This article was first published in the August 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine
Katharine Graham was the scion of a wealthy New York family who bought The Washington Post in the 1930s. She became de facto publisher of the newspaper in 1963 following the suicide of her husband, and later chairwoman of the board. The mother of four presided over the newspaper (now owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos) in the early 1970s when it played a pivotal role in uncovering the Watergate conspiracy, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. She died in 2001, aged 84.
When did you first hear about Graham?
Probably around the time of the Watergate scandal, because it was such a massive story. I was a student at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the 1960s and had been involved in anti-Vietnam [War] politics, so naturally took great interest in The Washington Post‘s investigation into Richard Nixon [who was president for much of the conflict and approved the secret carpet bombing of the North Vietnamese].
What kind of person was she?
There may have been a bit of the little rich girl about her – she was all over the political spectrum and friendly with everyone from the Kennedys to the Reagans – but a lot of things about her story resonate strongly with me. Like me, she was Jewish, but her Jewish identity was never very important to her. She wanted to go to the LSE, but was stopped from doing so by her father; in contrast, I won the argument with my dad. Sadly she was also in a terribly abusive relationship with her husband, Philip – for much of the marriage, she was the little woman at home. Nonetheless, she emerged out of it all as an incredibly powerful woman.
“Graham was often the only woman in the room for high-powered meetings at the Post – they would say ‘Lady and gentlemen’!”
What made Graham a hero?
Not only was she an important figure in the anti-Vietnam War movement, she was also an early feminist, though she would have never described herself as one. Graham was often the only woman in the room for high-powered meetings at the Post – they would say “Lady and gentlemen”! She broke though the glass ceiling and was one of the first women to obtain power in a male-dominated industry. Another thing I like is that she occasionally stormed out of events where the women were expected to withdraw after dinner – something I’ve done myself.
What was her finest hour?
The crucial part played by the Post‘s investigation into Watergate – and the way that she, as publisher, stood up for the paper, its editor Ben Bradlee and its star reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who played such a big role in uncovering the truth. That took real bravery on her part. Investigative journalism is absolutely key to a healthy democracy, and is as important now – in standing up to President Trump’s attempts to characterise anything that he doesn’t like as ‘fake news’ – as it was then.
Is there anything you don’t admire about her?
She came from a very privileged background so that made things much easier. I also wish she’d been a more positive feminist.
If you could meet Graham, what would you ask her?
I’d like to ask her why she played the ‘little woman’ role for so long before finding her voice. I’d also want to find out what made her change.
Margaret Hodge was talking to York Membery.
Margaret Hodge has been the MP for Barking since 1994. She held a number of ministerial positions during the 1997–2010 Labour administration, and was appointed DBE in 2015.