News & Politics

Gretchen Carlson Discusses Decades of Harassment

Carlson earlier this year in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Gretchen Carlson still hasn’t returned to the news desk. The former Fox News anchor sued her former employer last summer, precipitating the downfall of CEO Roger Ailes and more lawsuits against Fox executives and talent like Bill O’Reilly

Carlson spoke Monday at a Washington Women’s Leadership Initiative luncheon in Tysons, previewing much of the material in her new book and her current projects away from the field of broadcast journalism. She said she’s in the midst of off-the-record conversations with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to get a bipartisan bill drafted about sexual harassment policy, an action she believes can happen because the issue is “apolitical.”

In her book Be Fierce, out Tuesday, Carlson shares stories from dozens of men and women on their own sexual harassment and assault experiences as well as advice for how to fight back in a system stacked against victims. But it’s the revelations about her own life that keep you engaged. 

Carlson faced harassment as a journalist before Fox News…

One of her earliest experiences with harassment was while she worked at a TV station in Richmond. As news was breaking about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, Carlson faced unwanted harassment from a co-worker. “I was in a car with a cameraman I didn’t know well, miles from the station, when suddenly he started talking about how much he’d enjoyed touching my breasts when he put the microphone under my blouse…I was shaking like never before…I pressed myself against the passenger door and prayed I wouldn’t have to jump out of a moving car and roll like I’d seen in movies. I wondered how much it might hurt.”

Later in the book, she also describes having a stalker terrorize her from Richmond to Cincinnati when she moved there for a new job. “I can still see myself in the Cincinnati detective’s office, crying and shaking as I testified over the phone…When somebody strips you of your ability to live your life in any kind of a normal way, that should be punishable by more than just probation—but that’s all my stalker got.”

…and before her career as a journalist even began.

After being named Miss America in 1989, Carlson met with a television executive under the impression that he was interested in her talent and would help her career. When they got in a car after their meeting, she saw nothing amiss. “But as we neared my destination, he lunged at me. His mouth pressed against mine, and he jabbed his tongue down my throat. Shocked and horrified, I wrestled out of his grasp. I gasped for the driver to stop, and I tumbled out of the car onto the street…I felt stupid and unnerved.”

She was told to act less smart on air…

Despite graduating from Stanford University with honors and studying at Oxford, Carlson says she was once told to “not ‘pop,’ and not look too smart, so I wouldn’t take attention away from anyone else…I’d never heard of a man being told not to “pop.”

…and that she didn’t need to work once she was married.

After she was let go from a station in Cleveland, she writes that a boss trivialized the firing because she was married. She says “one of my bosses told me, ‘You’re married now. You’ll be alright.’ I’d never heard any man be told that.”

She didn’t sleep for two days after the Fox story broke.

She says her family was away, leaving her alone to face the onslaught of attention and emotions. “It was good that my kids were away. I didn’t want them to see the reporters parking their cars outside our house, or hear the phone ringing at all hours of the night. I sat their alone, enduring it…This was the hardest thing I had ever done. And it was still Wednesday. I was sleepless for the first forty-eight hours.”

She gets frustrated when asked why she didn’t ‘just leave’ Fox.

Carlson says the question posed to her many times in the days after the Roger Ailes story broke is misguided. It speaks to the larger issue, she says, of victims often facing more consequences than those that harass them. “It’s easy to say ‘just leave’ if your father is wealthy and powerful, and can get you a job in any industry. What about a woman who supports herself and her family, and doesn’t have the option to just go elsewhere? What about a woman who has followed the American dream and worked and studied and busted her ass for years to achieve success in her field and deserves to be there?”

CNN’s Jake Tapper reached out to her after she was ousted from Fox.

Carlson credits him and other men for supporting her in her “darkest days.” “I didn’t know Jake before this happened, but he reached out to me and thanked me, saying that his daughter would grow up in a better world because of what I did. It moved me to my core.”

She reads the mean tweets and emails, but doesn’t let them impact her.

“It has been sad to me to receive many negative and hurtful messages from women, who clearly do not understand the damage created by sexual harassment…I have resisted responding directly to these emails and tweets. I realize that changing the old biases and stereotypes in the culture is a big job, Instead of tearing each other down, we have to find ways to support more enlightened work policies that will benefit all of us.”

Editorial Fellow

Abbey joined Washingtonian in September 2017. A Miami University (Ohio, not Florida) alum, she called the Midwest home before moving to Vermont to report for the Burlington Free Press and to be closer to her one true love: Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Her work has also appeared in Cincinnati Magazine and USA Today. Abbey lives in Falls Church.