A Good Girl, A Great Woman

She seemed to have everything the times demanded, this woman of a certain age toying with her mineral water across a restaurant table. A partnership in a large law firm. An enduring marriage to her college beau. Grown children with promising careers. An apartment in the city, a house in the country, a sense of humor, a sharp mind. In the fashion of women trading recipes, she was asked how she did it, and she replied by way of food. "It was different for women of my generation," she said. "We did it like a cake, layer by layer."

Those younger women to whom life has become more like a fruitcake, way too much going on in one big block, have learned to covertly admire the fortitude of women like that one, women who lived one sort of life under the old rules and then managed to re-create themselves and succeed under the new ones. There are examples of the breed in their law firms and college classrooms, among their mothers and their acquaintances. The grande dame of them all was Katharine Graham, and when she died last week women who might seem to have little in common with her mourned the loss.

"She moved from being a good girl to being a great woman," said Marie Wilson, who runs both the Ms. Foundation for Women and the White House Project, in what seems a fitting epitaph. Kay Graham had begun as an insecure girl, too tall for fashion, in a wealthy but emotionally impoverished home, gone on to marry a charming and brilliant man she could scarcely believe could care for her, and gladly arranged his life artfully from the sidelines while he ran the business her own father owned, a second-rank newspaper called The Washington Post. As her friend Gloria Steinem observed dryly, "Power in this country is often like hemophilia; it passes through women and then men get it."

Despite the privilege, the connections and the money, hers was an existence lived by many women, then and now. "My own life evolved to accommodate Phil's changed one and the changing needs of my four children and my aging parents," she wrote in her memoir, "Personal History." And then it all went smash. Her mentally ill husband left her for another woman and tried to take the paper with him; he came home finally and shot himself in the bathroom. Suddenly she went from being a housewife to being a publisher, from column A to column B, from one layer to another. She wrote, "I didn't understand the immensity of what lay before me, how frightened I would be by much of it, how tough it was going to be, and how many anxious hours and days I would spend for a long, long time. Nor did I realize how much I was eventually going to enjoy it all."

Terrifying and wonderful, defeated and triumphant: all those dualities were the crux of her appeal to women executives and stay-at-home mothers, college students and female politicos, women in our business and in other businesses, too. The feminist movement, about which Mrs. Graham had mixed emotions even as she provided the seed money for Ms. Magazine and a couch in her own ladies' lounge for pregnant Post reporters, had been framed by the media in terms of a protowoman. The image of that mythical woman appeared on magazine covers and in advertisements; she wore a business suit and held a baby and a briefcase. She was enviable and terrifying, a heat-seeking success missile who set up every woman alive for failure.

But women like Kay Graham, and Madeleine Albright, who forged a brilliant career after her husband precipitously ditched her, and Lindy Boggs, who took over her husband's congressional seat after his death, and all those other women who because of divorce and dislocation and dreams deferred became something other than their early lives would have forecast: those women were different. They inspired not fear, but hope, suggesting not a forced march of unwavering accomplishment but the stutter-stop of rising and falling and rising again. Marie Wilson, the mother of five children who did not work for pay until she was 36, recalled, "My teeth would chatter with fear on the way to work, but I didn't want anyone to see it. What was wonderful about Kay Graham was that she admitted her fear. I wondered why she was willing to do all the things she did, publishing the Pentagon Papers and going out on a limb on Watergate. And then I realized that she had already risked everything by re-creating herself so dramatically, so that she understood risk better than anyone."

These women were the blessed antidote to the steely prototype, not simply becoming, as Steinem once quipped, the men they once wanted to marry, but something more complex, authentic and accessible. Instead of the effortless juggling of the mythic mother-executive, Mrs. Graham recalled, "I seemed to be carrying inadequacy as baggage." And building a world-class newspaper at the same time. "It's comforting somehow to see that someone with so many theoretical advantages still suffers the same lack of confidence," said Steinem. But it is not the mean-spirited comfort of misery enjoying company. It is the sense that excellence and failure, accomplishment and self-doubt, are not mutually exclusive. It is the sense that re-creation is possible, that a full-time mother can become a full-time attorney and a First Lady a senator, that an insecure woman with no business training can become the first of her gender appointed to the board of the Associated Press.

It is the notion that it is possible, as the writer Carolyn Heilbrun says, to rewrite your life, to go from being a good girl to a great woman, to take those hands demurely folded upon the desktop and learn to wield a gavel or sign legislation or stop the presses. And that it is possible to do it without pretense, without pretending there is no fear, that there have been no mistakes. Not pretending is as important as anything, the icing on the cake. "You young women today just amaze me!" Kay Graham once told a reporter back after a maternity leave. To which it seems apt to reply today: the amazement is all ours.