Having just finished reading one of the best books I’ve perused over many years, I am copying the following comments in that book for others to reflect upon if they are interested.
The book, titled “Personal History”, won the Pulitzer Prize and was written by Katharine Graham, formerly president and CEO of The Washington Post Company. Published in March 1998 as a memoir of her life, it details extensively the purchase of The Washington Post newspaper by her German-Jewish father in 1933 when it was struggling to survive amid myriad newspapers then in Washington.
Writing the book as a 79-year-old woman on her own, she records many facts about not just journalism and the role of newspapers in that city, but about sexism, politics and living as a single female after her husband’s death (by suicide) in 1963.
Here are some of her comments:
Early 1956 and married to Phil Graham who was then running the Post:
“My insecurity had something to do with both my mother and Phil (her mother was a non-Jewish German Lutheran from a relatively poor family). My mother seemed to undermine so much of what I did, subtlety belittling my choices and my activities in light of her greater, more important ones. My very eccentric relations with her were exemplified in an incident of these years. I would often call on her when she was in bed or resting. We would endlessly discuss her activities and speeches, interspersed with occasional contributions from me about the children. One day I decided very deliberately that I would bring up my project to get children out of Junior Village, a large shelter in the District, and into foster homes. It took some courageous determination, but I started to say she might be interested in some work I was doing. As I went on, she cut me off decisively, saying “Oh, darling, I gave up on the District years ago.” So ended my abortive effort to talk with her about something that mattered to me.
As for Phil, at the same time that he was building me up, he was tearing me down. 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. He always had a very sharp wit and sometimes a cruel humour-I’d seen it used in many social situations, and occasionally, friends of ours were the targets…Increasingly, however, the wit he had turned on others he now turned on me. I became the butt of the family jokes…Because I had gained some weight, though not that much, he started to call me “Porky”…(And) when we were with friends and I was talking, he would look at me in such a way that I felt I was going on too long and boring people. Gradually, I ceased talking much at all when we were out together. I recognised none of this condescension at the time…(and) failed to recognise how aggressive his behaviour to me had become…I simply didn’t connect my lack of self-confidence with his behaviour towards me…”
Katharine’s experience and realisations later resonate with my experience of my mother, my two older sisters, my ex-boyfriend at 21 years, and sadly, with some ex-friends who also tried to undermine me over my life, however unconsciously. Unfortunately, the shrinks and psychologists I consulted, gender irrelevant, replicated exactly the same attitudes and what I came to understand as verbal abuse and/or psychological violence. The difference is that by my late 30s, this form of violence was very clear to me, developing in spite of them, a strong sense of self that while some people continued to try and undermine me, their words stopped affecting me as they had in my youth.
The really interesting aspect about what Katharine wrote is that she realised it was HER mother and HER husband evincing similar verbal abuse; NOT her father. It is the first time I have ever read that a mother and a husband can be similarly undermining; so often I have read that family patterns repeat themselves with the woman’s father supposedly, and then her husband, similarly culpable of negative and disparaging abuse. It is as if gender, that is, the same gender across generations, is responsible for problems of their offspring, No one I’ve ever read, or talked with previously, has expressed a cross-referencing about gender behaviours. Indeed, I felt vindicated reading Katharine’s personal understanding, which so correlates to my own, albeit many years past. Sadly no one I know, including supposed family violence specialists, let alone the many mental health so-called professionals I’ve seen have ever written, even inferred, asserted or acknowledged the possibility, or more importantly the probability, that a gender cross-over, or gender irrelevance, can be pertinent in understanding relationships of different kinds, especially in families and with partners, irrespective of marriage. Moreover, Katharine, her mother and her husband were worth megamillions of dollars; money clearly insignificant in the abusive, even toxic nature of her relationships with both of them. It is indeed tragic that people working in family violence, the police included, have no knowledge, interest in or awareness of the reality about that violence, particularly about the gender significance or not, of parents, siblings and even platonic friends, both male and female. Too often, females experiencing domestic violence are mostly perceived, and unfortunately usually believed, as victims of male perpetrators only, be they a boyfriend, partner or husband, duplicating a relationship previously experienced with their father in their youth. They seem, based on my personal experience, without any cognisance or awareness of how that female’s mother, or siblings, may have contributed to the reasons and circumstances of why the female stayed in an abusive relationship in the first place. Moreover, ditto for the male perpetrator. In my case, as I’ve written on this website, it was also my female siblings as well as my mother, who consistently undermined me on too many fronts. Like the workers in this area, they all blamed my boyfriend at the time, and later of course me, accepting NO responsibility for their own psychological violence, underpinned by disrespect and distrust of me.
