To Ambitious Young Women,
My life has worked in mysterious ways. It’s zigzagged all over the place. I was supposed to be a violinist and then I wasn’t. I was supposed to go to law school, and I didn’t. Then, to my own shock, I became Miss America, which led me to television. But for goodness sake, there was nowhere in my mind that I ever thought that I would jump off of a cliff and become one of the poster women for sexual harassment in the workplace.
Through all the twists and turns, the one constant in my life has been that fire in my belly. You know what I am talking about – that feeling deep down, that drives you to do the right thing, compete and make the most of your life.
I never lost that ambition, that determination and I don’t want you to lose it either because I promise you, no matter what you do, life will test you.
As early as five years old, I had to advocate for myself. When I started kindergarten, the teacher divided the children up into two groups: kids who could read and kids who could not read. My teacher wrongly placed me in the group with kids who couldn’t read. I can still feel myself running home from school, slamming the back door and screaming for my mom.
“Mom! They say I don’t know how to read and I do,” I cried.
She called the school and the next day, I was in the right group.
If I hadn’t spoken up, it could have changed my entire educational trajectory, my self-confidence, my self-worth and my ability to stand up for right versus wrong.
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Little did I know that there would be much tougher battles ahead. Luckily, along my journey, different lessons and experiences prepared me for my career.
When I was six years old, I started playing the violin. It automatically clicked and became my life. I dedicated most of my childhood to practicing four to five hours a day, learning immense discipline. Seeing myself grow and get better allowed me to build my self-esteem from the inside out. Also, developing and owning a talent was something no one could take away from me.
Through the violin, I learned how to value myself for who I was, not what I looked like.
In 10th grade, I auditioned for the school play, Oklahoma, as well as for this singing and dancing group called The Whirlwinds. Also, I ran for class president. In one day, I lost all of them. I remember going to my grandfather, completely upset.
He said, “Do you know how many elections Abraham Lincoln lost before he became president?”
I said, “No.”
He responded, “A lot.”
He said, “Do you know how many times it took Thomas Edison to invent the light bulb?”
And I said, “No.”
He said, “More than 2,000 tries.”
I realized that most people who find success in their lives have done so because they failed.
I know now when and if I fail, I might have to take two steps backward to get back into the game, but eventually, I’m going to move one step forward.
Ultimately, my ambition led me to Stanford and Oxford before becoming Miss America.
When I started my career, I began to realize how many women enter the working world with fire in their bellies but leave burned by their bosses. During my reign as Miss America, I met with television executives, trying to get a leg up in the business. Before my year was over, two executives sexually assaulted me.
My first TV job was in Richmond, Virginia.
Ironically, one of the first stories I covered was the Anita Hill hearings about harassment and Justice Clarence Thomas.
I remember watching and thinking, “I don’t know why these men don’t believe her.”
Right after I covered the story, I was promptly sexually harassed on the job. If that wasn’t enough, I was earning $18,000 and soon realized the male reporters were making more than me.
Much of my young age of 22 to 23 was filled with coming to realize that there was massive gender discrimination and abuse toward women. But as women, we’re taught to put our nose to the grindstone, work harder, don’t tell anyone and stuff the hurt somewhere deep in your soul.
At the time, I focused on becoming the best reporter at the shop and ascending through the television ranks. Years later, I was offered the opportunity to be a host of a morning show at Fox, and I jumped at it. A national morning show gave me the opportunity to showcase my smarts, my journalistic credentials and my personality.
When I realized after a decade at Fox, it was all coming to an end, and it wasn’t my choice, I was devastated. I had killed myself for 25 years in a career.
That’s when I used my confidence, my ability to bounce back from failure and my work ethic to take a leap of faith and speak up for myself and everyone else. If I didn’t do it, who would? That’s when I sued Roger Ailes, who at the time was the CEO and chairman of Fox News and one of the most powerful men in television.
Now, I am advocating for my kids and all of you, so you can work in safe and fair environments.
The two major ways sexual harassment has thrived in the workplace is through forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts, which means you can’t go to open court, allowing companies to cover up their dirty laundry and secondly, through nondisclosure agreements. For the last three years, I have been walking the halls of Congress trying to pass legislation to eradicate forced arbitration clauses in contracts with regard to gender discrimination and sexual harassment.
Also, I recently started a nonprofit called Lift Our Voices. We are galvanizing an army of women and men across the world, trying to get rid of nondisclosure agreements for sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
But while I fight for you, I need you to make sure whatever path your life follows, straight or zigzagged, your fire not only continues to burn but turns into a collective blaze.
Whether you are five and in kindergarten or you are forty and on television, use your voice. Women are socialized to be quiet and nice. Stop being so nice.
Men have no problem asking for a raise when they only deserve it 10 percent of the time. Women don’t ask for a raise or a promotion until they’re 90 percent sure that they’re ready for it. I want you to go for it.
Stand up and say, “I’m worth it and I’m going to ask for what I want.”
Take risks. I’m not saying to be irresponsible, I’m saying to go outside of your boundaries and color outside the lines every once in a while because it’s going to help you gain more self-confidence.
Lastly, and most importantly, band together. Include young boys and men in this effort to fix problems for women in the workplace. Men are still running 95 percent of Fortune 500 companies and in charge of most of the hiring and pay equity or lack thereof. We need them to help us.
My hope is that the fire that still burns in my belly will burn down the old ways in the workforce, so that the fires in your bellies, whatever it is you decide to do, can be the flames that light up the world with your brilliance.
We got this,
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