Sometimes the greatest stories are found in the most unlikely places. Thanks to a lonely grave in a Colorado cemetery, scores of women largely lost to history are having their stories shared with thousands.
Olivia Meikle is a professor of women’s studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. “One day, I was walking through one of my favorite historic cemeteries in Boulder (as one does),” she wrote with a twinge of humor in an email interview. “I stumbled on a grave that was inscribed only ‘Mother.’ No name, no other information … just Mother.”
Meikle couldn’t shake the profound feeling she had reflecting on “this nameless woman whose identity was lost to history.” As she walked back to her car, she called Katie Nelson, a professor of history at Weber State University in Ogden — and her sister.
“I suddenly knew we had to follow Katie’s earlier suggestion that we focus (a podcast we wanted to create) on the forgotten women whose stories have been erased from our narratives,” said Meikle.
So it was the “What’s Her Name” podcast was born.
As Meikle’s story and the podcast title suggest, the aim is to share stories of women people often can’t remember — or have never heard about in the first place.
“We have astronomers, philosophers, philanthropists, hot-air balloonists, martyrs, madams, writers, (and) warriors,” Nelson wrote in an email interview. “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 sometimes people assume,” she added. “Women lived big, important lives in every time period.”
Utah is no exception.
“Most people don’t realize that women’s suffrage movement in America really began in Utah,” said Nelson. “Daring women attempted to vote, ran for public office, really stood their ground and plowed the way forward for women.”
Martha Hughes Cannon
Most Utahns can name prominent male senators from the state’s history, from Reed Smoot and Frank J. Cannon to Orrin Hatch and Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, the stories of female legislators remain untold or underrepresented.
“For example, in 1896 Martha Hughes Cannon ran for (the Utah) Senate against her husband, and won!” said Nelson.
She was also a leader in the Utah Women’s Suffrage Association and testified to U.S. congressional committees and was a featured speaker at national suffrage conventions.
A statue of Martha Hughes Cannon is being created to put in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
Similarly, most Utahns are familiar with Gail Halvorsen, the remarkable Air Force pilot known as the “candy bomber” who airdropped tons of candy to residents of Berlin during World War II.
Another Utahn, Maud Fitch, shares a similarly captivating story, but is rarely recognized by name.
“(Maud Fitch was) was a mine owner’s daughter from Eureka, Utah, (who) wanted to join up when America entered World War I,” said Nelson. “Unable to enlist as a solider — 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.”
Fitch, who was 35 when she went to Europe, shared her experiences in letters home to her family.
“We have lots and lots of her letters,” said Nelson. “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.”
Her letters are made all the more remarkable because of their rarity. According to Utah historian Kent Powell, the stories of women in World War I are very difficult to find.
“So few were written,” he wrote in an email interview. “Men were encouraged to write of their experiences and their letters were often published in hometown newspapers.”
But women’s voices were largely absent.
“Maud’s correspondence gives a unique perspective of the war in Europe and the importance of American support for the French and their allies,” Powell said.
Jon Huntsman Sr. is known around the world as a prominent businessman and philanthropist from Utah, but few are familiar with the name Alberta Henry.
Born in 1920, the Kansas native moved to Utah and devoted much of her life to civil rights activism and philanthropy.
“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,” said Meikle. “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 passed away in 2005, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. paid tribute to her largely overlooked dedication, saying, “She … always stood tall in championing basic human dignity.”
Meikle and Nelson delight in being able to share the lives of women largely lost to history with stories every bit as captivating as those of men.
“I love proving, week after week, that women really were ‘main characters’ all throughout history,” said Meikle. For more about their podcast, see whatshernamepodcast.com.
This article originally appeared in the Deseret News.