(The Washington Post)

Katharine Graham

How a self-proclaimed “doormat wife” became the most powerful woman in journalism

The resume of Katharine “Kay” Graham—who transformed The Washington Post Company’s business and publishing operations into one of the world’s leading newspapers—is nothing short of remarkable.

She was one of the first female publishers of an American newspaper and the first-ever female chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company. Graham defied the U. S. government to publish both the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate story, two of the century’s biggest scoops. During the decades she directed The Washington Post Company’s business, revenue grew by more than $1 billion and the stock price soared, solidifying Graham’s status as one of the country’s most savvy business leaders. In later life, she proved a talented storyteller in her own right, winning a Pulitzer Prize for her autobiographical narrative, “Personal History.”

But until her mid-40s, Graham saw herself only as an obedient daughter and self-described “doormat wife,” with no real career prospects or sense of professional autonomy. That all changed when her husband, Philip Graham—president and former publisher of The Washington Post—killed himself, thrusting his wife into a role she never imagined she was qualified to hold.

“She was always recognized as an icon and a pioneer to women and journalists of my generation.”
— Alicia Shepard, former NPR ombudsman and author

Surprising her male colleagues as well as herself, she embraced her new role long before “lean in” became a rallying cry for professional women. Her bold leadership of The Washington Post in the 1970s changed the course of American journalism, but like so many female leaders through history, she’s often been overlooked. She got only one mention in the film “All The President’s Men”—an otherwise detailed account of the Watergate scoop.

“The Post” puts Graham back in the spotlight, reminding viewers of the impact female leaders can have when given the opportunity, said Alicia Shepard, former NPR ombudsman and author of “Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate.”

“She was always recognized as an icon and pioneer to women and journalists of my generation,” she said. “What she’s getting is second showing—a comeback act, if you will.”

(Courtesy of the Graham Family)
(Courtesy of the Graham Family)

The “doormat wife”

Graham was born in 1917 to enormous wealth and privilege. Her multi-millionaire financier father purchased The Washington Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933 and eventually appointed his son-in-law publisher, giving Phillip more shares of stock in the company than his daughter.

Graham took it in stride. “As Dad explained to me, no man should be in the position of working for his wife,” she wrote in her memoir. “Curiously, I not only concurred but was in complete accord with this idea.” She often deferred to her husband, and she became a kind of second-class citizen in her marriage, Graham wrote, habitually putting Philip’s ambitions and desires above her own.

“As he emerged more on the journalistic and political scenes, I increasingly saw my role as the tail to his kite—and the more I felt overshadowed, the more it became a reality,” Graham wrote.

And then, after years of living with manic depression, Philip took his own life.

key events

Click the arrows to view the timeline events. Swipe to view the timeline events.

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(Courtesy of the Graham Family)
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(The Washington Post, photo taken in 1975)
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(National Archives & Records Administration)
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(Diana Walker/Contour by Getty Images)
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(The Washington Post)
(Courtesy of the Graham Family)

1917

Katharine Meyer was born in New York City, the fourth of five children. Her wealthy father purchased The Washington Post in 1933.

1940

Two years after graduating college, she married Philip Graham, a Supreme Court law clerk. The pair went on to have four children.

(The Washington Post, photo taken in 1975)

1963

Katherine Graham took the reins at The Washington Post immediately after Philip killed himself. At the top of the organization, she was surrounded almost entirely by male editors and business executives.

1971

Graham authorizes publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret 7,000-page government document on the Vietnam war—just two days after she takes The Washington Post public on June 15.

(National Archives & Records Administration)

1974

President Richard Nixon resigned (two years after The Washington Post began reporting on the Watergate scandal, and after Graham withstood threats from the Nixon administration warning her not to publish).

(Diana Walker/Contour by Getty Images)

1997

Graham’s memoir, “Personal History,” was published to acclaim. One year later, it won the Pulitzer Prize.

