Gretchen Carlson is a news anchor, journalist, columnist, and empowerment advocate. After her departure from Fox News in 2016, she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the network’s then chairman and CEO, Roger Ailes. The case was settled. She is the author of the book Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, published in October.
I’ve always been a believer in the idea of building self-confidence from the inside out. I came up with this strategy as a kid. I was fat, and in the ’70s, when I was growing up, nobody was talking about body positivity. Levi’s would advertise your waist size and inseam length on the outside of your pants; I always used a Sharpie to x out my size. I remember shopping for my first bra in fifth grade at our local store and the saleslady shouting out, “I need the biggest size we have for the chubby girl in the dressing room!”
I was a good student and a violin prodigy—a guest soloist with the Minnesota Orchestra at age 13—and drew on my smarts, sense of humor, and perseverance to get through my teen years.
So much so that later, after I’d lost 30 pounds and was attending Stanford, I set a huge goal for myself: to become Miss America. I figured my story of struggle and weight loss would inspire other teens, and because of the number of points awarded for talent, my parents also encouraged me to enter the pageant.
Twenty-four hours after my improbable dream became a reality, my pride was stripped away. A well-known female reporter in New York City tried to take me down during my first press conference with a demeaning and ugly line of questioning. She gave me a current-events test, asking me 20 questions from her seat. I wasn’t a dummy, but she sure wanted to make me out to be one. After asking whose face was on the $50 bill and whether my hair and teeth were “real or not,” she finally went in for the kill. Had I ever done drugs? Had I ever had sex?
As I stood at the podium in agony, every ounce of self-confidence drained from my body. Instead of feeling celebratory about having just accomplished something pretty spectacular, I was forced to fend off an attack. That feeling would become familiar over the years, but most of my assailants would be men, their attacks physical rather than verbal.
I was sexually assaulted twice during my Miss America year. The first time, it was by a high-powered television executive who had spent a day with me, making calls to agents and other TV executives, supposedly to help me get a job. After dinner, in the back seat of a car, he suddenly lunged at me, sticking his tongue down my throat. He was on top of me and I couldn’t move. Flustered, shocked, and panicked, I somehow got away from him and screamed for the driver to stop the car. I ran up to a friend’s apartment and just started bawling. Why did it happen? Didn’t he want to help me? I thought he respected who I was. I didn’t call the police for the same reasons many women still don’t: No one will believe me. It will hurt my career. They’ll wonder what I was wearing and if somehow I asked for it.
Then it happened again. This time I was in Los Angeles with a powerful PR executive. Once we were in his car, he grabbed my neck and jammed it against his crotch so forcefully, I couldn’t breathe; eventually I was able to break free and run away. It stunned me because there had been no warning; we were going to get something to eat after meeting in his office.
More than 20 years later, when the same man was visiting someone else at my workplace in New York City and walked past my office, it was as though the assault had just happened. I slammed my door and started sweating, and I felt intense anxiety—like I was being assaulted all over again. I’ve come to realize that PTSD takes many forms and is very real. It took me several minutes to gain the composure to make sure he was nowhere in sight and quickly leave my office.
A year after that second assault, I was at my first television job in Virginia, a rookie and still pretty unsure of myself. As we were traveling back to the station from one of my first assignments reporting in a rural part of the state, the cameraman I was working with started asking me how I liked it when he put the microphone on my blouse and touched my breasts. Petrified and without a cell phone, I knew I had to get away. I thought about rolling out of the car like in the movies and wondered how much it would hurt.
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Once I was back at work, my boss knew something was wrong and called me into his office. I didn’t want to tell him. I was new to the job and just wanted to do the best I could, and now I was forced into a situation that was uncomfortable and unpredictable. He eventually made me feel safe enough to share my experience. The cameraman was later let go for other reasons.
Until recently, I had never publicly told any of these stories. In our culture, if you speak up against sexual harassment, you’re labeled a troublemaker, a bitch, or worse. Twenty-five years later, you’d think things would have changed, but after my story made headlines last year, I found out that, even in 2017, every woman still has a story.
Deciding to make my voice heard was the biggest decision of my life. I worried about what it would do to my career and my two preteen children. But with my 50th birthday looming, I saw an opportunity. Women are socialized to look at 50 as a negative moment—when your body starts falling apart, you go through menopause, and you start looking older and maybe gain weight—and I wanted to defy that. I marked the milestone by speaking truth to power.
And then something amazing happened: Women from all over the world started reaching out to tell me their stories—many for the first time ever. But now they felt a sense of victory and validation.
Those stories inspired me to write my new book. I hope Be Fierce will encourage other women to reclaim their self-confidence in any situation where they feel put down because of sexual harassment, pay inequality, or lack of promotion. If we all commit to speaking up, we will begin to change our culture. Let’s be fierce together.