Meryl Streep’s Performance In ‘The Post’ Reflects What Our Working Mothers Went Through
There’s a wonderful moment in ‘The Post” when Katherine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, interrupts a man who has interrupted her.
“I’m talking to Mr. Bradlee,” she says, meaning the executive editor of the Washington Post.
In some theaters across the country, audiences are applauding at the end, once it’s clear that journalism has prevailed.
At my showing in Ann Arbor, the theater burst into applause when she said that.
Streep’s performance in “The Post” is more than just her latest bravura portrayal of a true life character.
It is a master class in what women in the 1970s went through, both to be viewed as professionals and to be taken seriously.
My mother was one of them. She and Mrs. Graham were roughly the same age. My mother was born in 1913, Mrs. Graham in 1917.
(I’m going to use the honorific for her, because we all did in the newspaper business while she was alive.)
Like Mrs. Graham, who took charge of the newspaper after the suicide of her husband, my mother returned to the working world because of my father’s illness and death.
She was already on the staff at Eastern Michigan University when my father died of a heart attack at age 58, a month after he took early retirement because of his battle with cardiomyopathy.
I had to smile at Streep’s wardrobe in the film because my mother dressed exactly like her, down to the belted shirtwaist dresses, pearls, sensible pumps and colorful prints.
And, my mother, despite being in a far different situation, fought some of the same battles to be heard that Mrs. Graham fights in the film.
There are several scenes in the movie where Mrs. Graham is shown playing hostess to gatherings at her elegant home in Georgetown. (A colleague of mine at U.S. News & World Report, knowing I admired her, drove me by one evening so I could see it.)
I was particularly struck by one where Steep looks through a doorway at the movers and shakers in her garden, knowing that she is going to have to make a choice.
In the movie, the choice is between staying friends with the likes of Robert McNamara, and siding with the employees of her newspaper who are about to expose their lies about the Vietnam War.
But she was making another choice: whether to remain a fixture on the Washington social scene, or roll up her sleeves and plunge into the work world.
Before my father died, my mother was also the center of an active social circle. And, she had opportunities to marry again, and stay in that comfortable world.
But she made the same choice to wade into the workplace, where she unexpectedly became a union organizer, rather than a publisher.
My mother soon was frustrated that the women on the staff at EMU were paid so little for their valuable contributions.
She had already made a swing through the working world before she married, with positions at the ground-breaking blood bank at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, and at blood banks in Grand Rapids, Mich., and the University of Michigan.
When the only job she could land in her job hunt was as a low-paid secretary in the Eastern Michigan library, she took it. But she had no intention of staying at that level or responsibility or salary for long.
When the opportunity came, she joined the fledgling UAW Local 1975, went out on strike for a month to win university recognition, and proudly voted in favor of the union’s first contract.
Streep’s struggles in the movie are far different, of course. She’s taking on the Nixon administration, not the administrators of a Midwestern college.
But, she’s talked over by men, ignored by them, and given conflicting and often bad advice. People second guess her. They condescend to her.
And Streep’s Mrs. Graham is no Margaret Thatcher, who seemed to be born with a backbone of steel. She gets rattled. She gets scared. There are scenes where she has tears in her eyes.
Nevertheless, she persists, as many of our mothers did, even though thanks for her help do not exactly pour out.
Watching the movie, I got choked up at a scene where she walks through the newsroom.
Journalists ignore her, someone bumps into her, and there’s nothing like the torrent of admiration that she enjoyed later on in her life. She wasn’t yet anyone special, just the way our mothers weren’t when they first reached the working world.
SPOILER: don’t read any further if you are waiting to see the movie.
That’s why it’s so rewarding toward the close of “The Post” when Streep descends the steps of the Supreme Court, into a sea of women. They recognize her. They smile. And she smiles back.
Streep perfectly captures both Mrs. Graham’s shy smile and her growing confidence.
I like to think that she symbolizes the gains that our mothers made, not just for those they worked with, as Mrs. Graham did, but for all of us.
We could use a champion like her again. Maybe, some of you are lucky enough to still have yours.
Thank them, while you have the chance.
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