The phrase "Behind every great man is a great woman" has been in circulation since at least the mid 1940s. You may have heard it. The woman in question is usually a wife or mother; the observation being that no man gets to be 'great' in a vacuum. Some woman, somewhere, had a hand in the man's success. It recognises every behind-the-scenes woman who hasn't received the credit for their work. Now, a new podcast wants us to celebrate women differently.
Sistory Untold is a unique podcast hosted by sisters Marva, 26, and Sabrina, 23, which looks at history through the eyes of sisterhood. Each week the sisters dedicate an episode to a pair of notable women who have blazed a trail through history. Importantly, they focus on the women's relationships rather than the men they were associated with, from Hamilton's Schuyler sisters to Jane and Cassandra Austen to 18th-century rivals Maria Coventry and Kitty Fisher (as seen in Harlots on BBC Two).
The London-based duo launched the podcast at the beginning of lockdown in March out of boredom, hoping it would be an educational alternative to Netflix. "Once we had decided to start a podcast, we needed to have a topic," Sabrina tells Refinery29. "There are four of us Yates sisters, along with cousins and friends that feel like sisters, and we realised for us that sisterhood was probably our strongest relationship and foundation."
She continues: "We also felt that history often put women in the context of men and that doesn't do justice to their stories. We wanted to put women in the context of other women to show that successful women aren't anomalies — they are often encouraged, challenged or influenced by other women."
One example is Madam C.J. Walker and Annie Turnbo Malone, whose stories were retold in Netflix's Self Made. Madam C.J. Walker is a household name in America and beyond for being the first self-made female millionaire in the United States. But it was Annie's story that interested Sabrina and Marva. In their episode looking into Annie's life, they discover that Madam C.J. Walker stole her product idea from her mentor and employer, Annie.
Sistory Untold also explores the relationship between Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, and her stepsister and companion, Claire Clairmont. Claire was also a writer and obsessed with romance but was often outshone by her stepsister's success. In the podcast we learn that Claire was romantically entangled with the poet Lord Byron and in 1817 gave birth to his daughter, who she called Alba. Byron rejected his relationship with Claire and later demanded custody of the child, baptising her Clara Allegra. Claire was only allowed a few visits and when Allegra died of fever at 5 years old, Claire blamed Byron for her death.
"We've learned that women and sisterhood are even more important and complicated than we thought," adds Sabrina. "We've also realised that incredible women in history are far from rare — we thought we would struggle to find topics, but we are overwhelmed with choice. We also learned to keep our minds open and challenge our perspectives, especially on stories we thought we knew."