Gretchen Carlson Opens Up About Sexual Harassment, Starting When She Was Miss America

Beth Greenfield
Senior Writer
Yahoo Beauty

The first time I was sexually harassed on the job I was 19 years old and working behind a deli counter of an old-fashioned grocery. Every time I found myself alone with the butcher, who looked alarmingly like Rodney Dangerfield, he would grab a salami out of the case and hold it lasciviously while leering at me, saying, “C’mon! Just give me a kiss!”

I never told a soul, but learned as I grew that this and other incidents like it — the chef who would repeatedly ask me to have sex with him in the walk-in fridge, the editor who would aggressively dole out shoulder massages to all the young female reporters while the other men pretended not to see — was the norm, and that blaming ourselves while never reporting it was standard, too.

While things have changed hugely for me (I’ve worked mainly with women for years now), I know that, for so many, it’s still the same as always. That even includes visible, powerful women — like Gretchen Carlson, who has become a fierce advocate for her sisters on this topic, and who has just spoken out for the first time since filing her sexual harassment lawsuit against former Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes.

Carlson, who kicked off her career by becoming Miss America 1989, spoke with Amy Robach of ABC News for a 20/20 segment set to air on Friday, a portion of which was teased Thursday on Good Morning America. And the harassment, she said, began not long after winning the crown, when she began to try and find her way in the world of broadcasting.

“It was a shocking experience,” she said. “Because with this particular man, he spent most of the day helping me, and I thought, wow this guy’s being so nice.” But after having dinner with her mentor, Carlson found herself in the back seat of a car with him, and she recalled, “Before I knew it he was on top of me, and his tongue was down my throat. I quickly got out of the car and I was flustered. I started sobbing and I remember being inconsolable, and thinking, well, I’ll never speak to him again. And I didn’t.”

Two weeks later, she said, she had a similar experience with a “very high-powered PR executive” in Los Angeles. “Again, we were in a car,” Carlson recalled, “and he took my head and my neck and he shoved my face into his crotch so forcefully that I couldn’t breathe. I remember thinking to myself, this is happening again?”

And it’s obviously happened since, according to Carlson’s lawsuit, in which she alleged that Ailes ostracized and then fired her after she rebuffed his sexual advances; Fox settled with Carlson for $20 million in September, and apologized in a statement that read, “We sincerely regret and apologize for the fact that Gretchen was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve.” The statement was almost more shocking than the settlement amount, according to some experts.

“Typically the last thing a plaintiff ever receives in a pre-trial settlement is an apology,” Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer who often represents plaintiffs in sexual harassment lawsuits, told the Washington Post at the time. “It clearly is a recognition that she was right that she was treated inappropriately, and that in and of itself is quite stunning.”

That’s because women are so often disbelieved or considered pesky whistleblowers when they come forward about sexual harassment — if they come forward at all.

“You think, I must’ve done something,” Carlson told ABC, admitting that she had blamed herself in part for the harassment she faced early in her career. “When situations like that happen to women, you fear that it’s going to be your fault, you’re not going to be believed, you’re going to lose your job.”

Indeed, according to Connecticut-based psychologist Barbara Greenberg, “Women are socialized to blame themselves for mishaps in all arenas of their lives rather than to express anger, like men. Women torture themselves. Men get angry at others.” Even when women do dare to get mad, Greenberg tells Yahoo Beauty, “The anger of men is taken more seriously. Women are more likely to be called dramatic and hysterical, so they try to avoid expressing anger.”

Instead of tapping into anger after being sexually harassed — which some women may not even recognize as such right away, since they are so used to people commenting on their appearance — many just feel shame. “Because that’s what is likely to be the outcome — they will be blamed and shamed,” Greenberg says. “Also, they don’t want to lose their jobs.”

And that’s a real risk for many, according to Fatima Goss Graves, vice president of the National Women’s Law Center. “Workers in low-wage jobs often have little bargaining power and can least afford to risk their livelihoods by reporting harassment,” she told the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). “And women who have succeeded in breaking into higher-paid, nontraditional jobs have already overcome many hurdles, including cultural biases against their participation in nontraditional fields. Because of the significant barriers to entry, women who suffer harassment in nontraditional jobs may be especially unlikely to report harassment for fear of retaliation.”

The EEOC defines sexual harassment, which is illegal, as behavior that can include “unwelcome sexual advances requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and “can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.”

All of this behavior and more has been experienced by basically every woman I know — including those who answered a very quick and unscientific survey on Facebook on Thursday about sexual harassment on the job:

“I don’t think I’ve ever worked at a job where there isn’t sexual harassment. Just depends on the level.”

“As a nursing student I asked a patient to list his 3 daily goals. He listed ‘make love to you.’ This was my first time meeting him.”

“It was my boss. I refused his advances, so he retaliated. Then I reported him to Human Resources. The director was a woman. They transferred me immediately to a better job, but didn’t take any action against him.” 

“Oh no nothing to report from Wall Street — except constant abusive misogynistic behavior.”

“There wouldn’t be enough room.”

And while some have come forward and many more have not, it shouldn’t ever be too late for a woman to do so.

“I don’t think we should judge women if they have waited,” Carlson told ABC. “Because look at how we react to women when they finally do come forward: They’re accused of making it up. We have to make it a safer environment so that it’s no longer he said, she said, but maybe just: She said.”

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