By HEATHER BRADFORD
Humorist, radio personality, writer, and unapologetic sexual harasser Garrison Keillor was scheduled to perform on April 16 at the historic NorShor Theatre in Duluth, Minn. The event, which was scheduled during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, immediately attracted social media backlash against the theater. Due to the efforts of local feminist organizers, the anger quickly coalesced into a petition, boycott, plans for a protest, negative media attention, and campaign to call and write the theater to demand that the event be canceled. Ultimately, on March 2, these actions successfully pressured Keillor’s booking agency to cancel the event, a decision that NorShor’s board refused to make themselves.
To understand why his appearance at the NorShor mobilized Duluth feminists, it is important to review Keillor’s history of sexual harassment and abuse of power. In November 2017, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) severed ties with him. Minnesota Public Radio was the distributor of Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” a radio program heard by millions of listeners each week across hundreds of public radio stations since 1974. Keillor had retired from the program in 2016, so the end of their business relationship meant that they would not rebroadcast his episodes, the name would be changed to “Live from Here,” and they would no longer distribute his “Writer’s Almanac.”
At first, Minnesota Public Radio was not forthcoming with details over the firing, which led some listeners to believe he had been falsely accused. Keillor claimed in the Star Tribune, that he had accidentally put his hand six inches up his colleague’s shirt when he was trying to console her. Of course, it seems dubious that hands accidentally slip up the shirts of coworkers. The incident occured the same month that he had sent this coworker an email stating that he would like to touch her breast. While there had been sexual emails exchanged between the two of them, his account of the incident minimized the allegations brought against him and ignored power dynamics in the workplace.
In addition to minimizing and denying the allegations, Keillor has also claimed that he is the true victim and argued that the sexual misconduct allegations were actually an extortion scheme by a fired ex-employee who put his accuser up to lying about him.
Of course, MPR did not end its relationship with Keillor over one incident. In their own account released a few months later, they ended their business relationship following an investigation into alleged sexual misconduct which occurred over years Keillor spent working with a woman on “A Prairie Home Companion.” The allegations included unwanted touching and sexual harassment, which the employee outlined in a 12-page document.
MPR interviewed over 60 people who had worked with Keillor and released an article with some of the allegations. For instance, Molly Hilgenberg, a former employee of Keillor’s bookstore, Common Good Books, recalled an incident in 2012 when he wrote a sexual limerick on a white board about a young female staff member. Hilgenberg said she was afraid to erase it, so she covered it with books. When she finally erased it, Keillor became angry and wrote a condescending non-apology explaining to the sexually harassed worker what a limerick was. In another incident, Keillor sent a sexually inappropriate email to a student when she asked him if she could be his intern. At the time, she didn’t share the email as she was afraid that she would not be believed.
In 2009, a subordinate female staff member who was romantically involved with Keillor was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement, wherein she was to agree not to disclose personal or confidential information about him or his company. The agreement was accompanied with a $16,000 check from his production company. She never cashed the check or signed the agreement. In 1999, Patricia McFadden, who worked for “The Writer’s Almanac” for three years, was fired from the show, and sued MPR, alleging age, sex, and relational discrimiation after she was replaced by a younger woman. She maintained that the firing was requested by Keillor, who treated female employees in a demeaning, hostile, and abusive manner. He complained when she featured too many female writers and poets for the program. The matter was settled outside of court.
A similar situation was experienced by Liz Fleischman, who also worked for Keillor and watched him crumple up her scripts when he didn’t like them. She also learned that she was going to be replaced by a younger woman, but decided to quit her position with “Writer’s Almanac.” In her observation, he tended to hire younger women, but was often demanding, frustrated, and unappreciative of them.
Although numerous accusations of sexual harassment and abuse of power have been brought against him, Keilor has said that he has nothing to apologize for. He has minimized and denied all accusations brought against him. For instance, he claimed that several sexually suggestive emails that he sent to coworkers were examples of romantic writing. The power dynamics of working as the supervisor of women, and especially younger women, has never been acknowledged. Instead, he has treated the emails as harmless because they never resulted in a physical relationship.
Because he never took accountability for nor issued any semblance of an apology for his behavior, Duluth feminists took several measures to see that his performance was canceled. The immediate response of members of Feminist Justice League and Feminist Action Collective was to contact the NorShor Theatre via phone and Facebook to urge them to cancel the event. Other community members called for a boycott of the NorShor Theatre because of the event. Feminist Justice League launched a petition aimed at the NorShor Theatre to urge them to cancel the performance and had planned a series of protests during the month of March.
The backlash attracted some media attention, which also spotlighted anger over the event. NorShor’s board met to discuss canceling the performance and suspended ticket sales for a short time, but ultimately did not decide to cancel it. It was Keillor’s booking agent that pulled the plug on the event, saying that it was canceled for “unforeseen circumstances.”
Surely, the “unforeseen circumstances” of feminist backlash was not entirely unexpected. In February 2018, Keillor was scheduled to appear at the Burlington Book Festival in Vermont but was forced to cancel due to outcry against his appearance on social media. More recently, social media backlash against Keillor prompted him to cancel a scheduled appearance at the Women’s Club of Minneapolis on Feb. 29.
In response to the backlash at the Women’s Club, Keillor said that young women seem to view him as a felon or child abductor and that he would rather not fight over it. Again, rather than taking responsibility for his actions, he shifted blame to young women, who for unimaginable reasons, treat him like a villain. In this narrative, he heroically stepped back from the fight so that the Women’s Club could have the continued support of young women. Keillor, with a net worth of $5 million and upcoming April performances in Grand Forks, N.D., and International Falls, Rochester, Fairmont, and Mankato, Minn., does not have to be bothered by feminists and past wrongs so long as the money and audiences keep coming.
The #MeToo movement has drawn attention to the sexual misconduct of powerful and famous men such as Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Al Franken, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Brett Kavanaugh, Louis CK, Bill Clinton, Sherman Alexie, R. Kelly, and scores of others. Powerful men should be held accountable for their abuses. At the same time, as the list of names grows longer and accusations fade out of public consciousness, individual accountability is a losing battle. A part of this struggle is also how sexual harassment is handled in workplaces on a day to day basis.
It is an enormous oversight that for decades Garrison Keillor made numerous female employees feel belittled, harassed, and sexualized. The #MeToo movement did not uncover his behaviors, but created the social conditions in which Minnesota Public Radio felt obligated to fire him. Workplace sexual harassment is more than a matter of individual men exerting power over women; it is also matter of working conditions that serve to silence and instill the fear of firing, retribution, and loss of opportunity. Fifty-four percent of women report sexual harassment at their jobs.
For real empowerment, workers must be agents in uncovering, discussing, developing policies, making decisions, and holding abusers accountable. No one should have as much power as Keillor did over his coworkers, and MPR’s hierarchical power structure, like most places of employment, hindered a full investigation of complaints.