(The Washington Post)

2001

Graham died at age 84. In a statement issued at the time of her death, President George W. Bush hailed her as the first lady of American journalism.

  • 1917
  • 1940
  • 1963
  • 1971
  • 1974
  • 1997
  • 2001

Let’s go, let’s publish!

Expectations were low when Graham—with some journalism experience but no business experience—took over the helm of The Washington Post.

“I couldn’t possibly do it,” Graham recalled saying of the job. So ingrained was her sense of inferiority as a woman, she wrote that she saw herself as a silent partner there only to “support the strong men around her” until one of her children was able to take over. She is said to have been so anxious in her new role as boss, and so nervous about speaking in front of any kind of audience, that she spent hours practicing how to say “Merry Christmas” before throwing her first holiday staff party.

There certainly were few female role models for her to emulate or colleagues she could look to for camaraderie. Women were all but excluded from positions of power in news organizations at the time, and held less than 20 percent of newspaper jobs overall. Graham described the awkward situation of always being the only woman in the boardroom and on company retreats. She recalls one occasion when the man in charge of a meeting went around the room, asking every male participant for his opinion on the matter at hand. When he got to Graham, he stopped and simply acted as if she weren’t there.

All of which made even more monumental Graham’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers—the leaked documents that revealed the chasm between statements by the U.S. government and the reality on the ground of the Vietnam war.

(The Washington Post)
(The Washington Post)

The paper was facing legal threats from the Nixon administration, and the Supreme Court was still in the process of reviewing the First Amendment issue. The Post nonetheless proceeded with publishing what potentially could have jeopardized the paper’s future.

But as “The Post” chronicles, it was truly a coming-of-age moment for Graham personally. She had been at the paper’s helm for nearly eight years, but nonetheless continued to end directives to her male colleagues with “if it’s alright with you.” She’d been isolated for years, without female peers in comparable positions to turn to for guidance on how to deal with what she refers to in her memoir as male chauvinist managers.

When she declared, “Let’s go, let’s publish,” against a chorus of male advisors who for days had insisted it would be catastrophic, Graham found her voice. In that moment, one she later admitted she was “freaked out” by, she cemented her transition from doormat wife to one of the most powerful women in the history of publishing and business.

“What I essentially did,” Graham wrote, “was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes, and step off the edge.”

the front page

Click the hot spots to reveal the excerpts. Tap the hot spots to reveal the excerpts.

Excerpt 1

These are among the facts emerging from the sections of the Pentagon study on the origins of the Vietnam war, made available to The Washington Post.

Excerpt 2

The origin of the idea of holding an election in divided Vietnam, called for in the Geneva accords of 1954, remains obscure. But there is nothing obscure about Dulles’ attitude.

Excerpt 3

He sent Walter Bedell Smith, the Under Secretary of State who had returned to the Geneva Conference to limit as much as possible what Dulles foresaw as the disastrous outcome…

A powerful legacy

There are far more women working in newsrooms today than in Graham’s era, but much of the institutional sexism she faced remains entrenched, Shephard said. In journalism, only 35 percent of women have supervisory roles, unchanged over the last few decades. In the corporate world, the number of female CEOs has shrunk.

“A lot has changed,” Shephard said. “But so much remains the same.”

She was plunged into the role of being the publisher of The Washington Post in an era when women didn’t hold those kinds of positions.”
— Alicia Shepard, former NPR ombudsman and author

“The Post” concludes with a shot of Graham walking down the Supreme Court steps after the nation’s highest tribunal defended the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, a crowd of women looking on in appreciation. It is a dramatization, to be sure, but audiences today understand the symbolism.

“She was plunged into the role of being the publisher of The Washington Post in an era when women didn’t hold those kinds of positions,” Shephard said. “She’s impressive because she did take that role. She could have deferred, but she jumped in and methodically learned the business. And she became a champion for the newspaper, and for freedom of the press.”