking would later be identified as feminist and match a lot of second-wave feminist ideas. She has this perspective that you can’t really see elsewhere. Each juridical problem that I look at, she offers this other thing that you can think about.

Q: What was it like to finish it?
A: It felt good, but there was something anticlimactic about the whole thing. Part of it is that I am really interested in what I wrote about, but for me, when you get really excited about something then it opens up all these other things that you’re excited about. In my work, I just constantly found myself being resentful of the fact that I was working for a deadline and wishing that you had all the time in the world to explore what you wanted. Once you’re on a track, it’s like, this is what I’m writing about. That gets kind of challenging. But overall, it feels good.

Q: What was your favorite part of the whole process?
A: My favorite part was finally seeing it come together so that I could finally really work on writing. In the beginning your writing is just really bad and rushed and you’re just getting ideas on the page and it was really nice to finally weave it together into something that I felt sounded relatively good and that I could be more proud of. I really enjoyed writing my conclusion because it was the summation of everything I’ve been thinking about for eight months and now I really know what I’m saying, so it feels so good to just write this. Before that, it was just a lot of grunt work.

Q: What was the hardest part?
A: It was definitely narrowing down my focus and coming to a clearer sense of “this what I’m writing about.” Also, I wish I had thought about this way earlier, but being able to articulate that this is what I have to offer that other people don’t have to offer, because that’s kind of what a thesis is supposed to do. For so long, you’re just reading and you’re learning these things but you don’t have a sense of who you are in it yet.

Q: What advice do you have for other thesis writers?
A: One thing that my adviser, Professor Sitze, told me at the very beginning that was very helpful, was to buy a notebook that you like, that’s aesthetically pleasing, and keep it with you at all times. You want a paper trail because it’s going to change a lot but then you’re going to go back and you want to write down everything you’re doing. You go through so many different processes and so many different phases that having that physical thing to go back to and flip back a few pages is really nice. Two weeks will pass and you won’t realize how much progress you’ve made in your own head. If you’re writing a humanities thesis, it’s not like doing a science thesis where you can see concrete changes happening, and I’m not trying to simplify that work, it’s very challenging. But with humanities work, a lot of the work that happens is you stewing while staring at a wall and being very unhappy with yourself. But a lot actually does change during that time and having evidence of that is really good because otherwise you feel like you haven’t made any progress, but that’s not true. It’s just your progress is sitting in Share Coffee thinking, “What’s happening, what’s happening?”

Q: What is your relationship like with your advisor?
A: He’s a really phenomenal adviser. I can’t say enough about how essential he was in this process. He’s very good when I’m very scattered in my thinking and having a lot of ideas, he’s very good at saying it back to me in a way that makes sense. He also has a really good sense of how someone’s fascination, like my fascination was abstract, it was prostitutes, but he has a really good sense of how these abstract fascinations become real things. I wouldn’t even have been able to consider doing something like this without him.