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I went to work at Newsweek when I was 26. I’d attended college at 16. I’d been the youngest editor and first black woman editor at the New York Times Magazine. I was a rising star, and I thought I knew a lot about a lot of things.
I had an amazing work experience at Newsweek, which at the time was owned by the Washington Post. The atmosphere there was similar to how the film The Post depicts the newspaper. It felt like becoming part of a family, and I felt this swell of possibility. I was in a world in which I was both pushed and challenged, while being nourished and encouraged.
When they talked about being in meetings with Graham, or traveling abroad with her, it was almost like hearing pilots talk about their days of flying with Amelia Earhart.
Newsweek had only recently settled a decades long sexual discrimination suit that showed how women were held back from opportunities, so that helped too; I’d stepped into a clearing of opportunity, paved by the women who’d come before me. The people I worked with there are still, even now, among my closest friends. It was my college in every way, shape and form.
Katharine Graham died three years after I arrived; I never met her. But the newsroom was rife with stories about her. Some of the best ones came from the older guys who had been reporters and editors at the Washington Post. When they talked about being in meetings with Graham, or traveling abroad with her, it was almost like hearing pilots talk about their days of flying with Amelia Earhart. I understood that Graham was a world apart from me: wealthy and well-heeled, a society woman born into a newspaper dynasty. I also understood, very clearly, that she had, under her own steam, become a pioneer, and as a black woman who had even at my young age become a few firsts, I respected that.
Katharine Graham as a Role Model: Anna Quindlen’s Part
I was almost thirty when Graham died. Anna Quindlen wrote the obit in Newsweek, and her one-page salute to Graham would unexpectedly shape the next two decades of my life. Even the title of Quindlen’s piece, “A Good Girl, A Great Woman,” suggests a path of evolution that can encompass us all—even if we were bad girls aiming to be great women.
Even the title of Quindlen’s piece, “A Good Girl, A Great Woman,” suggests a path of evolution that can encompass us all—even if we were bad girls aiming to be great women.
In the obit, Quindlen wrote:
“She seemed to have everything the times demanded, this woman of a certain age toying with her mineral water across a restaurant table. A partnership in a large law firm. An enduring marriage to her college beau. Grown children with promising careers. An apartment in the city, a house in the country, a sense of humor, a sharp mind. In the fashion of women trading recipes, she was asked how she did it, and she replied by way of food. “It was different for women of my generation,” she said. “We did it like a cake, layer by layer.
Those younger women to whom life has become more like a fruitcake, way too much going on in one big block, have learned to covertly admire the fortitude of women like that one, women who lived one sort of life under the old rules and then managed to re-create themselves and succeed under the new ones. There are examples of the breed in their law firms and college classrooms, among their mothers and their acquaintances. The grande dame of them all was Katharine Graham, and when she died last week women who might seem to have little in common with her mourned the loss.”
I recognized Quindlen’s analogy instantly. Born in Panama, with Caribbean roots that went deep, I knew that I was one of those young women whose lives were like bad fruitcake: all the sweetness of youth, pounded artlessly into something that had more in common with a brick than with any delicious confection. My twenty-fifth birthday had found me in quite a different circumstance than I’d imagined at that magic age. I had broken up with my boyfriend. I’d been dumped by my best girlfriend. My family was far and fractured. I spent that birthday alone. That Christmas too.
Katharine Graham as a Role Model: Getting Permission
At twenty-six, I’d come to Newsweek confident of myself professionally, unsure of myself personally, worrying how I’d ever make a life that felt whole. The idea that women like Graham built their life “layer by layer like a cake” gave me a permission not to be a wonder kid at everything. I could take my time getting married, buying my first house, having a kid. And because of that single, perfect opening paragraph, I did—take my time with every big leap that lay ahead of me.
Every day that I showed up at that office, I felt I was arriving in a place that felt very much like “the house Katharine Graham built.” I did not have to make any decision as epic as the Pentagon Papers, but I remember being there late on a Friday night when Newsweek broke the Monica Lewinsky story. In ways big and small, my experience in the newsroom echoed the scenes of Graham in the new movie. I was often one of just a handful of women, but those women and those men made me feel that it was okay not to have all of the answers.
As depicted in the movie, I learned to ask the smart men (and women) for their opinion, but then to step away and make up my own mind. It was that mix of consensus building and independent thinking that I brought into the room every time I pitched a big story and especially when I swung for the fences and pitched for the cover. I didn’t know it at the time but I was learning how to trust my gut. When I watched The Post at the age of 47, I was reminded that the process that had seemed so natural to me in that space and time was built on a powerful model that all of us women had: the Katharine Graham way.
Katharine Graham as a Role Model: The Art of Life
My journalist friends will argue that Spotlight is a better movie about the art of journalism. I don’t disagree. But I think the filmmakers knew that when they made The Post they were making a movie that was more about the art of life, than the craft of journalism, and that both the writers and filmmakers were quite specifically interested in telling a story about how a woman steps into her power.
I think both the writers and filmmakers were quite specifically interested in telling a story about how a woman steps into her power.
Katharine Graham said of those years before the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, “I seemed to be carrying inadequacy as baggage.” And that is reassuring too, isn’t it? To realize that we don’t have to pretend to be fearless and ferocious because there are a certain number of candles on the cake. Maybe it’s okay to carry the baggage of insecurity until we know, from deep within, that it is okay, that it is finally time, to let it go.
For me, Quindlen’s obit of Katharine Graham became like a small piece of literature that I have read and re-read dozens of times over the past nearly twenty years. It’s the piece I send to every friend as she turns 50, even though I’m not yet 50 myself. When my friends read it, they cry. We talk for hours on the phone, we meet in bars and coffee shops, we plot our future like bakers, and we eat cake.