10 questions with What’s Her Name Podcast

Sponsored by BYU Studies—The What’s Her Name podcast, co-hosted by Olivia Meikle and Katie Nelson, tells the stories of fascinating women you’ve never heard of, but should have.

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourselves and what you do for work in the world of history?

Katie: Olivia and I are sisters, and adjunct professors at different universities (she at Naropa University in Boulder, CO and I at Weber State University in Ogden). I have a PhD in History from the University of Warwick (UK) and have always loved History as a vehicle for exploring big ideas and the human condition. Since I teach History and Olivia teaches Women’s Studies, when we started brainstorming potential joint projects, women’s history was a natural choice.

There are just so many women in world history whose lives have been absolutely amazing, but no one today has ever heard about!

History shouldn’t just be a torrent of facts to memorize and regurgitate. History is full of compelling, vivid stories of individuals’ struggles–their dreams, their failures and their triumphs. If told right, any historical figure from any time period can reach into the present and connect with people today. We want to make that happen.  We also want to excavate the stories of fascinating women whose life stories were left out of our historical narratives.

What is the origin story for What’s Her Name Podcast

Olivia: In early 2017, we started talking seriously about different options for collaborating on some sort of women’s history project, and realized that podcasts seemed to be just on the verge of breaking out into a mainstream and important platform (and were we ever right!). But we hadn’t really chosen a format or a specific focus yet.

One day I was walking through one of my favorite historic cemeteries in Boulder (as one does) when I stumbled on a grave that was inscribed only “Mother.” No name, no other information, and no nearby family marker to give more details, just Mother.

This tombstone in the Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, CO, helped catalyze ‘What’s Her Name’ podcast. The lone inscription of “Mother” led Olivia Meikle and Katie Nelson to tell the stories of women largely lost to history. Credit: Olivia Meikle.

In that moment, stricken at the thought of this nameless woman whose individual identity was lost to history, I suddenly knew we had to follow Katie’s earlier suggestion that we focus on the forgotten women whose stories have been erased from our narratives.

I called Katie as I walked back to my car, suddenly on fire with enthusiasm and ambition to push this project through, and What’sHerName was born!

Then all that was left was the little stuff, like learning audio engineering, choosing subjects, coming up with a format, finding guests, creating a website . . . nothing to worry about at all! So we spent about six months planning, learning and preparing a few episodes to make sure we were ready to launch with a solid and professional-sounding project, and we premiered our first two episodes on New Year’s Day 2018.

Each episode of the podcast features an interview with a scholar, expert or author discussing the life of a forgotten or lesser-known historical woman. And then Katie and I add context, commentary and period-appropriate music to create a finished product that we’ve been told feels a bit like NPR.

We love speaking to such a wide range of guests, from well-known professors to popular novelists and NYT bestselling authors, to the curator of a brothel museum! We’re usually learning as much as our listeners are about each episode’s “fascinating women you’ve never heard of.”

Tell us the secret behind your phenomenal chemistry.

Katie: Well, we’re sisters! (laughs) — I guess we’ve had years and years of experience forcing one another to show the proper enthusiasm for each other’s interests.

Olivia: Plus we really are just hopelessly nerdy, and get extremely excited about obscure historical trivia, so that’s an easy way to be entertaining. People are interesting when they’re interested! We also grew up in a family full of academic weirdos, so we have a little bit of knowledge about a wide variety of topics, but an unstoppable enthusiasm for all of them.

Katie Nelson and Olivia Meikle are the dynamic sisters behind the ‘What’s Her Name’ podcast. Nelson teaches history at Weber State University and Meikle teaches courses in women’s studies at Naropa University. Credit: Marc Nelson.

What kinds of themes have you seen in the lives of the lost women covered on the podcast?

Katie: We have astronomers, philosophers, philanthropists, hot-air-balloonists, martyrs, madams, writers, warriors. From every time period and all around the globe, these stories prove that throughout all human history, women were making profound, lasting and daring contributions to life on earth. And not in tangential, peripheral, supporting roles as people sometimes assume — women lived big, important lives in every time period.

Olivia:Yes! I love proving, week after week, that women really were “main characters” all throughout history!

What are some of the reasons women are ‘lost’ to history?

Katie: In the past, recorded history had very few slots for women. Many (most!) fascinating women got left out the first time around, but that doesn’t mean we can’t put them back in!  We want to even-out the historical record, adding more stories, more names, more diversity to our popular canon.

Olivia: And I think there’s also often been a deliberate campaign of erasure, because it’s much easier to convince folks that women can’t be important or powerful if we can first persuade them that women have never been important or powerful! Once you start to see how many women really fundamentally shaped the history of our world, you start noticing powerful women everywhere you look!

Who are some women lost to history from Utah?

Katie: Most people don’t realize that women’s suffrage movement in America really began in Utah. It’s a surprising fact, to Utahns and outsiders alike! Daring women attempted to vote, ran for public office, really stood their ground and plowed the way forward for women.

For example, in 1896 Martha Hughes Cannon ran for Utah Senate against her husband, and won!  Other women did bold things during times of war (like Maud Fitch), and still others made huge strides in just about every field you can think of. Because their stories didn’t fit the socially accepted norms of their day, they were not celebrated, remembered, or written into history books. 

But things are changing now!

There are armies of historians and other scholars digging through archives and unearthing the stories of incredible women and telling their stories. We interview those scholars, and help bring these women back to life.

Olivia: Alberta Henry was president of the SLC branch of the NAACP for 12 years, and her foundation, the Alberta Henry Education Foundation, helped hundreds of economically disadvantaged students pay for college. She pushed to include the history of people of color in Utah textbooks, and was critical in assuring that minority children got a fair education in the state. When she died, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. praised her service, saying, “She…always stood tall in championing basic human dignity.”

