Lafayette‘s Olivia Meikle is shining a light on history‘s forgotten women, one podcast at a time

Olivia Meikle‘s moment of clarity came at the foot of an indistinct gravestone.

On a particular head-clearing walk through Boulder‘s Columbia Cemetery in the summer of 2017, she arrived at a slab that announced its sole inhabitant simply as “mother” — and beyond a basic tallying of the more than 77 years she spent on this Earth (April 10, 1842 to June 18, 1919), it revealed little else about the woman, consigning her to the matriarchal duty she served more than a century ago.

A professor of Gender and Women‘s Studies and English at Naropa University, the slight did not sit well with Meikle.

“I was just struck by the erasure of her entire identity,” she said. “I felt it so strongly that she was just gone.”

By the time she stumbled onto that nameless grave, Meikle and her sister, Katie Nelson, had already begun shaping the idea of how to combine both their academic backgrounds with their interests in history and the female influence.

Meikle has since learned that her gravestone origin story likely was built on a misconception; cemeteries in the past often grouped families together under one name and with their identifying roles distributed across each gravestone. This particular grouping likely had been eroded or washed away by a storm in the intervening years, leaving the sole “mother” gravestone.

Though in her telling, it was a happy accident. This was the moment Meikle says she resolved to form what has come to be titled the ” ” podcast, a show spotlighting some of history‘s most influential female figures who most have never heard of.

“Just in that moment I sort of thought that we had to tell this story of the women who have been forgotten and erased,” Meikle said.

Judging by its raw numbers, the show‘s sentiment has resonated with a large cross section of traditional podcast listeners since it officially launched in January 2018, propelling the production to heights rarely attained by newcomers, experts say. Perhaps most vitally, it has broken through the noise of an industry as impacted as that of podcasting (a recent study found more than 500,000 podcasts existed across the ether), garnering in its short tenure already thousands of monthly listeners and attracting best-selling authors and award-winning filmmakers among its guests..

Such feats have caught the notice of Spotify and other streaming platforms whose algorithms have culled What‘sHerName to enviable “top podcasts” lists on occasion. Its popularity has translated into revenue via sponsors and advertisers, a milestone many podcasts rarely attain.

The show‘s early successes are betrayed by its humble production; the majority of episodes are recorded in Meikle‘s Lafayette home, often at her kitchen table or, if its called for, inside one of her closets. With Nelson teaching courses at Weber State University in Utah, the two correspond over Skype.

One of the show‘s recent episodes trained its focus on Zenobia, the third century queen of what is modern-day Syria. Scant reference is made of Zenobia in traditional history courses, despite her launching an invasion that brought most of the Roman East under her sway and a ruling that culminated with the annexation of Egypt.

Much of Zenobia‘s narrative has splintered across various historic retellings, and her rise has remained the subject of debate (with some historians extolling her as a military genius and others crediting her expansion as a result of the mistakes of the men around her). A portion of the episode is focused on this latter debate, one that offers a tidy encapsulation of what the show is meant to convey.

“They keep underestimating these women because they can‘t believe that women could possibly do this, so women keep defeating and exploiting that,” Meikle said on a recent episode.

“I think it‘s a lot easier to explain why women don‘t have power if you convince everyone that it‘s always been this way. So we pretend that these women didn‘t exist or were kind of an occasional mutation in the male lead norms of human history. And it‘s just simply, objectively, not true.”

The previous episode focused on Émilie du Châtelet, the 18th century French natural philosopher, mathematician, physicist and author, recorded on location in Cirey-sur-Blaise, France.

In recent weeks the show has explored women at the forefront of early aviation, an unlikely World War I hero, journalists and composers and even accused witches.

“You keep hearing about the eight same women, from suffragettes that we choose to focus on and one of the queens. It‘s the same people over and over again,” Meikle said. “We want to get these lesser-known women out there, some who have changed the entire world and we‘ve never heard their names.”

Just this week the show reached 58,000 downloads and was featured on a list of critical women‘s history resources by Melinda Gates, on her new website Evoke.

The show‘s success has transformed how the sisters operate the show. In the beginning, Meikle said they chose their subjects from a rough list each had compiled over the years. Now, with agents and publishers flocking to them in hopes of pushing new books, they have their choice of the crop.

As the podcast continues, Meikle says she hopes it will continue to gain traction through its word-of-mouth appeal and from groups of female podcasters who promote each others‘ work.

“We‘re gonna keep going and expanding the reach of the podcast,” she said. “And hopefully that means our audience will keep getting bigger.”

Along with the regular programming, the sisters plan to partner the podcast with Better Days 2020, a Utah celebration of the suffrage movement and the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted all American women the right to vote.