OGDEN — Sisters Katie Nelson and Olivia Meikle remember well the moment they decided to create “What’sHerName,” a podcast dedicated to the “lost” women of history.
It was 2017. The two Davis High School graduates — their parents still live in Kaysville — had been talking about teaming up on some sort of project for quite some time. Maybe a book, maybe an article.
At the time, Meikle was just finishing her master’s degree and wasn’t sure she could find a job in Boulder, Colorado, where only a couple of years before she and her husband — without jobs or even prospects — had moved the family.
“We were in the Midwest for a long time, and really did not like it,” Meikle said. “So we finally decided we were done with Iowa, and we just up and moved to Boulder. It was stupid, but it was brilliant.”
The brilliant part: Boulder is beautiful and they love it. The stupid part: Boulder isn’t the place to be if you’re looking for employment in higher education, where Meikle longed to be.
“I was finishing grad school, and jobs are scarce here in Boulder,” said Meikle, who these days teaches women’s studies and English at the University of Denver and Naropa University. “Even the person bagging your groceries has a master’s degree.”
Meikle had been a freelance writer — mostly travel stories — but she didn’t want to simply return to that gig.
“I loved that, but I thought, ‘I can’t go back to the same job I had before I spent all this money in grad school.’ That felt stupid,” she admits. “So I was trying to figure out what to do with my life if I can’t get a teaching job.”
Meikle began to push her sister, insisting they needed to find something to do together.
“We were speculating about what to do, and one of the running jokes in our family is that you don’t have to be good at something, you just have to be first,” Meikle said. “So we’re, like, what’s the next thing we can jump on and catch at the beginning? And we realized that’s podcasts.”
The sisters say they entered the podcasting universe at just the right moment. When they started their “What’sHerName” podcast, Meikle says there was exactly one other women’s issues podcast out there, “The History Chicks.”
“But there needs to be more than one,” she said.
It was Nelson who came up with the idea of centering the podcast on the “lost” women of history. Meikle confesses that she wasn’t keen on her sister’s idea.
“Katie really wanted to do a forgotten women podcast, and I thought it was a terrible idea — although I didn’t tell her at the time,” Meikle said. “I thought, it’s so hard to convince people to care about women’s history anyway, so then to ask them to listen to these stories about women they’ve never heard of?”
But a trip to a local cemetery changed Meikle’s mind. Nelson says her sister had a kind of “aha!” moment while walking through the old miners cemetery in Boulder.
“She was wandering the cemetery and noticed a tiny, sad, decaying headstone,” Nelson recalls. “It just said ‘Mother’ on it. No other info, names or dates. It struck her in that moment — and it almost broke her heart — how those identities get lost over time.”
Meikle took a photo of the headstone and texted it to Nelson.
“Then I called her and said, ‘Alright, we’re doing that. We’re doing forgotten women,’” Meikle said.
Each episode of the “What’sHerName” podcast focuses on a different woman. Mary Lemist Titcomb. Edmonia Lewis. Nur Jahan. Sybil Stockdale. Names that most of us have never heard of.
Through their podcast, Nelson and Meikle hope to offer a more in-depth look at women who changed the world but have been all-but-forgotten to history. They’ve produced about 70 episodes thus far and have recorded more than 200,000 downloads.
Normally, when someone writes a book or produces information for an event like Women’s History Month, they’ll create something like, “25 Women from Utah History,” according to Nelson. But she says that superficial approach simply reinforces the assumptions and stereotypes of the past.
“You don’t see books about ‘25 Men from the Past,’” Nelson said. “Each man gets his own book.”
Nelson concedes that it’s not easy to find these forgotten women — which is why they rely heavily on experts in the field. Indeed, Nelson says that with most of the women featured on the podcast, neither she nor her sister had heard of them beforehand.
“It would be tricky if we had to come up with these women on our own,” Nelson said. “But our tactic is to find the experts on the subjects.”
So they end up interviewing people like bestselling author Keith O’Brien, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and Egyptologist Kara Cooney.
Nelson concedes the podcast can be extremely stressful at times, as well as a massive time investment. And she’d be lying if the two of them didn’t occasionally talk about scaling back, or even outright dropping it. After all, it’s not like they’re making any money on it.
“This is a passion project,” Nelson said. “We’re only in it because we care.”
Still, every time the two podcasters reach the point of almost quitting, Nelson says they’ll get “amazing feedback” from a listener in one of the 120 countries where their podcasts are heard, thanking them for highlighting a particular woman lost to history.
The What’sHerName podcast isn’t the only project Nelson and Meikle are working on. The two women have also teamed with the Weber County Heritage Foundation, Weber State University Special Collections, and Ogden’s Union Station to create a series of free audio history walking tours in downtown Ogden.
Now available are the walking tours “Notorious 25th Street” and “Ogden’s Union Station.” Nelson said a third audio tour — “Ogden’s Untamed Women” — is due out this week in honor of Women’s History Month.
“It’s the centennial of women getting the right to vote, so we’re highlighting women who pushed the boundaries in different ways,” Nelson said of the newest audio offering.
Meikle says they’ll also be adding audio tours in the Boulder area in the coming months.
