Gretchen Carlson Gets Fierce

The former Fox News anchor on #MeToo, Miss America and the orange shag carpet in her Toyon dorm room.

By Ramin Setoodeh

Gretchen Carlson, ’90. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Nobody puts Gretchen Carlson in a corner. After she was crowned Miss America in 1989, Carlson returned to Stanford to finish her undergraduate studies. She promptly enrolled in three feminist studies classes, where she let her tiara out into the light. The first paper she wrote tackled some of her conflicted feelings about her pageant experiences. “I loved having the shock value of the professor reading it,” says Carlson, ’90. “Why is she taking a feminist studies course? That’s who I’ve always been at my core. People have often underestimated me and misrepresented me.”

In 2016, Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes, her boss at Fox News, after he fired her. In the aftermath came a flurry of predictions about the demise of Carlson’s career. (Eventually, she settled out of court for $20 million and a public apology.) Instead, Carlson helped launch a movement that led to Ailes’s dismissal and inspired thousands of other victims of workplace sexual harassment to stand up and say #MeToo.

THERE SHE IS: Carlson as Miss America 1989. (Photo: Courtesy Stanford News Service)

Carlson’s newest book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, was published in October. Now she’s taking her message of workplace empowerment to colleges around the country — including Stanford, where, on March 13, she and Professor Shelley Correll, the Barbara D. Finberg Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, will participate in a moderated discussion sponsored by Stanford Libraries and the Clayman Institute. Earlier this year, Carlson was chosen to lead the Miss America organization as chair of its board of directors. And she’s been lobbying on Capitol Hill for a bill that would prevent employers from imposing forced arbitration in cases involving sexual harassment and discrimination. Carlson spoke to Stanford about the movement’s momentum, as well as the audience that gave her hope.

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

STANFORD: What do you think of the #MeToo movement?

CARLSON: That courage is contagious. I could never, ever in my wildest dreams have envisioned this would have unfolded in this way. Some days I wake up and go, “Wow!” It’s really surreal. When I did what I did, that was a pretty lonely experience. One person could scream from the mountaintop, but the real impact comes when others decide to follow. That’s been incredibly heartening to me.

There used to be so much doubt about reporting sexual harassment. Men and women were scared that if they came forward, it would hurt their careers.

People maligned me. If you look at how much has changed in 19 months, it really is a cultural revolution. People are being believed, for God’s sake. That alone is monumental. The victims are in some cases being put on a pedestal, and they are [treated as] heroes for coming out. There are consequences; people are being fired immediately when there’s a claim [against them]. And that’s why I think you can’t put this genie back in the bottle now. There are too many stories, and there are more that are coming.

‘Companies should hire back all these women who have lost their careers. Instead, [they’re] talking about whether the perpetrators can be rehabbed. Who cares?’

What have been some of the reactions that you’ve witnessed on your book tour?

I continue to hear from women and men all across the country about their painful stories. I think they feel safe telling me. At the same time, it makes me sad. It makes me realize how many lives have been damaged by this horrific secret that we as a society haven’t wanted to deal with. I think the №1 shocking thing I’ve realized since writing the book is that there’s something in our culture where we are socialized to protect harassers. It’s not just the high-paid positions that are protected. It’s also low-level employees. It’s not always about the bottom line. Why would we do that? It’s a pervasive problem that’s taking the American dream from so many people. You know what I have been shouting from the rooftops? Companies should hire back all these women who have lost their careers. Instead, [they’re] talking about whether the perpetrators can be rehabbed. Who cares?

As you’re talking to younger people on college campuses, do you think we’re at a tipping point?

I think they are very much paying attention to this whole movement. What’s been good news for me to see is that just as many young men are showing up as young women. Also, the whole “Be Fierce” movement isn’t just about sexual harassment. It’s about gender equality that starts early in our lives. I think the more we talk about it, the better it gets. I will tell you, last week was an awakening for me, because it made me realize we may actually see the final end of this tipping point. I spoke at an all-boys high school. You could hear a pin drop; they were so engaged.

How do we make sure that progress continues? In my own reporting, I’ve heard some people expressing the worry that too many stories will result in a backlash.

First of all, it’s a cop-out to think, “Oh, what if we go too far?” I have to tell you, of all the stories I’ve heard, there wasn’t really any gray area. The media is continuing to cover it, which is incredibly important. And the American public is still interested in it. They are saying, “This kind of crap is still going on?” They had been fooled for all these years since Anita Hill, because companies figured out a way to put arbitration clauses in contracts that nobody ever heard about. The other way they solved it was in settlements where the women were gagged for life.

Why is forced arbitration so bad? Is it because it allows companies to cover up what has happened?

Exactly. There are so many negative things about it. Many times, the company picks the arbitrator for you. Only 20 percent of the time does the employee win. There are no appeals. There are not the same number of witnesses or depositions. When I’ve been pounding the pavement on Capitol Hill, meeting with politicians, the biggest message is this issue is apolitical. And that’s why we should all care about it.

We will never be calling it a beauty pageant.’

When you look ahead to the future, what excites you the most?

Knowing that my son and daughter aren’t going to face this. Not just my kids, but everyone’s. It’s my dream.

You recently returned to Miss America, but this time you’re in charge. What are some of your goals as the chair?

I’m trying to wrap my arms around an entire organization. I feel excited to carry this message of empowerment to Miss America. We have amazing, talented, bright young women who want to be part of this program. It’s just that the messaging hasn’t always been on target. We’ve got to figure out how to message it better.

In some ways, the idea of a beauty pageant seems contradictory to what’s happening in our culture right now.

We will never be calling it a beauty pageant.

Oh, really? Others have in the past.

That’s the mixed messages, and that’s why we have our work cut out for us. We plan to make it bigger and better. Stay tuned is what I can say.

What is your most vivid memory from being at Stanford?

Other than my orange shag carpet in Toyon? It was gross. That’s always the first thing that comes to mind when I think of my freshman dorm room. When I went back for my 20th reunion, they had new carpet. Thank God! •

Ramin Setoodeh, ’04, is Variety’s New York bureau chief. He has written for the Daily Beast, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal. He’s currently working on a book about Barbara Walters and The View.