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What 'The Post' can teach us about the power of being a female boss

The antidote to sexual harassment is not only finding one's voice. It's also creating a world - no, insisting on a world - where women hold power, too.

Washington Post Executive Director Ben Bradlee and Post Publisher Katharine Graham leave U.S. District Court in Washington on June 21, 1971.
Washington Post Executive Director Ben Bradlee and Post Publisher Katharine Graham leave U.S. District Court in Washington on June 21, 1971.Read moreAssociated Press

I met Katharine Graham exactly once. It was at a white-tie dinner in Washington, a year or so before she died in 2001.

Four decades separated us in age. She had long since stepped down as publisher of the Washington Post, and I had recently been named editor of the Buffalo News — the first woman to hold that top newsroom job at my hometown paper.

She was, by then, an icon — and certainly an idol of mine. So I searched to find something to chat with her about, and managed to let her know that I admired her. Though I doubt that I used the words courage or inspiration, I wish I had.

Now, through Meryl Streep's portrayal of Graham in the new movie The Post, a new generation of women — and girls — will get the chance to meet her, too. Maybe they'll even be intrigued enough to seek out her Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, Personal History, which tells the story of an insecure widow who inherited control of a newspaper and rose to meet challenges she never anticipated, changing the world along the way.

Whether they encounter her on the screen or on the page, they'll find that Graham has plenty to say to them, especially at this fraught moment in the history of women in America.

"The movie is about a woman finding her voice," producer Amy Pascal recently told Post film critic Ann Hornaday.

Referring to the reckoning on sexual misconduct that dominates today's headlines, Pascal added, "And what's happening right now is women realizing they haven't had a voice in a very long time."

At the film's recent premiere in Washington, many of the luminaries in attendance had a connection to the story or the newspaper that told it: Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos and publisher Fred Ryan; former chairman Donald Graham; Judith Martin, also known as Miss Manners; Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein; and even Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the secret papers revealing the U.S. government's shameful lies about the Vietnam War — first to the New York Times's Neil Sheehan.

(Why, then, isn't this story primarily about the Times, which broke the Pentagon Papers story and won the Pulitzer Prize for it? Tom Hanks, in an onstage chat with The Post's executive editor, Martin Baron, made it simple: "Well, they didn't have Katharine Graham, in all honesty. If they'd had a Katharine Graham, it would be — we'd be calling it The Times.")

But also in the audience were many prominent media women who know all too well what it feels like to be the only women in a boardroom, or who have struggled to assert their hard-won authority in jobs never held by a woman before.

For them, the narrative is personal.

"That photo of Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee leaving the Supreme Court was emblazoned on my mind," said Susan Goldberg, editor in chief of National Geographic magazine. Goldberg wasn't even in high school in 1971, when that famous picture was taken after the court overturned the Nixon administration's effort to restrain the Times and the Post from further publication.

The image became a touchstone over the years as Goldberg faced many days — many years — when she was the only woman in the room or the only woman around the table of decision-makers. She was the first female editor of the San Jose Mercury News, the first female editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the first woman in charge of Bloomberg's Washington bureau, and the first woman in her current job.

"We'll be in a much better place as a society when there are fewer female 'firsts,' and having a woman in charge — whether in journalism or law or finance or politics — is less notable because it is just the normal course of doing business," Goldberg told me.

Sexual harassment is, of course, as much about power as about sex. Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was able to prey on aspiring actresses because he had so much control.

The antidote, then, is not only finding one's voice. It's also creating a world — no, insisting on a world — where women hold power, too.

"The answer to creepy men is being the boss" was how Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker magazines, put it recently as she promoted her new book at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington.

These days, there still aren't enough woman in authority — not in news organizations, not in Hollywood, not in business, not in politics.

Decades later, it's still hard to women for speak their truths and to be fully heard. But more and more, that's changing.

At the end of The Post, Katharine Graham leaves the Supreme Court and moves through a crowd of young women, their faces aglow with admiration for the woman who screwed up her courage, took on a big fight, and won.

The literal truth of this triumphant scene is debatable, but as metaphor it is dead on. And it couldn't be more timely.

Margaret Sullivan is the Washington Post's media columnist. @sulliview