Having written this, it seems pertinent to point out that in the first instance of my boyfriend’s physical violence, when I was just over 21-years-old, I consulted a “shrink” knowing I had a problem still feeling “in love” with him. I then told the shrink I believed I was indeed “duplicating” a relationship I had with my father, who while never physically violent towards me, had sometimes verbally abused me for failing to do my chores and more importantly, rejecting what I regarded his authoritarian control. I used the words “family patterns repeat themselves” which I had read somewhere, believing at the same time, I was like my mother who had previously told me how unhappy she was in their marriage. It took nearly ten years on my own and reading so many more books and magazines to unravel and clarify why I partnered with a violent man (verbally abusive too) and kept taking him back. I have elaborated on these issues in other blogs, so suffice to say here, the why was very complex, with identifying one parent, one sibling, or a friend, as singularly responsible for some feelings I had unconsciously internalised, inappropriate. Family dynamics can be extremely complicated, with all members inevitably playing a part in the relationships within the family. What I fortunately did realise by my late twenties was that my father did let go of control, be positive towards me and accepted I made my own decisions about how I wanted to live my life. He never interfered with my choices, no longer abused me at all, and was the only family member “proud” of my achievements. Finally on this issue, my family was relatively poor, my father unemployed for nearly 12 months, which I realised years later, undoubtedly depressed him, frustrated him and engendered feelings of failure as the “supposed” breadwinner in the family. He had no understanding about his “explosive” rages; neither did my mother or my sisters. As well, they also had no understanding of themselves either, or what they internalised and unconsciously, projected onto me.
The tragic reality about much family violence, even the Royal Commission into the subject by the Victorian State government just five years ago, is that there is a serious lack of any genuine insights or understanding about how complex an issue it is. The major focus of the commission’s findings, as reported in the mainstream media, was all about male perpetrators disrespecting and controlling their wives, children and/or partners, potentially, a threat to their safety and lives. Since its report, there has been no public discourse that I’ve read or heard about the gender “facts” of my experience and Katharine Graham’s too, with women thought to stay, and/or “trapped”, by exclusively male perpetrators through lack of finances, alternative housing options and other practicalities. Sadly no doubt, these women are unaware of their complicity and behaviours in the relationship, however differently manifested, and their own psychological problems, mostly I contend unconscious, irrespective of the relationship with the male perpetrator. At the same time, I consistently read news stories about working women, even owning their own homes, who stay with the male perpetrators for far too long after the first violent experience; psychological and/or physical. Not one story I’ve read even mentions why the woman has stayed, let alone even endeavoured to explore and examine the reasons the relationship nearly killed her, or in other tragic cases, actually did. Only one reason is continually cited: the male perpetrator is “out of control”, disrespectful and in many cases, suffering from a mental illness and/or alcohol and drug abuse. Moreover, there hasn’t been one story delving into the complexity of a female perpetrator and a dead or traumatised male partner or husband. Katharine Graham writes earlier before her husband’s suicide about “a violent quarrel” with him, without defining at all what she meant by “violent” and/or why she stayed in the marriage. Moreover, she doesn’t mention whether she too was as “violent”, albeit verbally, as her husband. With millions of dollars of her own and no practical problems, I can only ponder why she never ended the relationship and why he didn’t either. They don’t seem to have been the only couples in that situation! Whoever reads this may have answers of their own.
I’m just so glad I read this book and there’s more to come; about so many issues that I relate to, despite vast differences in our lives on many levels.
