Op-Ed

Katharine Graham was no feminist icon

Gender and power do not always look like Harvey Weinstein, veteran journalist Mary Pleshette Willis writes, setting the record straight about the famed newspaper publisher

Late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham seen here in 1974. (Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In a climatic scene in The Post, Steven Spielberg’s excellent film starring Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, the late publisher of the Washington Post Company, the camera pans the adoring faces of young women watching her descend the steps of the United States Supreme Court after it ruled in favor of the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. How many of those feminists-in-the-making knew that only a year prior when 46 women (including me) sued Newsweek magazine (then owned by the Washington Post Company) for gender discrimination, that Mrs. Graham’s response to the news of the suit was “which side am I supposed to be on?”

In fact, Mrs. Graham was not on our side.  She was with management.

Meryl Streep stars as Katharine Graham in ‘The Post.’ Mary Pleshette Willis, a former writer for Newsweek in the 1970s, says Graham’s portrayal as a feminist in the film doesn’t ring true to her experiences with the legendary newspaper publisher. (20th Century Fox)

Two years later when I was no longer working for Newsweek, I wrote a follow-up piece for (((MORE))) magazine to see if management had implemented the demands of our legal agreement — we never went to court. They hadn’t.

Mrs. Graham granted me an interview and welcomed me to her lovely U.N. Plaza pied-à-terre, wearing her bathrobe. Midway through the interview, she got up to run a bath, donned a shower cap and continued to talk to me as she tested the temperature of the water in her slip. She was due at a dinner party in an hour. I remember feeling both dismissed as a professional and flattered that she would be so comfortable to treat me like a “friend.”

Sexual harassment? Obviously not. Intimidation. Absolutely. Gender and power do not always look like Harvey Weinstein. But it was equally as daunting to me at the time and I ended up not using these details in my article to the disgust of my friend, Nora Ephron. “This is dynamite,” she said.  “Why are you protecting her.”

Willis at work alongside a colleague in the Newsweek offices in 1968.

Because, I realized later, in my naivete, Graham was a woman first and a powerhouse second.  A “sister” who was as charming as she was strong. I do not want to detract from the strength and courage that Katharine Graham evidenced, not just in regard to the Pentagon Papers but in many facets of her professional life.  But I think it’s equally as important that the record reflects the truth — she was not a feminist nor a saint in the Seventies despite her portrayal in the movie.

Mary Pleshette Willis began freelancing the minute she left Newsweek. She has written for newspapers and periodicals including The New York Times, (((MORE))) Magazine, O (Oprah) and Readers Digest. Her first novel, Papa’s Cord was published by Alfred A. Knopf. She is presently at work on a second novel.

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