The two educators spent about a year researching the subjects for the “Ogden’s Untamed Women” audio tour. The whole time, Nelson says they kept asking themselves, “Why don’t we know any of these women?”
“And that’s the thing about women in history,” she said. “You have to dig for them. But when you go looking, they appear. And there are so many stories that didn’t make it into the textbooks the first time around.”
Eventually, Meikle and Nelson plan to “level up” the audio tours into an augmented-reality app — similar to “Pokemon Go!” — “but with history,” Nelson says. An app user will be able to point her or his smartphone at a building, and see historic images or figures.
“It’s the language of the next generation,” Nelson said. “We’re trying to ‘gamify’ and bring life to history, because the future of historic preservation depends on the next generation.”
The app should be available as early as July or August, according to Nelson. And, it’ll be free.
“History really does belong to everybody,” Nelson said in explaining why they’re not trying to monetize the app. “So we want the app available for people who otherwise wouldn’t care about history.”
And for those not quite technically savvy enough to download a podcast, app or audio tour? Not to worry, Nelson says. In honor of Women’s History Month, Nelson will offer a presentation, “The Untamed Women of Ogden’s Notorious 25th Street,” at 7 p.m. Friday, March 13, in the Eccles Community Art Center, 2580 Jefferson Ave., Ogden. Admission is free.
Nelson and her older sister Meikle come from a family of six children — “The classic Utah family,” Nelson quips. When they were young, they made a pact that they’d each live in a different country.
“That way, we’d all have a cheap way to see the world,” Nelson said.
And it’s worked. With various family members living in other countries and exotic places like Hawaii, the siblings are constantly visiting one another, according to Nelson.
“Somehow, we became world travelers without having any money,” she said.
Nelson has always had a sense of adventure, and travel remains a big part of her life. She works with the Study Abroad program at Weber, and while traveling the world she looks for experts for the podcast — often taking her students with her for the interviews.
Meikle, who has also traveled extensively, ended up in the women’s studies field strictly by accident. She took her first course as an undergraduate at Weber State with the sole purpose of making her ex-fiance mad — mostly, because he was so “snotty and condescending” toward women’s studies.
“After I broke up with him I was feeling petty and wanted to make him mad, so I enrolled in a women’s studies class,” Meikle said. “About three minutes into that first class I thought, ‘Oh, this is my thing!’ I completely fell in love.”
‘Yay for women!’
Nelson says that because of cultural assumptions, whenever history has been recorded it’s almost always been the men who get the credit.
“So history got written in an inaccurate way,” she said. “We know so many women who completely changed history, but did not get recorded.”
Nelson said Women’s History Month isn’t just about saying “Yay for women!” She sees it as a month for all of us to search for those countless women’s stories that were left out of the history books.
“Once we’ve done that enough, all those women will be unearthed,” Nelson said. “And then we won’t need Women’s History Month anymore.”
Meikle says the most frustrating part of teaching women’s history is combating the idea that women didn’t really do all that much.
“People say they think it’s sad that women didn’t do anything because they weren’t ‘allowed,’” she said.
But Meikle says that just isn’t true.
“A huge percentage of these women were famous in their day, but as soon as they were dead they just got wiped off the map,” she said. “It was astonishing to me how often that happens.”
Meikle said it is true that women had a more difficult time throughout history, and that they were prevented from doing many things.
“But there was never a time women weren’t doing important things and changing the world in huge, massive ways,” she said. “And to ignore that is ridiculous, and creates a false history.”
Meikle says women have been actively taken out of the historical record. “We’re just putting them back in the story,” she says.
And it isn’t just “white ladies” Meikle and Nelson are talking about here. They say they’re committed to diversity, and highlighting women from all time periods, all regions of the world, and all races.
Meikle’s own personal hero is Frances Perkins, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor secretary and the first female cabinet member in U.S. History.
“Everything FDR gets credit for in the New Deal, it was all her,” Meikle said. “Child labor laws, fire codes, weekends, overtime, disability, unemployment, the WPA — it was all her ideas, and she fought tooth and claw to get it done.”
And yet, almost no one knows who she is.
Nelson says she’s inspired by women like Ogden’s own Jane S. Richards, who played an important role in women’s suffrage.
“She should be a huge deal — a household name — but nobody ever heard of her,” Nelson said. “She has been forgotten. And I think she’s a great example of how women get forgotten.”
Meikle says she thinks it’s “awesome” that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are “super into” family history, but she cautions that so much of this history is tied to church stories — stories that women are often left out of.
And it’s not just in Utah. In general, family history follows the man’s lines, according to Meikle. She encourages families to buck this trend.
“Everybody. Go find your women,” she said. “That’s what I would say. Go back through the women’s history in your family, and find out what they do.”
As for the aforementioned “Mother” headstone in the Colorado cemetery that started all this? This past weekend, one of their podcast listeners discovered the woman’s identity, according to Meikle.
Wrote Meikle in an email the the Standard-Examiner: “Her name was Mary Jane Harding Burke Blackburn (whew) and they even found some photos of her!”
One more of the “lost” women of history, found.