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Gretchen Carlson says it’s time to modernize the Miss America pageant

Former FOX News host Gretchen Carlson, who filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against her then-boss Roger Ailes, was recently appointed chair of the Miss America Organization’s board of directors. She describes her efforts to change sexual harassment laws, how she’s rethinking the pageant -- including its swimsuit competition -- and the changes society can make in light of the #metoo movement.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The national reckoning that has been building around sexual harassment and misconduct has led to high-profile firings, resignations and settlements.

    Now there's a growing focus on how to change culture and the law.

    Gretchen Carlson has a unique vantage point on all of this. Her decision to file a sexual harassment lawsuit in 2016 against her former boss Roger Ailes of FOX News turned out to be a harbinger of what lay ahead with the Harvey Weinstein revelations and all that followed.

    Ailes died last year, and FOX reportedly settled for $20 million.

    Carlson subsequently left FOX. And, last fall, her book on her own experiences was released titled "Be Fierce."

    Now, a former Miss America Herself, Carlson was named chair of the Miss America Organization last week in a move to change its culture. She joins me now from Connecticut.

    Gretchen Carlson, thank you for being here. Congratulations on being named to this position.

    But it has to be a hard time to step into this role, when there was, frankly, such a messy situation at the Miss America Organization.

  • Gretchen Carlson:


    Well, Judy, great to be with you. I have always admired you from afar, so thank you so much for having me on your program.

    This is a call to duty for me. As a former Miss America, I felt this call to help. This is a volunteer position. I have had a lot of those kinds of positions over the last 18 months. And, really, I have turned my life into helping other women and now trying to do what I can to empower women and help all the volunteers within the Miss America Organization as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There were e-mails, vulgar language used by the former executives at the organization.

    Did it feel like an organization that could be sustained?

  • Gretchen Carlson:

    Well, I certainly know that we will be able to sustain it. If there's been one consistent thing in my life, it's been that, when a challenge is in front of me, I put 120 percent effort into it and make sure that it happens in a positive way.

    The one thing that people don't know about the Miss America Organization, potentially, is that it's a total grassroots community. It starts with volunteers in local communities and then in the state pageants. And there's thousands of people across the country who love this organization and give their hearts and souls to it.

    So, I figured, what better role than for me to also be a volunteer as chair to come in and do my best, as we're in this cultural revolution right now of the MeToo experience, to also play that out in the Miss America Organization and really focus on that theme of empowerment for these contestants as well?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you say to people, Gretchen Carlson, who ask, do we need a Miss America Pageant anymore in this country because, after all, it objectifies many parts of who a woman is?

  • Gretchen Carlson:

    Well, of course, that particular area that always gets criticism is the swimsuit category. And I'm going to be taking a very serious look at that.

    Listen, Miss America gave me amazing life skills. I challenge anybody to get up on a stage in front of millions of people and answer questions and perform your violin talent, as I did.

    I entered this program because I was a serious classical violist. That was going to be my career. And talent was worth 50 percent of my points in Miss America. It's a scholarship program. I was a student at Stanford University in Oxford, and when I went back after my senior year after being Miss America, my parents were so grateful that I used my $50,000 that I won to pay for the rest of my education at Stanford.

    So, this is what's happening for thousands of women across this country. And I'm going to work as hard as I can to make sure that that's the message that is getting out about this organization.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And if you emphasize that, instead of, say, the swimsuit part, are people still going to watch?

  • Gretchen Carlson:

    Right. Oh, well, you know, we will see. I'm planning to reach out to experts in all those fields to figure out what's best to get people interested.

    But I'm not worried about that at all right now. What I'm worried about is wrapping my arms around this organization, getting up to speed as quickly as I can, getting just exactly the right people in place to help me on this mission.

    And I think what's amazing is that right now on the board, it's four former Miss Americas. You know, this is the perfect place to start, and then we are going to branch out and find experts in every field to help us on this mission.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's talk about the MeToo movement beyond that.

    A number of high-profile men have lost their positions, been publicly drummed out of wherever they were working. But I think everybody now agrees more than that has to happen. There needs to be measure — there need to be measures taken to make sure women aren't subjected to this kind of behavior in the future.