September 1963, shortly after her husband’s suicide:
“Left alone, no matter at what age or under what circumstance, you have to remake your life…The inner turmoil continued…I didn’t talk intimately to anyone…mostly, I kept my agonizing to myself…Yet, on another level, life carried on…” Pertinently, a good male friend said to her “You’re not going to work, are you? You musn’t- you are young and attractive and you’ll get remarried.” Katharine replied “emphatically” that she “was (her italics) going to work.” This man, she says, “meant what he said flatteringly; for a woman, being married was a goal, a way of life- at that time certainly the most desirable one…I saw no contradiction between going to work and whatever happened in my private life. I suppose that, without quite realising it, I was taking a veil” While going to work, Katharine adopted the title as president of the company, with one of her husband’s great male supports remaining to work with her as chairman, realising that the delineation of titles “might entail his being boss and my being number two and I wanted to be clear. I suggested that, whatever the titles, we be partners as he and (her husband) had been…She went onto call it “a business marriage”, adding significantly, “I’m not sure how I dared to suggest equality, considering my lack of credentials.” Without knowing “why”, the new male partner “acceded to my position”. The company also owned Newsweek in New York which had difficulties, and Katharine refers to herself as “Miss Dutiful” in travelling to NY every week “to learn what made the magazine work,” but she comments honestly, that “I often got quite depressed up there” due to worrying about “perceived minor slights, or awkward encounters with people”. It is interesting that she uses the word “depressed”, seemingly without any misgiving about how that word can, and so often is, assumed by doctors as being psychologically compromised and mentally unwell, needing medical intervention, supervision, surveillance and pills. I realised a very long time ago that the word connoted a sense of malfunction and was indeed a “dirty” word to most people. She continues that at work at Newsweek some staff “viewed me as an ignorant intruder” while others were even “hostile”. Referring to sexism for the first time in the book, she writes “Some of the executives (male of course) didn’t know how to deal with a woman in their midst- particularly a woman who controlled the company. I didn’t understand sexism or anything to do with it-nor, in fact, did many of the men with whom I worked. And I was encumbered by a deep feeling of uncertainty and inferiority and a need to please, to be liked…” Remember, this is 1963-before the women’s liberation movement had made any real impact, not just in America, but across western society. For me, as a 14-year-old in Melbourne Australia in 1964, I had already read my first women’s, if not feminist book, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1964 and written by Betty Freidan. “Sex and the Single Girl”, written by Helen Gurley Brown, was published in America in 1962 (which I didn’t read until 1966), but clearly, Katharine was completely unaware and ignorant of these books, which detailed the limitations, subservient stereotypes and social taboos for women at that time. Also, she had no knowledge at all about the mental anguish and problems for those women trying to jettison the social and sexual straitjacket which “imprisoned” and trapped them in unrewarding and unsatisfying relationships. In all her discourse about past boyfriends, and her marriage, Katharine does not ever write about her sexual experiences, feelings or issues pertaining to sex. I can only ponder why?
She continues to articulate that in her new role as president of the company, she became an “object of interest throughout the media…” – a “strange and difficult experience…” Giving a few interviews, in one published interview she said she “did not find it difficult to be a woman executive in a field dominated by men and “after a while, people forget you’re a woman”. That she states, “was bravura, brought on by my newness and inexperience. Women’s issues hadn’t yet surfaced, and I simply wasn’t sensitive to how people viewed me…the unpleasantness of being condescended to and the strangeness of being the only woman in so many rooms got mixed up in my mind. But I didn’t blame my male colleagues for condescending –I just thought it was due to my being so new. It took the passage of time and the women’s lib years to alert me properly to the real problems of women in the workplace, including my own.”
If any reader of this is really concentrating, he/she would realise, as I have, that Katharine fails to realise her contradictory statement, as she states earlier as I’ve quoted, that at Newsweek she believed and/or felt she was regarded by some as “an ignorant intruder…(with some people even) “hostile”, and then above writes “I simply wasn’t sensitive to how people viewed me…” At Newsweek it seems apparent she was indeed cognisant of how some “viewed” her, but it’s a matter of interpretation what she really means by “sensitive”…it’s up to the reader to think about…interesting that the editor of the book didn’t pick her up on the contradiction; as I interpret her words.
