Revelations: I had so much women's baggage

The time: late 1960s The place: New York The woman: Katharine Graham, Chairwoman, The Washington Post Company
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The Independent Online
I was brought up in the days when men were the principals and we were almost second-class citizens, you were more or less told that your role in life was to please a man, support him, marry him, have his children and then bring them up. That's what you did, and then you did good works on the side if you could afford not to work.

I was a wife, so-called, for 23 years and did a lot of rather serious good works in the welfare department of the District of Columbia, but it never occurred to me that I should have a career, that I could have a career, although I have to say my husband [Philip, a manic depressive who committed suicide] always encouraged me to work. I certainly wasn't brought up to believe women had a role in business.

When Philip died, in 1963, I took over as president of the Washington Post Company, which also owns Newsweek. It took quite a long time to see my job as pioneering. It was unusual for a woman to be at that level and to run a company. But I didn't think of myself as a woman in the workplace, I saw myself as part of the family that had inherited this situation and therefore I had to be there.

Because I was ignorant, and went to work really to learn, I didn't see people treating me as a woman - I thought it was natural to condescend to me, because I didn't know anything. I kept asking all these questions, and eventually I got to know some things, although it took many years.

And then Gloria Steinem, one of the leaders of the women's liberation movement, came along. We met through Clay Felker, the editor of New York magazine, who had discovered Gloria. She said, "You have to understand these issues," and I said, "Oh no, that's not for me." And she said, "Yes it is, your life will be much better when you understand it and people around you will be much better."

She was talking about women and how we had accepted our roles for so long, and how this had had an effect on our egos. I thought she was right, I saw the point, she did have a big influence on me because she articulated the issues so well. She became a friend - I wouldn't say a close friend, I didn't see that much of her - but I saw her some and still do.

I had her come and do a talk to some of our editors and they were all very impressed with her, which was nice. I think she made a difference in that situation, she made a difference with me.

Sexism was going on in places you took for granted; in journalism, it wasn't "so-and-so, a congresswoman", it was "50-year-old grandmother of two does whatever it was". It was in the language, in words people used about you. They called women "girls" - still do, at times. I heard it done yesterday by two middle-aged women, and I'm not sure it wasn't about us.

I was on many boards - I was the only woman on the board of the Associated Press news agency and I went on a Wall Street board and of course I was the first woman in the room every time. And one thing that Gloria said was, that quite often the first woman in the room doesn't want to hold the door open for other women, you quite like the position.

And I was certainly ambivalent, I did like the position, but I worked at pushing women's issues. But not really enough, I think, in retrospect. I did suggest both at the Post and Newsweek that female reporters should be used in new ways. But it's funny how hard it is, if you have a manager and he is doing a good job and you try to persuade him that he should promote women, if they don't get the point ... which Ben Bradlee [editor at the Post] didn't at first, and neither did Oz Elliott [Newsweek editor].

They were looking for a "back of the book" editor at Newsweek [for reviews and arts pieces at the back] and I suggested the art critic of the New York Times but they said, oh no, you couldn't have a woman editor, because we're here late at night, on the weekends, and that sort of pressure wouldn't do at all. And I just said, oh. I thought it was odd, but I just accepted it.

The women staff at Newsweek planned to sue, and went to see the editors, who said "yes, yes, we'll hire more women." But they didn't, because they didn't understand that they had to make a real effort. So we did get sued, and then there was a settlement and now I think Newsweek is maybe more than half women.

And there were social things. The men and women in Washington used to part company after dinner, and the men would stay over their port and cigars and discuss issues around their host's dinner table, and the women would go to the living room or the hostess's bedroom and I rather mindlessly did this after I went to work, because I was so in the habit of doing it I never thought about it.

As time went on, I suddenly thought, well, I've been at an editorial lunch, I've been working all day, what am I doing here, going in this room with the women to discuss your houses and children? So I said to Joe Alsop, a great friend whose dinner I was at, "I'm sure you'll understand Joe, I really don't want to do that. There's work I can do at home. I don't want to break up your dinner, but I want to get out." I just suddenly realised I didn't want to do that, but I didn't want to make a scene.

He was highly alarmed and tried to persuade me the men were only there a minute, and I said, "Joe it's not a minute, it's an hour," and finally he said, "You just can't leave, so I'll let the women join us at the table." And it crazily then broke up the custom all over town.

Managing, for women, is about making hard decisions. One of the things that appeals to women about my book is that I say that I had so much women's baggage, an inability to make tough decisions at first, the desire to please, and I found it very hard to say, "I've heard everybody and now I think we'll do this," because I didn't want to displease them.

But I did, I got there finally, I just didn't like it naturally, because I'd been brought up the other way. And younger women have written to me, saying, "We loved your book because we still have so many of those traits and it's good to know you can get over them"n

Katharine Graham's autobiography,

'Personal History', is published by Weidenfeld

& Nicolson, pounds 25

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