"You couldn't be a female reporter in 1971." Meryl Streep: The Post
“If it was 1971,” says Meryl Streep, “you, as a woman, would almost certainly not be allowed to be a reporter.”
Meryl Streep clearly remembers 1971. She would have been 21 years old, another seven years would pass before she’d star in The Deer Hunter, but had the media taken her fancy as a career choice, Streep would have got the same message her friend Nora Ephron did when she graduated and tried to get a job at Newsweek.
“Nora was told she could be a copyist, a researcher or a secretary,” recalls Streep. “But Newsweek reporting jobs were for men only.”
The Post is dedicated to Nora Ephron, who went on to write When Harry Met Sally, but who worked with both Streep and Tom Hanks, Streep’s co-star. The film’s directed by Steven Spielberg and the story is built around how The Washington Post withstood enormous hostility from Nixon and published secret government reports into the Vietnam War. It was 1971, and the Post had its first female owner, Katharine “Kay” Graham, who made the call.
“ I suffered from an exaggerated desire to please, a syndrome so instilled in women of my generation that it inhibited my behaviour for many years.” Katharine Graham
Much is being made of the film’s resonance with these depressing days for modern media. But perhaps Streep is more focused on the world of her early adult life – the world where a woman was not supposed to be a decision maker in journalism.
“What was interesting for me is that it fell to a woman to hold the line for press freedom at a time when women were excluded from any kind of leadership in the press. It was highly unusual to see a female reporter in these publications,” she says.
Katharine Graham, born just over a century ago ( she died in 2001) was not a go-getter who battled her way through institutional sexism to become the first female in charge of The Washington Post. She was the daughter and the wife of two millionaires who ran the newspaper before her. She was a society lady-who-lunched, the mother of four children, a widow at 46 after her husband committed suicide. She was friendly with half of the Nixon administration. She was, in short, not an obvious icon as women were just beginning to form the 1970s feminist movement.
“She was very much alone in her position,” Streep point out .” So I think that’s the pull of the character – be a lone woman leader, who has to make this crucial decision for press freedom at such a transitional time for women too.”
And to make the decision in favour of her newspaper, rather than her friends, with only her integrity to guide her rather than years of journalistic experience – that was the Katharine Graham who emerged from the script written by Liz Hannah.
“Part of what I loved about Liz’s script is that it was about a wife and mother who didn’t think she’d ever have a real job, who was dismissed by nearly everyone in her life—and suddenly she has to make one of the most consequential decisions in history. It forever changed her industry and her life, and she becomes the first woman to run a Fortune 500 company.”
And more, the resurgent Washington Post, like the New York Times, became a media brand to be reckoned with, and was instrumental in the fall of Nixon a couple of years later (film fans can see this story told in All The Presidents Men)
Streep also admits that she too has struggled with having confidence in herself, as Kay Graham puts it in her memoirs, “ I suffered from an exaggerated desire to please, a syndrome so instilled in women of my generation that it inhibited my behaviour for many years.”
Perhaps that’s why Streep’s now such a strong advocate of the Time’s Up initiative, the very antithesis of a woman’s desire to please.
Will it continue at this year’s Oscars? The actress isn’t quite sure, calling it “an airplane that’s being put together while we’re going down the runway, but it needs to fly. The most heartening thing about it to me is that it doesn’t strike me as a one-off – I don’t think we’ll go backwards.”
The Post was supposed to be a film made just as Hillary Clinton came to office, a look at another pioneering woman in leadership. Instead it’s a clarion call of encouragement to a battered, Trump-resisting mainstream media. But it’s also a memoir to how the most unlikely, delicate hands can punch through a glass ceiling – and bring the whole structure shattering down.
By Emma Jones. Additional reporting by Natalie Jamieson
The Post is released in the UK and Ireland on Friday 19 January 2018.