    Do you see progress on those other fronts now?

  • Gretchen Carlson:

    I do.

    So here's what I have learned over the last 18 months, since I jumped off my own cliff all alone by myself with no safety net below, first of all, that courage is contagious. You hand it to one woman, she hands it to the next and the next.

    And look where we are today. We are in this cultural revolution, where women are seeing that there are consequences. There are good consequences for them when they come forward, but also potentially bad consequences for the perpetrators.

    And that's been what's exhilarating for more people to feel the courage to come forward. But solutions are not just one-pronged effect.

    Listen, I have been working on Capitol Hill to change laws. That's a part of the process. It's incumbent on businesses to put more women in higher positions and pay them fairly, because when you have more women in high-profile positions, sexual harassment doesn't happen.

    It's incumbent on men to help us in this process. Most men want safe working environments for women, but we need to encourage them to also come forward and be our allies in this fight.

    And those are just three of the ways in which we can change. It's also how we raise our kids and especially our sons. So all of these things have to come together in order for us to find solutions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I want to ask you about some of the work you're going on Capitol Hill around getting employers to stop using these forced arbitration agreements that include nondisclosure clauses that don't allow women to talk about what happened.

    Do you see genuine progress there?

  • Gretchen Carlson:

    I do, Judy.

    I mean, it's amazing. You know better than anybody that things don't happen quickly on Capitol Hill, and oftentimes nothing happens on Capitol Hill. So, I was so proud that, last month, I was able to get a bipartisan bill in the House and the Senate on these forced arbitration clauses to take them away with dealing in sexual harassment and discrimination cases.

    It's a very narrow bill. The next step now, either than getting both parties together, which was so monumental, is to have hearings on this. And already we have had a company like Microsoft step up to the plate and say, we're not going to have these forced arbitration clauses in our employee contracts anymore.

    And I'm hoping that more companies will find the courage to do the same thing. Really, the reason that we want to get rid of these is because it keeps this issue in the shadows of secrecy. And so, if you think about the power pendulum inside of a company, you have the perpetrator here and the woman who has to remain silent and nobody ever knows what happened to her.

    So, if we took that silence away, look what happens. We're now on an even playing field. And I think it will totally change the cultural dynamic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You know, at the same time, we're hearing, we're seeing some progress in different areas.

    You're also starting to hear people complain, well, that this movement may have gone overboard, that minor transgressions, people just trying to be friendly is being lumped in with heinous actions like those of either Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein.

    Is there a danger, Gretchen Carlson, that it all gets lumped together and, in the end, damage is done that shouldn't be done here?

  • Gretchen Carlson:

    You know, certainly, Judy, there has to be a difference in degree.

    Sexually assaulting somebody is a totally different crime than saying, "I like your dress." So, yes, I agree with you on that.

    However, I will tell you that the thousands of women who reached out to me after my story broke in July of 2016, which was really the impetus for my book "Be Fierce," because I wanted to give them a voice finally, the thousands of women who reached out to me from every career, from every state, their stories were so horrific that there was no gray area, Judy.

    It wasn't, "I like your dress." It wasn't those kind of comments. It wasn't, "I like your hair."

    It was egregious things like, "When I want to get a raise, the boss asked me to get up on the desk and spread 'em." And that was just a couple of years ago.

    That was the majority of the stories. I'm sorry to be so vulgar, but I want to be clear that these stories, 99.9 percent of them were so over the top. And they have all been shrouded in secrecy. And so now we're seeing the light of day. And I certainly hope that we don't get away from how serious most of these stories have been.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, do you think this is going to stick? Is this a movement that's here to stay?

  • Gretchen Carlson:

    Well, I have been calling it a tsunami or a tidal wave or what other weather analogy you want to use, also a cultural revelation and revolution.

    I really believe that it will be hard to put the genie back in the bottle now. And I think when you give the gift of courage, and it becomes contagious, this is what we're seeing happening. The final tipping point for me, Judy, is getting men to stop being bystanders, and turn them into allies.

    And so that's really my call to action.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Gretchen Carlson, just named chair of the Miss America Pageant, thank you very much for talking to us.

  • Gretchen Carlson:

    Thanks for having me.

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