Beyond the cliff

Gretchen Carlson describes being fired from Fox News in 2016 — and her subsequent sexual harassment suit against its then chairman, Roger Ailes — as “jumping off a cliff.”

The funny thing about jumping off a cliff, though, is that sometimes with a little luck and a lot of pluck you land on your feet.

In Carlson’s case, she landed just fine. Hers was one of the first salvos in what has become the #MeToo movement, now a global initiative giving voice to the women — and men — who have suffered from sexual abuse in the workplace but have heretofore been voiceless.

“We’ve been in a cultural revolution,” says Carlson, a Greenwich resident who is a keynote speaker (along with former United Nations Ambassador and National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice) at the Sept. 10 “Westchester Women’s Summit,” for which WAG is a co-sponsor. “ Women now know they’re being supported. Men are being held accountable. They’re being fired. But there’s still a lot more work to do.”

Finding her voice

That’s why five months ago, Carlson and former Fox colleagues Diana Falzone and Julie Roginsky formed Lift Our Voices, an organization devoted to ending nondisclosure agreements (NDAs), which are used to silence victims of sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. 

“Unfortunately, every woman has a story to tell,” says Carlson, who along with Falzone and Roginsky has sought to be released from her NDA with Fox. At press time, the three had not yet heard from the network with regard to their action, which was inspired, Carlson has said, by NBCUniversal being open to releasing its former staffers from their NDAs. 

Lift Our Voices is also pressing for states’ legislation like the bill New Jersey passed, neutralizing any part of an employment contract or settlement agreement that “has the purpose or effect of concealing the details relating to a claim of discrimination, retaliation or harassment.”

 Nationally, Carlson has testified on Capitol Hill for passage of the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act, which would prohibit companies from requiring employees to arbitrate sex discrimination claims behind closed doors — yet another way to muzzle women, she says. The bill has bipartisan support in the House and Senate, which Carlson adds is key:  “Nothing gets done without it. And after all, sexual harassment affects women and some men of all political persuasions.”

She has also asked the present and recent 2020 Democratic and Republican candidates for their support to end the secrecy. So far, Carlson has received affirmations from former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, author-activist Marianne Williamson, former Gov. Deval Patrick and former Congressman Joe Walsh. She has not heard from President Donald J. Trump, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden — although Bloomberg, pressured by Warren in his Democratic Presidential Debate debut, said he would release three women from their NDAs with Bloomberg LP if they request it. 

The NDAs and forced arbitration are two reasons Carlson has mixed feelings about being portrayed recently in the Showtime miniseries “The Loudest Voice” (by Naomi Watts) and the feature “Bombshell” (by Nicole Kidman). On the one hand, it’s “surreal” to see yourself on-screen in productions that at the very least call attention to sex abuse in the workplace, she says. On the other hand, she can’t judge the accuracy of many of the stories depicted because of the isolation NDAs and forced arbitration foist on women.

She knows what critics are thinking, what has been said to countless women:  Why didn’t you come forward immediately with your harassment claims? Why acquiesce to forced arbitration and an NDA? Why settle? (Carlson received a reported $20 million settlement and an apology from Fox after more than 20 other women reported sexual misconduct by Ailes.) She says when she was removed from Fox’s “The Real Story With Gretchen Carlson” in July 2016 for rebuffing Ailes’ advances — after a stint at the network that included more than seven years as co-host of “Fox and Friends” — she had no idea how pervasive sexual harassment was. There was the occasional case that claimed national attention, as in Anita Hill’s 1991 Congressional testimony against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, and that was about it, she says. 

As for the idea that the abused should be proclaiming their mistreatment, Carlson says, “Listen. That’s a copout. That’s an old school way of looking at things….Old school is the woman comes forward, and they get rid of her with an NDA. New school is the woman comes forward; she’s celebrated for it; there’s an investment in her. She stays working and they get rid of her harasser.”

The calling

Just as Carlson couldn’t have imagined where her sexual harassment suit would’ve led, so she probably never imagined her role as an activist growing up in Anoka, Minnesota, the granddaughter of the pastor of the second largest Lutheran church in the United States.

The young Gretchen was an excellent student and violin prodigy, appearing on radio and television and with the Minnesota Orchestra at 13.

Her intelligence would take her to Stanford University, where she graduated with honors, studying organizational behavior, and Oxford University, where she read Virginia Woolf. Her talent and beauty would take her to the Miss America pageant, where as Miss Minnesota in 1989, she became the first classical violinist to win the competition.

After Miss America, Carlson worked as an anchor and reporter at a variety of network affiliates before joining CBS News and “The Saturday Early Show,” for which she covered the George W. Bush-Al Gore 2000 election controversy, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s execution and the  Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She also created a 30-part, award-winning series on domestic violence. From CBS she went on to Fox.

Carlson says she is proof that there is life after sexual harassment. She was the host and executive producer of three Lifetime documentaries whose common thread is speaking out — “Breaking The Silence,” about sex abuse; “Beyond The Headlines: NXIVM Cult”; and “Beyond The Headlines: The College Admissions Scandal.” She will next produce an interview series for Blumhouse Television.

One of Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World,” whose TED Talk on sexual harassment has garnered almost 2 million views, Carlson is the author of the 2015 best-selling memoir “Getting Real” and the 2017 book “Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back.” Proceeds from the latter benefit her Gift of Courage Fund, which supports organizations empowering girls and women. Over two years and 13 cities, the fund has been providing free workshops to low-income women facing gender-based discrimination and violence through the Gretchen Carlson Leadership Initiative. It also supports the March of Dimes’ Gretchen Carlson Advocacy Fellows.

Not all of Carlson’s activism has been without controversy. Elected chairman of the Miss America Pageant in 2018, she made waves in part by shifting the focus from contestants’ physical attributes to their overall presentations, eliminating the swimsuit competition in favor of onstage interviews. After securing the pageant’s return to NBC, a plum for which she is proud, Carlson stepped down a year later. Of that time and her year as Miss America, she says, “I took it on as a volunteer as I was recruited for the job, which was a huge task. Miss America gave me amazing communication skills and put me in my TV career. It needed to move on into the 21st century.”

Carlson keeps moving forward with her activism. There are days when she feels unmotivated but then looks at her two teenagers — “they were my paramount concern (in the sexual harassment case)” — and she is both surprised and buoyed by the depth of their support. The family also includes her husband, sports agent Casey Close, and their Lagotto Romagnolo, an Italian Water Dog, Bella, whom Carlson says is afraid of the water.

Looking back on all that has happened, she thinks that this is what she was meant to do all along.

“I’ve always been supportive of women and women’s issues. I think it’s my calling.”

For more, visit gretchencarlson.com and liftourvoices.org. For more on the “Westchester Women’s Summit,” taking place Sept. 10 at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Tarrytown, visit theeventdepartmentny.com.

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