Minnesota's Gretchen Carlson on how to confront, report and end sexual harassment

Gretchen Carlson at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit
Gretchen Carlson speaks onstage at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, DC.
Paul Morigi | Getty Images for Fortune 2017

In September 1988, on a glittering white stage in Atlantic City, two women stand holding hands: The last two Miss America contestants left in the running.

"One of you is going to have her life changed dramatically, forever," the tuxedoed host promises, holding the card that will reveal the winner. "From this moment on, it will never be the same."

The women laugh to each other, as the host draws out the drama. Miss Colorado's in a black ballgown, Miss Minnesota's in blue. They smile for the crowds and cameras.

"Our first runner-up is..." the host reads. It's Miss Colorado.

That makes 22-year-old, Anoka, Minn., native Gretchen Carlson the pageant winner. Cue the music as the tiara is pinned atop her hair:

"There she is, Miss America
There she is, your ideal
The dream of a million girls who are more than pretty
can come true in Atlantic City."

Gretchen Carlson on "FOX & Friends" with Ivanka Trump
Ivanka Trump talks to "Fox & Friends" hosts Steve Doocy and Gretchen Carlson during a November 2011 taping in New York City.
Astrid Stawiarz | Getty Images

For Carlson, now 51, it was just beginning of her life on television. It was also the beginning of an endless stream of criticism.

"I have very thick skin," she told MPR News host Tom Weber. "I learned that when I became Miss America."

"People just hated me, and my resume fell off the face of the earth. Suddenly, I didn't go to Stanford or Oxford or play the violin." Suddenly, she was just what people saw on TV, instead of the high school valedictorian and musical prodigy.

Carlson toured the country as Miss America for a year, and then went on to pursue a career in broadcast journalism. She rose from working at local stations to anchoring for CBS. In the mid-2000s, she moved over to Fox News.

And it was because of her time at Fox that Carlson stepped back into the glaring spotlight last summer, with the whole country watching — for a very different reason.

The story broke in July 2016: After more than a decade of working together, Fox did not renew Carlson's contract. She was done on the network.

In response, Carlson filed suit. Her contract wasn't renewed, she alleged, because she had turned down repeated sexual advances from Roger Ailes, the CEO of Fox News.

Roger Ailes
Roger Ailes, former Fox News CEO
Andrew Toth | Getty Images

Her complaint lit a fire in the media world.

More women came forward to share their own stories of harassment at the hands of Ailes. By the end of the month, Ailes had been forced to resign.

Three months later, Fox News agreed to an unprecedented $20 million settlement with Carlson. It included an apology, saying "Gretchen was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve."

Headlines called her "the woman who brought down Roger Ailes." And while that might seem like a victory, it was never assured. Carlson knew she was taking a risk when she went public.

"I had no idea what to expect after I jumped off that cliff."

She didn't know what would happen to her career or her reputation — and she didn't know that she would start to receive thousands and thousands of emails.

Women began writing to Carlson about their experiences of harassment and assault. Her inbox was flooded: "They started sharing with me their own personal stories of pain and shame."

"I started to print off these stories in my home office, and there were stacks of them," Carlson remembers. "My good Minnesota upbringing said to me: I need to do something with this.

FOX News anchor Gretchen Carlson interviews Miss America 2015
Gretchen Carlson interviews Miss America 2015, Kira Kazantsev, on the set of her Fox show in New York City.
Rob Kim | Getty Images 2014

"I felt a sense of duty to have these voices heard, these women who have been silenced for far too long. And so I started reaching out to them, and I wrote back to every single one."

"I said: Would you let me share your story if I write a book?" Their response overwhelmed Carlson, again.

"About 90 percent of them said: Would you?"

Those stories are woven through Carlson's new book, "Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back."

'Be Fierce' by Gretchen Carlson
'Be Fierce' by Gretchen Carlson
Courtesy of publisher

Because of the terms of her settlement with Fox, Carlson can't write or talk freely about what she experienced there. Her book, however, takes a brutally practical look at what can be done about sexual harassment. It asks: Why do so many women remain silent? And what needs to change to end that silence?

Ailes was not the first harasser Carlson encountered in the workplace. She dealt with it for decades. She remembers being out in rural Virginia on assignment at the start of her career, when a cameraman started making lewd remarks about her body.

"I envisioned myself rolling out of the car at 40 miles per hour, like I'd seen in the movies, and wondering if it would hurt," Carlson said.

Experiences like Carlson's aren't new — but the increased public discussion around them is, she said. Look at the fervor around the Harvey Weinstein case, and the flood of women who have come forward to share their stories. Consider the Bill Cosby case before that.

Sexual assault "is something so many women have gone through and something that so many women never, ever talk about. But look where we are today. Now we are talking about it."

She hopes these conversations help other women gain the courage to speak up.

"Building courage is a process," Carlson said. "Courage is not a light switch that you can just switch on one day ... It's a process."

"And I think now that we've heard from so many women coming forward, that process can move more swiftly for others. I hope that it does. But it's a monumental decision."

This is a devastating idea: Why is reporting harassment such a big decision?

"It's because, still in 2017, women are labeled troublemakers if they come forward," Carlson said. "They're labeled worse words. They're not believed. There are huge ways in which harassers are still protected, including by enablers."

To navigate all of that, Carlson offers an entire chapter in "Be Fierce" on how to come forward. It's a 12-point plan for recognizing, documenting and reporting harassment and abuse.

Know what your policies are at work, she said, and what the complaint process is. Gather evidence, within legal boundaries. (Victims should know, for example, if your state law allows you to record your harasser without their knowledge.) Tell colleagues what's happening "so you have people who can defend you, if it comes to that." Seek legal help, if you can.

When it comes to practical changes that can end the silence, Carlson is working with Sen. Al Franken, among others, to remove or limit forced arbitration clauses from employment contracts. The clauses require that employees enter into secret arbitration if a complaint arises.

"If you want to work, you have to sign the deal," Carlson explained. "You've given up your seventh amendment right. You will not ever be able to go to an open jury process. You will go to a secret chamber. What's fair about that?"

Carlson, who has a daughter and a son, is hopeful that her work now can keep the next generation from telling the same stories she's heard from thousands of women.

"We've got to turn this on its ear. Why are we allowing this to happen in our culture, and shove it under the carpet and not deal with it?

"I am so hopeful, with more and more high profile stories — including the Harvey Weinstein story — that this means we have crossed the tipping point."

For the full conversation with Gretchen Carlson, use the audio player above.

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