Nancy Erika Smith, an employment and civil rights lawyer, famously represented former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson in her successful sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, taking him down in the process. A Montclair resident, she has made a name for herself by winning cases for those who face discrimination in the workplace based on age, race, gender or sexual orientation, and has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. She’s been practicing for more than 42 years.
You represented Gretchen Carlson in her lawsuit against Roger Ailes and Fox News. What was the most surprising thing about the case for you?
At the time, I didn’t know that Roger Ailes was such a serial sexual predator, but that was revealed during the case. Probably the most surprising thing was that our society allowed a man to abuse women for 50 years. I talked to women in every decade, from when he was on The Mike Douglas Show, and there were women abused by him in every job he had who came forward after Gretchen came forward, really bravely.
And that’s really what the Me Too movement is about—women supporting other women coming out because they want to say, “It happened to me too,” in order to support other women. And I think that’s really changed things, because apparently one woman saying she’s been sexually abused is not enough in our culture.
Why do you think some powerful men sexually harass women?
It’s all about power, because power is what these men want. I think the [Donald] Trump [civil] trial [during which a Manhattan jury found he’d sexually abused the writer E. Jean Carroll] really showed the misogyny. It’s truly hatred of women, and it’s needing to dominate and exert power. And those two things together create sexual abusers.
Let’s talk about Tucker Carlson. After he was fired, it was revealed that he’d sent emails in which he made derogatory remarks about women, allegedly using the C-word. One of his producers is now suing Fox News, alleging a hostile work environment. What are your thoughts?
There are so many toxic men out there, and more than usual at Fox News. I think it’s wonderful that Dominion brought that lawsuit and that those emails and texts were revealed. I think Abby Grossberg is very brave to come forward…. But we should not be surprised, because who is still the president of Fox News? Suzanne Scott, who was Roger’s very loyal lieutenant…. Nothing has changed because Rupert Murdoch still runs Fox News, and it wasn’t a mistake that he chose Roger Ailes to create a right-wing lying machine. It was planned, it was a decision, and it’s still his decision.
During Donald Trump’s recent civil trial in a case brought by E. Jean Carroll, he essentially said that powerful men can assault women with impunity.
Yes, it’s been going on for centuries, and finally there’s some accountability. There’s been accountability for [Harvey] Weinstein, for [Bill] Cosby, who only got off on a ridiculous technicality. Jeffrey Epstein was starting to be held accountable before he took his own life. So it is really, really important. Trump is probably the most blatant misogynist out there. It’s rare to see somebody attack women so frequently in such vile terms. I’ve taken depositions of horrible sexual harassers for years, and Trump takes the cake for being disrespectful and misogynistic. And he’s proud of it. And his cult-like followers love it. Because that’s his brand—sexism and racism.
On a local level, you’re representing Montclair CFO Padmaja Rao in her lawsuit against the town and former Township Manager Timothy Stafford for harassment and gender discrimination. Were you surprised that this was allegedly happening in your own backyard?
As you know, we’re supposed to be the “People’s Republic of Montclair,” yet most of this town council, unfortunately, has been shown to be quite the opposite. They operate in secret. They lack transparency with the public. The lawyer overturned a thoughtful report about a hostile work environment being created by the town manager. It’s troubling that this is our town. This idea that you can hide behind everything you’re doing and all the decisions being made with the claim, “Oh, the lawyer said I can’t talk about it,” is outrageous. We deserve better. Luckily, we have an engaged population in Montclair. And I hope that keeps up. It goes way beyond Ms. Rao’s case, which is important certainly to her and the town. And like most whistleblowers, she’s very, very brave. It’s very brave to sue your current employer. But, you know, she has shined a light on problems that go way beyond her case.
Did you ever think you would work on a sexual harassment case in your own town?
No, I never imagined that Montclair was being run this way. Actually, I have been remiss. I’ve been to a few town council meetings, but obviously not enough, because I had no idea what they were up to. It’s really shocking. It’s shocking that they act with such impunity. They just feel like nothing they do is going to be revealed, or that they’re not going to be held accountable for anything they do.
Do you think women are feeling more empowered now to come forward and to initiate complaints about sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace?
I absolutely think women are feeling more empowered. And when I speak to younger women, they are really informed in their view of the world, that they don’t have to tolerate the abuse that all the rest of us have felt, on some level, that we had to tolerate for years. So, I am hopeful. But there’s always a backlash. Trump and Fox News show us that sexism and racism sell. So we can’t be complacent. They’re taking our rights away—even our right to medical care. Somebody introduced a bill in some state legislature to make women take their husband’s last names. I mean, there’s no end to the misogyny. When I’m thinking optimistically, I think it’s a reaction to our progress. When I’m thinking not optimistically, I think, Oh my God, we’re going to be living in The Handmaid’s Tale soon.
Do you think it’s starting to change for women? Are men becoming more aware?
I think that women are sticking up for themselves. I think Trump’s election motivated women to take action. I think the big cases, the Weinstein abuse, the Cosby abuse, the [Bill] O’Reilly and Trump abuse, have made women want to step up and protect one another and speak out. And there are many, many men who support us. And there were six men on the Trump jury and three women. And as you can see from the Trump crowds, I mean, women can be as misogynistic as men. When we pick a jury in a sexual harassment case, it’s astonishing what women say about other women who complain about sexual harassment. So I don’t think it’s just men that are the problem. Our culture is the problem. But I do believe it’s changing.
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