As president of a politically powerful Washington newspaper, Katharine writes about journalism: “I believed intuitively- and the feeling grew with experience- that the news columns had (her italics) to be fair and detached, even while recognising that there really is no such thing as “objectivity”. The very act of deciding what is news and what is not involves the use of judgement, and editors should use their best detached judgement to achieve fairness in news columns. The editorial page and editorial views are so completely separate from the news columns that they sometimes are not even in touch, and certainly don’t influence each other.
Sometime in 1966:
With Russ Wiggins a probable appointment as The Post’s new editor, Katharine tells him previous to confirming that appointment, about the “no surprise rule” She told him “he would have real autonomy (as editor), but at the same time “warned him that I didn’t want to wake up more often than not to editorials with which I didn’t agree.” She added “that if that turned out to be the case, something would have to give, to which he jokingly said he assumed that wouldn’t be the owner”. What then, does one make of Wiggins’ “real autonomy” and the belief that media owners do not interfere in editorial policy? Is media “independence” a mere supposition? From what Katharine has written, it seems Wiggins had to agreeably “editorialise” with her, or lose his job. Over much of my working life in the media, newspapers in Australia and the UK, as well as so-called “independent” TV in the UK, as well as the ABC and SBS in Australia, albeit only briefly, I realised while there was an unwritten belief in editorial independence, at least theoretically, the reality could be, and often was, antithetical to such supposed independence. I have written elsewhere about a letter I wrote that was published in an opposition newspaper critical of Australia’s conscription law in 1968 that resulted in my editor-in-chief wanting to sack me as told to me by my editor. Aware my newspaper supported the conscription law, it was certainly obvious that editorial independence was no more than a myth, even a delusion, by that proprietor. For reasons that I’m unsure about, the editor did not sack me, but warned me to not write any more letters to opposing newspapers. Indeed, at SBS too, in 1981, I wanted to cover political stories, to be told by the current affairs program editor, that politics was “no-go”. I quit after just four months. Of course, the Murdoch empire has been criticised for decades about Rupert’s individual influence, if not dictates, about editorial policies, but are always denied vehemently by his editorial honchos. Nonetheless, there are some published stories that do not celebrate political conservatism in his newspapers, but mostly, they are few and far between. Moreover, even the supposedly prestigious Melbourne Age, which fiercely prides itself as independent, did not publish a Michael Leunig cartoon critical of Israel’s “stance” on the Palestinians not that long ago, because it’s then editor-in-chief, Michael Gawenda, who is Jewish, did not apparently agree the cartoon was fair or just. Indeed, criticising Israel about its attitude and treatment of Palestinians is tragically deemed anti-Semitic all too often, as I’ve realised about several letters I’ve written over the years, both to The Age and the Murdoch Press, which have never been published. The reader here can decide about just what editorial independence means, but clearly, Katharine demanded acquiescence from Wiggins during his editorship. But then, she acknowledges there’s “really no such thing as objectivity”. What then, I can only ponder, is fairness in reportage?
Becoming publisher of The Post in 1969, Katharine writes that “the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s…were depressing for me in many ways (THAT word again!).” Ascribing “inadequacy” as her personal baggage, as well as “uncertainty and nervousness” about “doing the kind of job I wanted to do”, she felt “like a pretender to the throne”. Appreciating these responses “arose from my particular experience”; realising they also “stemmed from the narrow way women’s roles were defined, it was a trait shared by most women in my generation. We had been brought up to believe that our roles were to be wives and mothers, educated to think that we were put on earth to make men happy and comfortable and to do the same for our children.” Adopting “the assumption of many of my generation that women were intellectually inferior to men, that we were not capable of governing, leading, managing anything but our homes and our children…took its toll, (as) most of us became somehow inferior.” She elaborates on feeling this way by stating “since I regarded myself as inferior, I failed to distinguish between, on the one hand, male condescension because I was a woman and, on the other hand, a valid view that the only reason I had my job was the good luck of my birth and the bad luck of my husband’s death”. Continuing, she writes that at The Post in 1963, after her husband’s death, “there were no women managers and few women professionals- and probably no women within four levels of me. The Post was not an anomaly; rather, this was typical of the times. The business world was essentially closed to women. At least through most of the 1960s, I basically lived in a man’s world…and had no comprehension of the difficulties faced by working women in our organisation and elsewhere…(attributing) none of my problems to being a woman”. Regarding her attitudes to the “status of women” as “old-fashioned”, she states she was “grossly insensitive” to “the topic of women in the workplace” and “an understanding of the real heart of women’s issues surfaced only later, and far too gradually.” At meetings with men she was usually “the only woman” and “hard for me as a woman alone”, observing “that at times women were invisible to men, who looked right through you as though you weren’t there.” However, this “working experience…(later) combined with the influence of the increasingly strong women’s movement” to alter my views about women. Without there being “no single dramatic moment”, she “just began to focus on the real issues surrounding the women’s movement”, including reading The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir which “improved” her attitude. Remarking on “probably the first Post editorial comment on women’s issues in 1969”, written by “a liberated man”, she states it included “the ultra-radical notion that a woman is a human being”.
