Gretchen Carlson, native daughter of Anoka, says she never aspired to be the poster child for sexual harassment in the workplace.
But ever since she took down former Fox News founder and CEO Roger Ailes seven years ago, she's turned her experience into a calling, working on Capitol Hill to change laws in hopes of making workers safer.
How Carlson — a former violin prodigy, Miss America and broadcast news anchor — became an activist is a tale of continuing reinvention. And she credits her Minnesota roots for giving her the gumption to do it, harking back to the first day of kindergarten when she advocated for herself after her teacher mistakenly lumped her into a group of kids who didn't know how to read.
That's the kid she channeled when she decided to sue Ailes for sexual harassment.
"It felt like I was completely alone, and I was taking on one of the most powerful men in the world," she said. "I needed something deep down inside of me to guide me, and it turns out that it was that little girl who stood up for herself when she was only 5."
In the 2016 lawsuit, Carlson alleged that Ailes forced her out of the network because she refused his repeated sexual advances. Other women came forward with their own allegations of sexual harassment, leading to Ailes' resignation. Carlson received an apology from 21st Century Fox and a $20 million settlement. The viral #MeToo movement would begin its cascade more than a year later.
Yet Carlson, 57, says she still can't reveal her full story.
"I am still silenced," she said. "I had to sign an NDA [non-disclosure agreement] upon my resolution with Fox, so ironically, I don't own my own truth. So I may never own my own truth, but I'm going to make sure that other people do."
Two new laws that Carlson advocated for in Washington are helping to remove the power of silencing mechanisms in the workplace. With bipartisan support, President Biden last year signed measures to end forced arbitration and enforcement of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment and assault.
Carlson, who lives in Connecticut, is back in her home state this week to speak at a sold-out event at Zion Lutheran Church in Anoka, the church where she was baptized, confirmed and married.
Here's an edited excerpt from my conversation with her.
Q: You came forward with the allegations against Roger Ailes before the official start of #MeToo. Do you feel vindicated by the movement you helped pave the way for?
A: Yes. For sure, there had been people before me. But one of the reasons we hadn't heard about a lot of these cases is because companies have figured out how to silence everyone on those issues. There was no safety net below me when I jumped off [and filed the lawsuit]. It took a long time to get there. I had reached the pinnacle of my career, and there were not that many other jobs at that level available. I decided to do it after I got my parents to support me on it, which took a while.
Q: Why do you say that?
A: I think it had a lot to do with the Minnesota Nice thing. My parents were like, "Wait a minute. You're gonna sue them? You're doing so well! Why would you do that?" Then a couple of months before I did, we had a very tearful phone conversation. Both said that they were with me. Gosh, we always want to still please our parents, no matter how old we are. It makes me teary-eyed now, because I knew it was going to be a big step and I didn't want to do it without them, and of course, my husband and children.
Q: How do you feel being inextricably joined to this issue?
A: Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd become an advocate on these kinds of issues. [After the lawsuit], I started hearing from so many people all across the world and they had had a similar experience. All these women start reaching out to me, and I was writing back to all of them. There were dozens, then it went to thousands. I realized then it was an epidemic of harassment in the workplace, but it was also an epidemic of silencing people. That's when I knew I had to do something about it.
Q: Do you feel that this is your ultimate calling, to be an advocate for those who don't have a voice?
A: Oh, yes, this will be my legacy. This is far more important than any interview I've ever done with any presidential candidate or sitting president. These two labor laws are making the workplace safer for millions of Americans.
One-third of all American workers on their first day of work sign an NDA. They're signing an NDA about things that have not happened to them yet. They're signing away their voice about something bad that may happen the week after or 10 years later. To me, that's criminal.
Q: What did you think of Garrison Keillor, who's also from Anoka and had his own reckoning over allegations of sexual misconduct?
A: I did an event with him at Orchestra Hall and would run into him in passing over the years. I think that story is emblematic of, you don't really know what's going on behind closed doors, and you don't really know who a person is. That is especially true with public figures, because so many people had welcomed them into their homes and were made to feel comfortable with them. I have to say I wasn't surprised. What we've learned from this movement is that our perceptions of people are not always accurate.
Q: How can workplaces be less toxic?
A: 95% of Fortune 500 companies are run by men. I need to get to those men because they have complete control about changing their culture. Imagine the change in dynamic if a CEO gathers everyone and says, "I am not standing up for this crap. People who come forward, I will celebrate you because I want to have a safe environment. We will do an independent investigation. If the claims are found to be worthy, you will stay working here and the other person will not."
If you really want to do the right thing for your children, especially your daughters, then you will take this message to heart, and you will realize that the movement's not going away.
Q: Back to Minnesota content. I see you're still tweeting about the Vikings.
A: Oh, yeah, I'm a huge Vikings fan and always have been. I still feel like a Minnesotan. It's totally shaped my life, who I am, and I'm so blessed to have grown up there. I try to pass that along to my two kids as best as possible and bring them to Minnesota to visit. We go up north and we have a simpler life. They water ski and boat and play bingo. It's a totally different existence, but they have come to love that too, now.