When Gretchen Carlson makes her way through the streets of Manhattan, she notices flickers of recognition. But many New Yorkers don’t want a selfie or an autograph — they simply want to express their gratitude. “Even if I’m on the phone, they’ll just say ‘Thank you,’” Carlson says, on a recent afternoon, mouthing those two words. “A lot of people who have come up to me at restaurants — men — and have said, ‘I want to shake your hand, because I have daughters.’”
Carlson, a former anchor at Fox News, became the center of a media firestorm in July when she filed a bombshell sexual-harassment lawsuit against her boss, Roger Ailes, after he fired her. “I jumped off a cliff by myself,” Carlson says, describing the moment when everything changed. “And I had no expectations or idea what would happen.”
In the chaotic days that followed, Fox News talent quickly banded together to discredit Carlson, including Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Martha MacCallum, and Geraldo Rivera. But after a slew of other women came forward, Ailes was forced to step down as CEO of the network he had built into a cable-news juggernaut. (Carlson, who later settled for $20 million and a public apology, isn’t allowed to speak on specifics about her former employer.) “I could have filed my lawsuit and gone home,” says Carlson, 50. “But I’m not choosing to do that. I’m choosing to help other women who have reached out to me since this happened, to make a difference for them.”
She’s heard from thousands through her website. “It’s so heartwarming and unbelievably sad, because it’s so pervasive,” Carlson says. “It’s so unbelievable that in 2017, almost every single woman has a story about sexual harassment.”
|Ryan Pfluger for Variety|
Indeed, it’s the best of times and the worst of times for women in the workplace. “I think two opposing things are happening at once,” says Nancy Erika Smith, the New Jersey employment lawyer who represented Carlson. “Sexists and misogynists are looking at who’s in the White House and feeling empowered. At the same time, four million women took to the streets. I kind of think the women are going to win. These men have to go home to women.”
Carlson’s decision to come forward, accusing Ailes of propositioning her for sex, is still creating ripples at Fox News and beyond. (Ailes has maintained his innocence.) “What Gretchen did was she slayed a dragon that no one thought could be slayed,” says Lisa Bloom, the civil-rights attorney representing Wendy Walsh, a Fox News contributor who alleged this month that she was sexually harassed by host Bill O’Reilly. “She not only got a very large settlement, she got an apology,” says Bloom. “And that’s part of her story that people forget. She set a precedent: You don’t have to take the money and go away. You can actually get some respect and dignity in the process.”
Fox News is reeling from sexual harassment accusations that O’Reilly used his clout at the network to seek sexual favors from several women, resulting in at least $13 million in settlements.
A New Mission
On “Fox and Friends,” Carlson was a bubbly morning TV presence. But away from the studio, she showed backbone as an advocate for an issue normally associated with anonymous victims. In October, Time put her on its cover. “I never expected to be the face of sexual harassment,” says Carlson. “But I never give up on anything. So when placed in a new, challenging situation, it’s like, ‘I’m going to give this 110% because that’s what I’ve done my entire life.’ ”
That mantra can be traced to her upbringing as a prodigy violinist who took a leave from Stanford University to nab the crown for Miss America in 1989. From there she took local news jobs, covering the Anita Hill case from Richmond, Va., and thinking, “Holy crap, nobody believes her.”
Carlson isn’t ruling out returning to television full time. “That’s what I’ve done for 25 years, so I have ambition to go back,” she says. For now, she’s made fighting sexual harassment her primary duty. “It’s like five separate full-time jobs,” she says. She stays up at night (“I’m not a good sleeper”) to personally answer the messages she’s received. “It’s everywhere,” she says, recalling tales from police officers, the military, teachers, doctors, accountants and Hollywood. “I’ve heard from all walks of life.”
She’s turning some of these stories into a book, which will include advice about what women can do if they find themselves in a similar situation. “Maybe Human Resources isn’t the place to go,” she says, adding that it’s important to collect evidence first.
Carlson also revealed to Variety that she’s making a documentary, where she’ll serve as a reporter investigating sexual harassment. “No one has done a serious film on this issue,” she says. “This is a movement now. I plan to carry that forward.” And she’s met with senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), ahead of her plans to testify on Capitol Hill against binding arbitration agreements that allow companies to keep these complaints private. “Gretchen is using her voice to make a difference through advocacy and legislation that will undoubtedly help others,” Gillibrand says.
Adds Carlson, “We’ve done a huge disservice to our society, because we’re not hearing about these cases. The biggest advantage is that it’s a secret; the people in a situation like mine can stay in power.”
Carlson, who lives in Connecticut with her husband and two kids, ages 12 and 13, has been open with her family about what she went through. “They are very aware,” she says. “My daughter had some issues where she needed to stand up for herself. She told me, ‘Mommy, I saw you do it. Now I know I can do it.’”
She’ll launch a campus speaking tour later this year, where she’ll try to educate other young women about what she’s learned. It’s important, she adds, to know that many victims suffer from PTSD as they try to move beyond what’s happened to them.
“You find a way to survive, which is actually one of my favorite songs.” She stops to clarify the two titles that fit the bill: Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor.” “I listen to them both when I work out,” Carlson says, as she sits higher in her chair. “Good lyrics.”
This story is from Variety’s Power of Women: New York issue.