Katharine also becomes friends with the US Women’s Movement champion, Gloria Steinem, calling her “an important influence in my thinking”. While she initially eschewed and “disliked the kind of bra-burning symbolism that appeared to me like man-hating (as it did to me too),” she “changed (her)…mind-set”, “seeing endless examples within (her)…own company of how women were viewed…(which assumed) white men were the chosen ones to run the business and edit the news….Too much too great an extent, I accepted this as the way the world worked”.
Commenting on “one of the (female) exceptions…(a woman)…the only (her italics) woman, (to be) given a writing tryout at Newsweek between…1961 and 1969…finally became a writer in 1962 and a correspondent in the Paris bureau in 1964.” However, asking if a pay rise went with her promotion, her male boss “replied indignantly “What do you mean? Think of the honour we are paying you”. Though Katharine acknowledges she was “still simplistic in my thinking, (she was)…beginning to understand the seriousness and complexity of the issue.” Yet, she “had no clear idea who to lean on male-chauvinist managers to make changes…Attitudes needed to be modified on both sides. “ Thinking “women had accepted the dubious assumptions and myths about themselves for much too long (which I must say I never did)”, she believed “men had to be helped to break out of the assumptions of which they, too, were victims”. She continues that she “often received requests to listen to women’s complaints…(one by a reporter for “repeatedly receiving mediocre assignments…” Boy, how I relate to that! Disappointingly, she “stood by the editors” to these complaints, but did at least realise “I fear I didn’t lean on the editors to change their ways”. Indeed, she writes: “Although I was head of a company, I had a hard time making change happen under the white males running things.”
Experiencing instances where women were still not included on boards such as that of Associated Press, with Katharine being the first elected, and at the same time taking her “a long time to throw off some of my early and ingrained assumptions, I did come to understand the importance of the basic problems of equality in the workplace, upward mobility, salary equity and, more recently, child care. What the women’s movement eventually did for me personally was to help me sort out my thinking. Most important to me was…that women had a right to choose which life-style suited them. We all had a right to a frame of reference other than…to catch a man, hold him and please him.”
Post- Watergate 1974-5:
Watergate “underscored the crucial role of a free, able, and energetic press. We saw how much power the government has to reveal what it wants when it wants, to give people only the authorised version of events. We re-learned the lessons of the importance of the right of a newspaper to keep its sources confidential. The credibility of the press stood the test of time against the credibility of those who spent so much time self-righteously denying their own wrongdoing and assaulting us by assailing our performance and our motives.”
Just three years prior, she further recognises “the fact that I was a woman…(she) got overly lionised for our editorial victories and overly criticised for correcting (her italics) my mistakes rather than making them in the first place, both of which I resented. At that time, if a woman fired a man, everyone assumed the woman was at fault. Indeed, I was viewed- and publicly pilloried- as a difficult, whimsical, tyrannical, tempestuous woman. The man was perceived as a victim.”