Ellis Reynolds Shipp was one of the first women doctors in Utah, settling in Pleasant Grove in 1852. Attending medical school in Philadelphia in 1875, she returned to Utah to establish an obstetrics school, and eventually trained over 600 midwives.

Who was Maud Fitch and what was her personality like? Provide a couple experiences to illustrate.

Katie- Maud Fitch was one fearless woman!  A mine owner’s daughter from Eureka, Utah, she wanted to join up when America entered WWI. Unable to enlist as a soldier (she was a woman, after all!) she purchased an ambulance and shipped it at her own expense to France, where she reassembled it and drove it through the heart of the war zone.

Maud Fitch served as an ambulance driver in WWI. Her frequent correspondence back to Utah provides an invaluable perspective on the war in Europe and the importance of American support for France and its allies. Photo used by permission, Utah State Historical Society.

Cars had only recently been invented, but Maud Fitch drove and maintained the truck by herself, delivering the wounded to hospitals. For her courage and gallantry during one harrowing event (the final German offensive), she drove the wounded through a warzone she described as a “scene from Dante’s Inferno,” going days with almost no sleep, or food. At one point her truck was bogged down in a giant pool of blood and she had to get down in the quagmire to push her truck free. For her actions during that event, she was awarded the French Cross, an award for courage and gallantry. She was unstoppable!

What kind of correspondence exists from Maud’s WWI service? Do any common themes appear?

Katie: We have lots and lots of her letters – she wrote home almost every day, and her family kept them. They even shared the letters with local newspapers sometimes, so we have headlines about her now and then. The letters are now owned by the State of Utah, and they have a small volume of them published by her son. They are a rich source of detailed information about what life was like for these female ambulance drivers. They clearly show how those on the Western Front had to deal with the horrors of war one minute, and then endure hours and hours of waiting, boredom, and homesickness. Then, with a moment’s notice, back to death and destruction on an unimaginable scale.

Why will 2020 be such a significant year in Utah women’s history? What kind of coverage do you have planned for the anniversary?

Katie:  2020 is a big year for women in America! It will mark 100 years since women were finally given the right to vote. Since the movement began in Utah, it’s an especially great opportunity to highlight Utah’s role in changing history.

Because the whole story is so little-known, we are eager to help spread the word! There are program, exhibits and events planned throughout the year, and we will be working in partnership with various nonprofits to make it a year that helps bring public awareness to some of Utah’s amazing past.

We will have a new episode that features one of Utah’s pioneering suffragists in 2020. This April (2019), we also plan to highlight one of the fascinating women of the railroad, in tandem with the statewide commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Golden Spike. America’s railroad story is usually pretty male-centric, so we are looking forward to highlighting one of the many women who were there, too!

Let’s take a look at another medium. What are some of your favorite books about ‘lost’ women?

Olivia: One of my favorite “perks” of doing this podcast are all the great books that are sent to us by publishers and guest-hopefuls–so many fascinating and fantastic stories that I never would have discovered on my own.

Some of my favorite books by our guests have been Keith O’Brien’s wonderful NYT bestseller Fly Girls, about pioneering female pilots in the early days of aviation, Mary Sharratt’s fantastic novel Daughters of the Witching Hill, about the Pendle witch trials in 17th century England, and Sharon Wright’s utterly delightful Balloonomania Belles, on the fearless female aeronauts who took to the skies in the very first (wildly dangerous) hot air balloons.

Then two of my longstanding favorites are Kirsten Downey’s brilliant biography of FDR’s labor secretary (and my personal hero) Frances Perkins, The Woman Behind the New Deal, and Rebecca Skloot’s groundbreaking book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I probably reread about once a year.

Olivia Meikle and Katie Nelson celebrating 10,000 podcast downloads with their ‘gold record’ in Spring 2018. Credit: Matthew Meikle

Katie: I tend to go for biographies; I like a deep dive into a person’s life. When I read Anne Chambers’ biography of Grace O’Malley, 16th-century Irish Pirate Queen, I was floored. I thought, this woman was absolutely amazing, how was she not the most famous woman on earth? And there are, truly, so so many women like that. I want to know them all.

If you could bring any of your podcast subjects through time to be a guest, who would each of you choose?

Olivia: I think I’m torn between Mughal Empress Nur Jahan and 18th century philosopher, mathematician and writer Émilie du Châtelet. She was such a brilliant and unconventional thinker, I can imagine talking to her for six hours and never getting bored.

Plus, I want to tell her how many more of her pioneering theories in physics and mathematics have been proven right!

But Empress Nur Jahan was such a fearless, astonishingly unexpected leader, I desperately want to see what she was like in person. And any woman who kills four man-eating tigers with six musket-shots and then leads an army from on top of an elephant to rescue her kidnapped husband is someone I think it would be useful to know.

Katie:  Fun! It’s really, really hard to choose. I think I would be most thrilled to meet Caroline Herschel. Three hundred years ago, she lived a real-life Cinderella story. Except instead of marrying a handsome prince, she became a world-renowned astronomer!

Caroline Herschel Taking Notes as Her Brother William Observes on March 13, 1781, the Night William Discovered Uranus. Artwork by Paul Fouche. This work is in the public domain in the United States because the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.

Her brutal childhood was one of servitude, intense suffering and loneliness. Childhood diseases piled on the misery, stunting her growth, disfiguring her face and blinding her in one eye.

But I love Caroline Herschel because her story is an incredibly beautiful tale of triumph and achievement. Her meteoric rise to fame for her astonishing astronomical discoveries led to international renown, though she was the least likely person to end up in such a career.

I would love to spend a night with her, looking through the telescopes she invented (the world’s largest!) and talking about her approach to life’s challenges. She is such an inspiration.

This interview is sponsored by BYU Studies

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