Former Fox News anchor and Anoka native Gretchen Carlson comes back home to the Twin Cities this week to lead a pair of workshops to help women address sexual misconduct and workplace harassment. It's the second stop on Carlson's tour across the country as part of her yearlong Gretchen Carlson Leadership Initiative.
Carlson has been speaking out against sexual abuse since leaving Fox News more than a year ago after suing the late Fox News chairman and founder Roger Ailes. Carlson is working on legislation that would protect victims of abuse, and as the new chair of the Miss America Organization, she says she'll bring women's empowerment to the competition.
MPR News's Cathy Wurzer spoke with Carlson about her activism and political ambitions. Carlson says she's not running for Al Franken's former Senate seat, but she hasn't ruled out running for office in the future.
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
What you think of Oprah's comments at the Golden Globes where she said to all the girls watching that a new day is on the horizon?
I think it's a cultural revolution. If I helped sparked that then I feel heartened that people recognize it in that way. Certainly, it took a leap of faith on my part, and jumping into an abyss all by myself was such an incredibly lonely experience. But look where we are today. What I love to say is that the gift of courage is contagious. If I had any part in encouraging even just one person to come forward it's been worth it for me.
You said you want to bring the spirit of the #MeToo movement to the Miss America competition. What did you mean by that?
The Miss America pageant has always been an empowering mechanism for young women. What sets it apart from other pageants is that it gives out scholarship money.
When I won, I went back to Stanford University and Oxford and was able to pay for my whole last year thanks to the scholarship money that I won.
Also it focuses on talent. I was a really serious classical violinist growing up in Anoka. Those were the two main reasons that I entered it. These are skills that stay with you for the rest of your life.
So what I want to do is just further that empowering movement. Sure, I may be making some changes along the way. I think that that's important because I've always said that Miss America looks at society as we see women currently. Miss America was different in the 1950s than it is now in 2018, and I'm just going to continue to move the ball forward.
How do you do that when you have a competition that's been criticized for objectifying women?
First of all we have to change our messaging. We have to make sure that we delineate what is Miss America versus Miss USA. Miss America is talent and scholarship and smarts and platform and volunteer service. Miss USA is strictly a beauty pageant. I always said I would have been dead last in that competition. I'm short. I don't consider myself to be a model. And so we really need to work on our messaging first and foremost.
And then, I need to look at the scoring systems. I need to look at the swimsuit category. Maybe we should be focusing on the fitness of young women. There are many areas in which I need to look into. Maybe we should incorporate adding GPA to the system. One time I had them check to see what the average GPA was of all the state title holders a few years ago — it was 3.65. Now that is something we should be talking about. This is a scholarship organization. We should be heralding the smarts of these young women.
You want to curtail forced arbitration clauses in employment agreements that advocates say silence women in harassment cases. Where are you in that effort?
I've been working behind the scenes for more than a year on this, meeting with politicians on Capitol Hill. I am so proud to be able to tell you that last month we were successful in introducing a bipartisan bill in both the House and the Senate.
Taking away the secrecy of arbitration clauses is key because what happens right now in the workplace is that if you're experiencing sexual harassment, you're forced into arbitration and you go to the secret chamber and nobody ever knows what happened to you. In most cases, you lose your job and the perpetrator gets to stay in his or her position. And that is not American.
The next big step is holding hearings and getting these bills passed. Then they will land on President Trump's desk, and I am very hopeful that he will sign them.
Any interest in running for office?
I have no ambitions of coming home to run for office in Minnesota. I've been asked to run for Senate in the state of Connecticut where I live now. But I'm not going to say no to ever running for politics.
I think it's really important that we encourage more women to become civically and politically involved. We've seen a huge influx in the last year of women saying, 'you know what, I can speak up and I can be in politics as well.' And so I'm doing a college campus tour for my book, "Be Fierce," to get to the young people to give them that message about speaking up about any injustice in their life.