Writing about Warren Buffet buying “a significant chunk of the company”, she “knew nothing about this man…and tried to find out whatever I could…” Contacting some people who might know him, she understood “one of Phil’s major influences on me was the idea of reaching out to different kinds of people. He had encouraged me and the children to be curious about people, not to assume things about them and their motives without getting to know them. He emphasised the importance of not believing in stereotypes, not only because they don’t hold true to form but because you miss so much if you allow them to dominate your responses.” What’s interesting is that Katharine makes no reference to whether her being “undermined” by him and the butt of his “cruel” jokes could have had anything to do with his attitude towards her as a woman; inferior and less important; a stereotype of females he may have entertained, albeit unconsciously. Ironic that while she acknowledges, indeed applauds, he did not believe in stereotypes, she does not even consider that his undermining of her could have been because of “unconscious bias” and/or an adherence to stereotypes about females. Like Phil, I too have always tried to live my life with that understanding and awareness about stereotypes, realising however that when young, there were many unconscious assumptions I made about some men at work and in relationships. More significantly however, were the assumptions I made about women, at home, at work and at play. What I tried to do after realising my own unconscious bias was to “pick”
myself up on those assumptions and appreciate both males and females as “imperfect” human beings, gender often irrelevant. .
After battling the unions on the introduction of the new technology, and having appointed a new president and chief operating officer in 1973, a man called Larry Israel, by 1977, Katharine realised he was “not working out” and he agreed to resign. His departure “was greeted with a batch of negative stories of which I was the target…I particularly detested the sexist implications of stories like these-always being depicted as the difficult woman, while whomever left the company was the victim of my female whims. I was still a curiosity; a woman in a man’s world.” Mentioning a few men she knew in business, she writes they “fired executive after executive, but no one attributed their actions to gender.”
Interestingly, the Post company buys a local paper called the Trenton Times, stating “instead of thinking about what was the right paper for this particular community, we seemed to edit the paper as though we were thinking of what the community should read (her italics). I think there was some arrogance involved…” I want to comment that in many instances in my media work, bosses clearly adopted this same attitude of dictating what they believed people should read, often not always the reality as my research revealed. Most bosses were so arrogant they stuck to their “version of events” rather than reconsider their perspective based on my findings. A couple did eventually come to “trust” my judgement and research; mostly however, I failed to change their mind. At least Katharine realised the arrogance of telling people what to read!
Appointing her son, Don, as publisher of the Post in 1979, she had great regard for him being “far more qualified in experience and temperament” than either herself or Phil. Don had edited a couple of prestigious newspapers, had volunteered for army service in Vietnam and she quotes him as saying that you couldn’t “be a good newspaperman if you’ve done nothing but work for newspapers all your life”. I couldn’t agree more!
!988- A single life:
Having voted for Bush Snr as the first presidential Republican in her life, Katharine expresses an understanding about the “cool or antagonistic relationships…in Washington…, but I often think how self-defeating they are and how much better polite professional relations would serve political figures and (her italics) journalists…” Continuing she adds “The longer I live, the more I observe that carrying around anger is most debilitating to the person who bears it.”
As a woman on her own after Phil’s death with “always too much work, too many meetings (and) too many dinner parties”, she found separating her work life from her private life “terribly difficult”, but “with the help of lessons learned from the women’s movement, I began to have a happier time in my private life”. Acknowledging “there were always men in my life- romances and close friends-…(she was) often asked why I never remarried…(answering)…in my early years at work, I resented the question, which I felt would not be asked of a male publisher. I usually answered that I really didn’t know why. I still don’t know all the reasons, but what I came to understand was that my job made it difficult, if not impossible.”
“Men who appeal to me are strong, bright, tough and involved, but that kind of man would probably not accept my own active and absorbing life. Those men need more attention and emotional energy than I had left over at the end of any working day, and I wasn’t looking for a prince consort. In fact, I wasn’t looking at all…rarely (giving)…a thought to possible remarriage…When you’ve lived alone for a number of years, I’m afraid that you begin to realise how hard it would be to accommodate to living with someone else, adjusting to or even indulging his desires and his life. It was clear to me that I was married to my job, and that I loved it”. All I can say is that having lived alone for almost 50 years, I do not want to accommodate to living with anyone, not married any longer to a job, but to myself, as my own woman to make my own decisions and choices about how I live.
This is the end of my transcription of Katharine’s book, selecting sections which I relate to, and/or have found pertinent to some of my own experiences, albeit different to many of hers. I hope the readers of this also find it interesting, if not historically insightful, about a woman in the media in America in the latter half of the 20th century.