Why We Need Women’s History Month Honor Kay Graham and M. S. Douglas Journalists in History & Making History
“The Post” film makes me proud to be a journalist. Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, is deservedly featured in the leading role. She bravely defended our profession, country, the First Amendment, the Fourth Estate and journalistic integrity.
With all due respect however, publicity for the film notes that Graham was “the first female publisher of a major American newspaper.” My own research refutes this statement. See below.
This is why we need Women’s History Month in March to feature women’s achievements factually. Currently, only 13 percent of historical figures in history textbooks are women. Due to women’s history advocates working to correct the data deficit, the statistics are up from the only three percent of references to women in history textbooks in the early 1990’s.
It’s important to report on the women who persisted and defied conventions and challenged stereotypes to advance future generations. Pioneers are rarely the direct beneficiaries of their fearless feats.
How was Graham’s misinformation perpetuated in the film’s publicity and not corrected in the press coverage or Wikipedia biography? One would hope journalists fact-check and document our own history stories. In Journalism School, the dictum was:
“Get It First. But First Get It Right!”
My own due diligence rules to fact-check Women’s History are: Research, Record, Report, Remember.
Katharine Graham followed a typical pattern for pioneering female publishers: born to a wealthy family, inherited newspaper upon husband’s death and took control in a male-led business and society.
Eliza Nicholson became the first female owner and publisher of a major daily metropolitan newspaper in the U.S., of the New Orleans Daily Picayune, in 1876, at 27. The first professional female journalist in the South worked in a hostile male environment. She married the owner in 1872. Four years later she inherited the almost-bankrupt paper upon his death. Under her leadership, the paper promoted women’s rights and equal pay. She also supported women journalists and was the first president of the Women’s National Press Association, founded in 1885. The paper stayed in the family until 1962.
Dorothy Schiff bought The Post in New York City in 1939 and sold it to Rupert Murdoch in 1976. She outlasted all the competitors to become the only PM daily. Initially, she installed her husband as publisher and president. Schiff became NYC’s first female publisher in 1942, at 39.
“The Post” focuses on Katharine Graham’s key role in directing The Washington Post to publish the classified Pentagon Papers, a landmaark national historical event. She proceeded at great company business and personal risk, including potential imprisonment. Her father purchased The Post in 1933. He passed the publisher position to Graham’s husband, a lawyer, in 1946, although she had worked at the paper for more than a decade. He commited suicide in 1963.
At the time, she was a 46-year-old insecure, socialite mother of four children. Graham was elected president of the Washington Post Company in 1967 and served as publisher from 1969 to 1979.
In 1970, Graham was one of five women admitted for the first time to Sigma Delta Chi Washington chapter, the professional journalism society. She was the first woman to lead a Fortune 500 company in 1972, the first female elected to the American Newspaper Publishers Association board in 1973 and director of the Associated Press in 1974 . In 1998, Graham was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her memoir, “Personal History,” and the Presidential Medal of Freedom one year after her death.
As evidenced by the male dominance portrayed in the newsroom and the boardroom in the film, she transformed the family-owned local newspaper business into a public media conglomerate listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Her own career growth mirrored the rise of the women’s movement and programs against sexism and gender inequality in the media, business and society.
When women at Newsweek, which her company owned, filed a gender discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1970, Graham asked, ”Which side am I supposed to be on?” By 1971, the woman of ire had become the iron woman. She took the momentous risk to give the “Go” signal to publish the Pentagon Papers.
Graham also became more sensitive and supportive of the women’s movement. She refused to attend the annual Gridiron dinner in 1972 when the women at the paper asked her not to go until they accepted women as members. The Club finally narrowly voted to admit women and she attended her first dinner in 1975. Graham gave $20,000 seed money to launch Ms. magazine in 1972.
Her decisive leadership role and courage continued to grow during the Watergate scandal saga. Attorney General John Mitchell warned, “Tell Katie Graham she’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” We know who got busted and led to Nixon resigning the presidency in 1974! She proudly wore a necklace with two gold charms: a wringer and one breast.
Graham said Gloria Steinem helped her understand the women’s movement. She may have fulfilled Steinem’s prophecy,
“Some of us are becoming the men we wanted to marry.”
Cracking The Celluloid Ceiling: The Women Who Made ”The Post”
“The Post” back story and box-office success symbolizes the significance of female-driven narratives with powerful protagonists and the slow progress for women behind and on the screen. This year men represent 77 percent of the Oscar nominees in the 19 major non-acting categories that feature writing, editing, producing and directing roles, according to a report by the Women’s Media Center. Last year women comprised just 18 percent of all directors, producers, writers, editors and cinematographers, working on the top-grossing films.
Liz Hannah, the 31-year-old aspiring screenwriter of “The Post” defied the odds, when she submitted her first unsolicited script. She was just hoping it would get her an agent. A young executive showed the script to producer Amy Pascal who won the auction. She shared it with Steven Spielberg and cast Meryl Streep to play Graham. Hannah had been inspired with Graham’s memoir detailing her personal and professional life transitions and chose to pursue her own passion project to tell Graham’s story.
Pascal, the former chairperson of Sony Pictures, earned her first Oscar nomination for “The Post.” Streep broke her own record with her 21st Oscar nomination, for “Best Actress,” in “The Post.” She’s won three Oscars and has the most nominations and wins of any actor. In reel life, she funded the Writer’s Lab for women screenwriters over 40. Streep donated $1 million to the National Women’s History Museum in Washington, D.C.
Salute To M.S. Douglas H.S. Journalism Teacher And Students
Recognizing couragous women journalists, I honor Melissa Falkowski, 35, the Journalism teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, for 14 years. They were putting the school newspaper together when the fire alarm sounded and gun shots were heard. She bravely shielded 19 students in the cramped classroom closet during the shooting for more than an hour until the SWAT team arrived. As the newspaper advisor, she guided the students to “get back to the business of journalism.” She encouraged them to document the tragedy and aftermath, to tell their own stories in the school outlets and the national media, in real time. Falkowski was Broward County’s 2016 Journalism High School Advisor of the Year.
As a consequence of the tragedy, the involuntary warrior student reporters and activists assumed the living legacy of their school’s namesake journalist and advocate. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who lived to 108 in 1998, was a Miami Herald reporter and environmentalist defending the Everglades. She was a founding board member of the first ACLU chapter in the South in 1950. Douglas gave her last public speech at age 99, on women’s rights. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at 103. In 1990, the new High School was named for the 100-year-old Douglas.
Hopefully, more women and men will tell the noteworthy stories of brave, persistent women pioneers and feature positive protagonists in the media. Stop rewarding bad behavior with the media spotlight. What about Nancy Kerrigan’s, not Tonya Harding’s, survival story?
I’m developing a project to memorialize Women Leaders in Communications in history and making history. Watch this space.
See “Women Make History Every Day Database” on my website at www.beverlywettenstein.com. “Celebrate Women Every Day and Make History!” Onward and upward!