I recently watched The Post and was pleasantly surprised. Not only was it a good film – which to be honest wasn’t too surprising as it’s directed by Steven Spielberg, and stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks – but it introduced me to a woman I had not heard of before; Katharine Graham. The movie follows the events that led up to The Washington Post publishing top-secret Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War in 1971. Showing the importance of a free press and the pivotal role Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) played as the publisher of the paper. Being the first female to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company, her story is one worth knowing.
Born in 1917 in New York City, Katharine grew up with The Washington Post. Her father, Eugene Meyer, bought The Washington Post after it went bankrupt in 1933 and growing up interested in the paper; she went on to work as a reporter and editorial assistant after graduating from the University of Chicago. During this time Katharine met Philip Graham, a lawyer who spent 6 months as an associate publisher at the Post, and got married. In 1946, Eugene Meyer decided to pass the job of publisher to not his daughter, which had been working at the paper for more than a decade now, but to his son-in-law Philip. Katharine states in her memoir, that the thought of such an important job being passed down to her hadn’t even crossed her mind, and that she was pleased that her father choose Phil.
Suffering from mental illnesses, Phil committed suicide in 1963. Katharine Graham, aged 46 and a housewife, decided to take control of The Washington Post becoming the first female to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Despite discouragement from the men around her on taking such a big job, Katharine went on to hiring Ben Bradlee and the two ended up making an important partnership and shaping modern journalism.
In 1971, during the week the paper was opening up to the public and The New York Times was under trial, she faced an enormous decision. Despite pressure from various sides and perspectives; Graham chose to publish the top-secret papers despite a court order and potentially putting the whole paper’s life in jeopardy. But with this brave decision Katharine and Ben opened a new door into investigative journalism, and Graham made it her duty to use the paper as a way to show what goes on behind closed doors of the government. She managed to gain the paper real power, which her braveness in the Watergate scandal enforced even more.
Katharine Graham later on passed the paper to her son, while still keeping her position as head of the Washington Post Company. Being the first female to have such a powerful position in journalism, as can be seen in The Post and her memoir, she was skeptical of her abilities. In an era and industry in which sexism was frequent, it took her some time to gain her voice. But her perseverance and braveness led her company to be a success and for herself to be a great inspiration. Leaving behind a memoir, which won the Pulitzer prize, she passed away in 2001 and I believe we all have a lesson to take away from her.
Written by Sueda