Over a year before the #MeToo movement gained momentum — alongside mounting sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein — Gretchen Carlson left Fox News and sued then-CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment. She soon emerged victorious with a $20 million settlement and an apology, but at the time, no one knew of the impending flood of accusations that would soon surface against Weinstein and many other men in power.
For her part, Carlson did not fade into the background after her lawsuit but, instead, reinvented herself as a women’s rights advocate. As such, she introduced her own landmark legislation, the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act of 2017, which aims to free alleged victims from the secrecy of mandatory arbitration of sexual misconduct disputes. The bill has drawn major support from both sides of the political aisle with Sens. Kirsten Gillebrand (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) becoming co-sponsors.
There’s still plenty of work ahead, but in the meantime, Carlson’s crusade is getting spotlighted in an episode of EPIX’s America Divided called “Washington’s War On Women,” which premieres on May 4. Carlson was gracious enough to speak with us about her fight to end a pervasive culture that has persisted, for far too long, in workplaces everywhere.
After decades of sexual harassment behind closed doors, the past year has seen so much progress. Do you ever take a moment and just breathe it all in and marvel?
Well, thank you so much for phrasing the question that way. I do. I do actually pinch myself frequently because it’s been a surreal experience. And every day has brought a new revelation or a new piece of work that I’ve got to get going on, another opportunity. So, it’s definitely something that I never, ever could have expected when I dove off the cliff on July 6, 2016.
When you first went to Capitol Hill to begin pushing for your legislation, Rep. Spier (D-CA) wasn’t optimistic about whether it would pass … but she changed her mind after only a month, right?
I know, wasn’t that amazing? I think that’s one of the best parts, well, there are so many great things about the piece, but I think that’s one of the best parts, is that we were following this in real time. And when [producer] Norman Lear came to me and said, “You know, I would really love for you to do this story on Capitol Hill,” this was long before the floodgates had really opened. You have to look back and really realize how he predicted or knew that this would be a great place to be. And of course, he knew I was pushing through my legislation, but who knew how all the timing was going to work out?
And so when we first started taping, I think the Weinstein revelations had just happened, and Jackie Spier was still like, “It’s never gonna reach The Hill,” and she had just seen it for too long, like so many of the rest of us, in the workplace. And I loved how she became much more optimistic and how quickly new bills were introduced. Her legislation has passed, and my bill was introduced — bipartisan, wow! — in early December, and this covers all of that. I think that’s what really makes it so fascinating.
As of right now, what are the chances of this bill passing?
Well, I spent yesterday on the phone with several members of Congress. I will [soon meet again] with staff and members of Congress, so I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been in politics and journalism for 27 years, but I’ve learned a lot about how to actually get your own legislation passed … I think one of the first hurdles was getting bipartisan support because we live in hyper-partisan times right now. The idea that I would get anything passed if it was just partisan, I knew that wouldn’t work. And so I didn’t want to put a lot of effort into something that was just for show … The next process is trying to get more cosponsors on the bill, and specifically Republicans because it tends to be more of a Democratic issue that they’re in favor of.
My main message is that harassment is apolitical, and it’s we should all care about trying to fix this and taking it out of secrecy, and that’s what arbitration does — it puts it into this secret chamber. And my bill’s incredibly narrow, it’s only about gender discrimination and sexual harassment, so even if Republicans were still in favor of arbitration for other things, they could still pass this bill, and it would help thousands and thousands of women.
Do you believe that the public at large can really look past politics on this issue? Every topic is so divisive right now.
Well, I think it’s been helpful to see titans from both sides fall, right? My mission has certainly made my effort so much more successful, and it’s pushed it along that much more quickly because it’s impossible for people to say that it is political. It’s not. We’ve seen Democrats, Republicans, Independents, black, white, gay, straight, we’ve seen everything. It’s just everywhere, and so it’s really difficult and really disingenuous for people to say, “Well, I don’t believe these women because they’re accusing somebody that I like.”
It’s not fair to do that. If they have substantial and relevant claims, you either believe them, or you don’t. And we can’t bring politics into whether or not we’re gonna believe people. So I think that’s one of the reasons everything’s moved so swiftly. It’s partially because we’ve seen that it can happen to anybody — to any victim and any perpetrator.
Will it be particularly difficult to pass this act since Congress has been so secretive about its own settlements?
Well, that’s gonna change now, too, and that’s what’s been so amazing, that bills are being introduced about the secret chamber that Congress has as well, called the Office of Compliance. Now, that’s akin to arbitration, which is what I’m fighting, and I think what made that even worse was that the American public found out that taxpayer dollars were going to pay those settlements.
And so what we’ve seen happen is that [these congressmen] have in many cases been forced to pay these settlements back personally, which is how it should have been. And there have been bills introduced and passed in regard to revamping how the Office of Compliance works. So I think that there’s much more work to be done, but I think we’ve seen the same sort of cultural revolution happening on The Hill, and we were there to witness a lot of it in this episode.
You do touch upon how it’s important not to lump all accused harassers into the same barrel.
I think that it’s incredibly important to be upfront about the fact that there are many different levels of harassment, and it’s not fair to put all of the accused into the same category. For example, what Al Franken was accused of is a completely different level than what Harvey Weinstein was accused of, and even John Conyers on The Hill, and it proves how complicated the issue is of harassment. It is not just black and white, it’s complicated, and it’s subjective unless it’s incredibly obvious. I think it’s educational for the public to see that there are many levels of inappropriateness.
One of the lines that really stuck out for me is this idea — what might seem minor to some people is in a victim’s mind for a very long time. What do you hope this episode will ultimately do?
It’s about trying to strip away these myths, right? It’s the myths that hold us back. And to be able to show that it’s so pervasive and that, for so long, we’ve been working very hard to cover it up and shunning the people who’ve had the courage to come forward. The general public will have an eye-opening experience about where their taxpayer dollars are going to, first and foremost, and that it’s everywhere.
That’s really my greatest hope, that we’ll not just continue to tell the stories of famous and well-known people but that we’ll continue to tell the stories of the everywoman who reached out to me, and those are the stories of the factory worker and the members of our military and the teachers and the oil rig operators and the police officers. That these women (and men) are facing the same type of harassment as Hollywood actors — I don’t want that to get lost in the shuffle.
America Divided’s “Washington’s War On Women” episode premieres Friday, May 4 on EPIX. Watch the trailer below.