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Women’s History Month Profiles: Katharine Graham, Washington Post Publisher and First Female CEO of a Fortune 500 Company

During Women’s History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of woman innovators and history makers like Katharine Graham, who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout March to learn about more important figures.

Born: June 16, 1917, New York City
Died: July 17, 2001, Boise, Idaho
Best known for: being the publisher of The Washington Post and transforming it into a leading newspaper in the U.S.

Katharine Graham was one of the first women to be a publisher of an American newspaper and the first-ever woman to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Under her, The Washington Post famously published the Pentagon Papers and reported on the Watergate scandal, which defines the power of American journalism to this day.

During her career, she grew The Post’s revenue by more than $1 billion. Yet, on paper, she was not exactly qualified for her role, which she did not take up until her mid-40s when her husband Philip Graham, The Post’s president and publisher, killed himself. Before that, she considered herself as an obedient daughter and “doormat wife,” despite having some background in journalism.

Graham was born Katharine Meyer in New York City to publisher Eugene Meyer and educator Agnes Meyer. She attended Vassar College and transferred to the University of Chicago, graduating in 1938. She was a reporter for the San Francisco News and later The Washington Post, which her father bought in 1933. In 1940, she married Philip Graham and later gave up her career to prioritize her family. In 1946, her husband acquired The Post, but in 1963, he died by suicide, leaving the Washington Post Company in her hands.

Graham had no business experience and was often the only woman in the room — sometimes even being ignored by men who did not recognize her. In 1971, Graham made the critical decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the dismal reality of the Vietnam War that went counter to U.S. government propaganda.

Despite the paper facing legal threats from the Nixon Administration, and after years of deferring to male advisors’ opinions, Graham simply said, “Let’s go, let’s publish” when others insisted that publishing the Pentagon Papers would be catastrophic.

“What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes and step off the edge,” Graham wrote in her 1997 memoir, Personal History, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1998.

Between 1972 and 1974, Graham led The Post through its investigation of Nixon’s Watergate scandal, spearheaded by investigative reporter and executive editor Ben Bradlee. Between the bold decisions to publish the Pentagon Papers and to report relentlessly on Watergate, The Post became one of the most influential newspapers in the nation; Graham helped grow its revenue, circulation and stock price. In 1973, The Post won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

The newspaper continued growing throughout the 1970s, and Graham was elected CEO and chair of the Washington Post Company in 1973, making her the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Although Graham only got one mention in the film All the President’s Men about the Watergate scandal, the 2017 film The Post chronicles Graham’s story. Meryl Streep portrayed Graham and went on to be nominated for Best Actress at the 90th Academy Awards in 2018.

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