Gretchen Carlson filed suit against Roger Ailes last summer – and started an avalanche.
Less than 10 months later, two of the most powerful men in media, Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, have been knocked off lofty perches at Fox News.
And the world is suddenly a different place for women who’ve experienced sexual harassment in their workplaces.
“The lesson, and it’s a wonderful one, is to be brave,” business journalist and educator Micheline Maynard told me.
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“As women, we are taught not to speak out, not to ruffle feathers, to just be good and work harder,” she said. “I wish we weren’t as hesitant, and now maybe we won’t be.”
Carlson, whose nondisclosure agreement prevented her from commenting for this column, said in an interview last summer that her decision to go up against Roger Ailes was frightening, and that she had no idea how it would turn out.
“I thought I would be fighting this all by myself,” she told me.
Her claim was that Ailes had repeatedly propositioned her. (“You’d be good and better, and I’d be good and better,” were his immortal words.) And when she turned him down, she said, he retaliated by demoting and disparaging her. Ailes vehemently denied the charges, but Carlson, who reportedly had tape-recorded evidence on her side, eventually got a $20 million settlement and a public apology.
As it turned out, she was far from alone.
A critical mass of Fox women – so many that they could not be ignored – soon joined her. Articles in New York magazine, The Washington Post, and the New York Times told their riveting, often disgusting, stories.
And within Fox, the network’s superstar, Megyn Kelly, was joining the battle, though she did so quietly.
“Gretchen started the public avalanche, and Megyn continued it internally,” Maynard said.
Last weekend, the New York Times reported that Kelly’s January departure from Fox was prompted, in part, by O’Reilly’s repeated on-air jabs at her on this very subject. At that point, I knew it was all over except for the shouting – and the size of the golden parachute. (O’Reilly has denied that he sexually harassed anyone.)
After all, it was Kelly’s statements to internal investigators last year that Ailes had harassed her, too, that may have been the final straw in unseating him from the top Fox News job.
“We found out, in all of this, that if you speak up, there will be action, and that there’s strength in numbers,” longtime media executive Vivian Schiller said Wednesday. “And companies are feeling pressure from their own employees.”
That’s especially true, of course, when one of those employees is a major star. As Schiller said about Kelly, “She felt, ultimately, that this culture is not something I want to be a part of.”
Of course, plenty of women have complained in the past, in companies and organizations, to no avail. Some have been retaliated against. Others ignored, mocked or silenced.
This chain of events helps change that, especially because of the financial toll – an advertiser revolt – resulting from the bad behavior and a culture that supported it.
The culture at Fox, and in the wider world, will never be the same, Schiller told me.
“Companies are feeling pressure from their own employees, and they are realizing that they have to listen,” Schiller said.
The fight is far from over, said Nancy Erika Smith, attorney for Carlson and other Fox women.
Next step, she said: Women should demand that Congress pass the Fairness in Arbitration Act to stop silencing victims of discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
“Only in the light of day will women be able to stand together and force sexual predators out of all workplaces,” Smith said.
As Carlson told Variety recently: “It’s so unbelievable that in 2017, almost every single woman has a story about sexual harassment.”
But now, at least, they may find it easier to tell their stories. Easier to be brave.
Margaret Sullivan is a Washington Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter, @Sulliview