Gretchen Carlson made major news last summer when she brought down the powerful Fox News chief Roger Ailes. Carlson, a host on the right-leaning TV network until her contract ended in June, filed a lawsuit accusing Ailes of, among other things, sexual harassment. Her lawsuit prompted other women to come forward with similar claims and, ultimately, brought about Ailes’ ouster from Fox News, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. Toward the end of July, the network issued an apology and reportedly reached a $20 million settlement with Carlson.
Since then, Carlson has largely kept a low profile. But now she is back in the spotlight to champion her new role as an advocate for female empowerment.
“This is a mission that I never expected to have in my life,” she said during a Q&A hosted by Good Housekeeping editor in chief Jane Francisco at Hearst headquarters Monday evening. “I’m just a small town girl from Minnesota.”
After reading from the magazine’s February cover story — a profile of Carlson — by way of introduction, Francisco explained that, because of the arbitration process, Carlson is not actually able to speak about the particulars of her lawsuit or the settlement.
Throughout the hour-long conversation, neither Carlson nor Francisco directly mentioned Ailes and Fox News, alluding, instead, to Carlson’s “former employer.”
“My case was incredibly public, so if anyone wants to know about all the details it’s all over the place,” Carlson replied. “I still can talk about the issue, which is really great because it doesn’t strangle me or handcuff me from trying to help other people.”
It is also pretty fortunate for the former anchor, considering that it is a cornerstone of her new role.
“As a result of having gone through my trials and tribulations, today I’m announcing that I’m setting up a fund to help empower young women and girls called Gift of Courage,” she announced during the discussion. The fund will also, she noted, help “people who have gone through sexual harassment issues.”
Another area that Carlson wants to bring attention to is the issue of arbitration, a topic she plans to testify about before Congress this spring.
“When you sign your employment contract and agree to send any dispute to arbitration, you are giving up your constitutional right to go in front of a jury. And you are also shrouding yourself in secrecy because the minute that you go to arbitration, it’s 100 percent confidential so nobody ever hears about it,” she explained. Keeping it quiet, she said, contributes to the perception that our society has gotten better about issues like sexual harassment.
Earlier in the day, The New York Times reported that Fox News had quietly settled another sexual harassment case with another female anchor, this one against network personality Bill O’Reilly. That story was likewise not mentioned during the Q&A with Carlson.
The public nature of her case, Carlson said, meant it was even discussed in her daughter’s eighth-grade current events class.
“Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on how you look at it — mommy has been in current events recently,” she said.
But despite being part of a middle-school lesson plan, Carlson disputed Francisco’s characterization of herself as a famous mom, even though the editor tempered the phrase with air quotes. “I don’t consider myself that at all. My kids know me just as the mom who takes them to piano lessons and does homework and goes to hockey and soccer and church and everything else,” she said.
Although Carlson has always prided herself on being a “working mom,” she said she has enjoyed the benefit of being more available to her children over the past six months. “It’s given me great perspective. Having said that, I want to go back to work.
“I have often said I felt it was important to be a working mom more so for my son than for my daughter, because I want him to respect women in the workforce when he eventually gets there,” she said, explaining that she is hopeful that the current generation of boys are being raised to look at women in a completely different way than men were in the past. Her son, for example, encounters women in positions of power when he goes to the dentist, the orthodontist, the doctor and school.
Speaking of: Does she think “the recent election signals anything larger with regards to women in society now?” Francisco asked, without mentioning President-elect Donald Trump by name.
“I’m really optimistic most of the time, and I really think this is an opportunity. I know a lot of women are feeling not that way, and a sense of despair,” she said. “But if we don’t all wake up every morning optimistic and say, ‘hey we can make a difference,’ then being upset about something isn’t going to get anything done.”
And that means encouraging young women to get into politics.
“We need to let girls know they can be the president of the United States,” she said. “And by the way, I think this is still going to happen.”