As far back as 1872 over 100 women have run for president of the United States. Yes, you read that right. But most people have no idea that multitudes of females have sought the highest office in the land.
When actor and producer Jocelyn Kuritsky stumbled upon this little-known fact, she had a kind of eureka moment. “I was like, “Wait, what?” So, I looked it up,” she says. “This data is readily available. But we don’t really talk about it. It’s not part of the mythology of the American president.”
Many decades, before women even had the right to vote, Victoria Woodhull ran with the Equal Rights Party in 1872. In 1884 and 1888 Belva Lockwood threw in her hat. There was Margaret Chase Smith, who ran in 1964. In 1972 there were two female presidential candidates: Patsy Mink and Margaret Wright, (whose running mate was Dr. Spock). Maureen Smith ran in 1980. And on and on and on.
“I started talking about this with friends,” shares Kuritsky. “Many of whom, like me, did not know so many women had run. And the collective upset of this missing piece of history propelled me further.”
In fact, Kuritsky was so taken by this news that in height of lockdown she decided to create a podcast, A Simple Herstory built around women who have run for President of the United States. Jenny Turner Hall, a Peabody winning writer and director serves as executive producer.
Much different than your garden variety let’s-bring-on-a-bunch-of-talking-heads podcast A Simple Herstory is scripted theater with a topnotch cast of Tony winners and TV stars. In fact, the series, produced by The Muse Project and presented by The Tank feels more like radio plays. “The series is not just about bringing to light the fact that women have run for a long time, or that over 100 women have made a run for the Presidency,” says Kuritsky who describes the series as “theater for your ears” adding, “it’s about the fact that complex, flawed, ambitious women have never stopped running.
Chock full of interesting details, including what life was like for women in the 1870s (down to how they wore underwear), Kuritsky offers unique insight and context. The cast is also made up of all women.
“I wanted the series to literally be about women’s voices and the vocal quality of women to be central to the storytelling,” she says. “I also married myself to the idea that the series would be narrative at its core. Narrative storytelling really is different than opinion podcasting or journalism, but I knew we’d riff on those current historical and political trends.”
A Simple Herstory’s first season contains eight episodes and does a deep dive into the first female presidential candidate, Victoria Woodhull. Born poor, Woodhull was a leader of the women’s suffrage movement and spoke before congress. A woman who wore many hats, Woodhull was also a labor advocate, a newspaper publisher, a stockbroker, an actress, a con artist, and a spiritualist medium.
“Victoria Woodhull was a piece of work. Like me and all the women I know,” says Florencia Lozano who plays her. “She is complicated, multi-faceted and in some ways a different woman at different times in her life. Her lust to be free is entirely awe- inspiring. She stood on her literal soap box and campaigned for herself. God forbid a woman be ambitious. I wanted the permission she gave herself to create the life she wanted.”
In addition to Lozano playing Woodhull season one’s 23 person cast features host Kara Young along with Jacqueline Antaramian, Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, Kate Burton, Erin Cherry, Veanne Cox, Rachel Crow, Maria Dizzia, Danielle Ferland, Yetta Gottesman, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Jennifer Ikeda, Jocelyn Kuritsky, Kyra Miller Zainab Musa, Tonya Pinkins, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Celeste Claflin, Socorro Santiago, Dale Soules, Carmelita Tropicana, Ching Valdes-Aran and Louise Lasser. The first season was directed by Donya K. Washington with text written and developed by Jonathan A. Goldberg.
Playing Woodhull had a profound impact on Lozano. “I love that not only did she survive, but Victoria Woodhull thrived,” says Lozano who adds that Woodhull and her sister, Tennie, were the first female stockbrokers on Wall Street. Despite being laughed at and ridiculed, she persisted
“Victoria forged hardship into tools. She knew what she wanted and went after it, when that was not a thing many women did,” says Lozano. “I love that she insisted on having a seat at the man’s table.”
Jeryl Brunner: How did the idea to create A Simple Herstory come to you?
Jocelyn Kuritsky: I had been thinking about women and power for a while—thinking more about what power is, who has it, who wants it and why. I thought about who we consider to be the most powerful person in the United States, possibly the world. And though, of course highly arguable, I still think many would say, “The President of the United States.” The fact that we’ve never had a woman United States president brings up all kinds of discomfiting feelings and beliefs.
Around the time of Hillary Clinton’s first run I had been ruminating on a lot of this, and, ploddingly thereafter, I discovered that she certainly wasn’t the first woman to try to run. Also, as it turns out, she wasn’t the first woman to try to run multiple times. She was just the first woman to ultimately get the nomination of a major party.
Brunner: So, what did that mean to you?
Kuritsky: It suggested there had been a slant around this, a kind of framing that overlooked a shocking number of candidates. And that paradigm of thought could affect the seriousness with which we categorize and sort the history of the presidency. In a way, we were further along than I had realized, than I think most of us realized. It turns out, the idea that a woman could run for President of the United States is a much older one.
Brunner: How does this season address failure, particularly the “failure” of women to capture the presidency?
Kuritsky: The series is all about failure. You can imagine how well that went over in pitch meetings. No woman has captured the presidency. They’ve all failed. So far. I think it’s important to note that, to own that. You can’t solve a problem you don’t acknowledge, right? And then more questions come: Is that a problem and why? Should women be president? What kind of woman should be president? What does it mean to be president? And on and on. Failure, though, means an attempt was made. The series really hinges on the attempt.
Brunner: The nation is so politically divided. How does the series bring a unifying element?
Kuritsky: The nation is fractured, but I also think that’s the story of the United States. The United States is a country of diverse bodies and ideologies, often all trying to co-exist at once. We’ve al-ready had a civil war. The United States is a mercurial country; in many ways, it’s meant to be. The series, in and of itself, does not side with any particular political view, but it does tussle with them. And it tussles with our conflicting ideas of the search for a “better America.”
I hope that the experimental nature of the series can help reframe our conception of American presidential power and leadership. Honestly, a woman in the oval office may redefine the American presidency in ways we cannot imagine. It may really agitate our understanding of the purpose of that job and could split us in very paradoxical ways. But, despite the fractured nature of our country, ultimately the vast majority of people in the United States want to play on this playground. This is the country where the pursuit of freedom is paramount, even as we continue to grapple, as we always have, with how freedoms are applied and exercised. That core belief, the pursuit of freedom, is very unifying. And the liberty to tell one’s story, one’s history, herstory, their story, and be heard, is profoundly American.
Brunner: What do you hope people take away from A Simple Herstory?
Kuritsky: One thing we’re getting at is, of course, that people are complicated. History is complicated. We’re all unreliable narrators. And, in some ways, we’re also making fun of that postmodern idea. There are truths. There are historical and emotional truths, but they might not always be the obvious strands we follow. The facts are Victoria Woodhull ran for president multiple times. She was in jail on the day of her first election. What does this all mean? I hope this series inspires curiosity. I believe that history is a curiosity. And each new shard of intelligence helps to fill out the whys our existence.