Big Think interview with Gloria Allred

A conversation with the feminist attorney.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: Why was it important for your to become the first female member of the Friars Club?

Gloria Allred:  I had lunch at the Beverly Hills Friars Club many years ago—I think this was in the '80s—in California. And the Friars Club was an all male club, founded by celebrities, founded by Milton Berle, who was called "Mr. Television" in his time. He was the most important comic and television entertainer and the best-known that there ever was, and that's when television first came into existence.

So I had lunch there and then I approached Milton Berle after I had spoken to some other members there about being a member. And I said I would like to become a member of the Friars Club and he said, "Well why do you want to become a member of the Friars Club?" And I said, "Well, Mr. Berle, of course because you have a great Cobb salad." And he said, "Oh really?" He said, "Don't know it's all an all-men's club?" And I said, "Oh really?" And he said, "But I think you knew that." He said, "I'll tell you what I'm going to do, not only am I going to make the motion for you to become a member but I am going to second my own motion." He said, "You think it's because you're a woman; wrong. It's to lower the average age of the club because the average age of the club is dead."

And with that I became the first woman member of the Friars Club. By the way, I had first been asked by some members whom I had approached would I be an honorary member instead of a regular member and I said, "No, it would be a dishonor to be a member of a club that discriminates." I wanted to be a full, dues paying member with all the rights and privileges of any other members. So I became a member.

Then after that of course I had a little hassle with them over the fact that they wouldn't let me use the health club because the men were going in there naked into the steam room. And I said: "Well look I am paying the same dues as anyone else I have to have the same rights and privileges to use the club as anyone else." I said: "Here are your options. You can put your clothes on. You can have me and other women go in there with no clothes on. You can have even separate hours for men and women if you wish, as long as they're equal hours but we have to be able to use the health club."

Well they had their meetings and talked about it and really wouldn't do anything. So I filed a complaint with the state franchise tax board to take away their tax deduction for members of the club. That got their attention and they said, "Okay, well you can come in and use the steam room but we're not going to put our clothes on." I said, "I don't really care about your naked butts. I just care about the naked truth, so I'm going to go in."

So I dressed in a Gay '90s bathing suit and took in a tape measure, and knocked on the door of the steam room, and walked in with a tape measure singing Peggy Lee's, "Is that all there is? Is that all there is?" With that, the towels were whipped around the men's butts and I became the first woman member to ever use the steam room and it was opened to women after that.

Question: Are women treated fairly by the legal system?

Gloria Allred: Well there's some progress for women, but obviously we do not have enough progress. Women do not have enough rights and those rights that we have we have to work to enforce. And, for example, we are coming up to the 90th anniversary of women's winning the right to vote. That's the 19th Amendment—the addition to the 19th Amendment, suffrage to the United States Constitution, August 26th, 1920. And we do not yet enjoy the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution which we have been working to win ever since Alice Paul proposed it in 1923.

So, in other words, it has taken us all these years and it's still... even though we have a democratic congress, not coming out of the Congress. We almost won it some years ago before there was a time limitation passed on the Equal Rights Amendment which hadn't been passed for any other amendment. And so we were not able to succeed in getting it added at that time as an amendment.  So we need to have more activism to win the ERA now, because all it says is that the equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of gender, or on the account of sex.

And those simple words should be part of our Constitution, because without it we do not enjoy first class citizenship. We do not enjoy all the legal rights and privileges that men enjoy and we often say in the women's movement: "Men their rights and nothing more, women their rights and nothing less." So we do need to pass that.

Question:
What laws do you think are particularly unfair toward women?

Gloria Allred:  Well I think there are laws and there are regulations... and family law is an area which is just ripe with problems and very much in need of improvement... all kinds of issues, child support for example. Most mothers are awarded an inadequate amount of child support if they are awarded any child support at all. Not sufficient to support the child and that's what this is all about. And the enforcement of child support is relatively poor in this country and the net affect of that is that it is the inability to collect child support or an adequate amount of child support that is the number one reason that women—millions of them—are forced onto welfare roles and into lives of poverty, forced to receive to aid to families with dependent children, AFDC, because of the inadequacy of child support laws and the inadequacy of those laws.

And most of those who have an order for child support are women, because generally as the mother taking care of the child. So it has an adverse impact on women and children but while there are some steps to do something about it and to relieve these burdens from these mothers and from the tax payers and place the responsibility where it belongs, on the non-custodial parent, mainly the father, there's still too many deadbeat dads and really not a real commitment from the system to make major improvements.

So that is just one area but there are many other areas, as well, that need improvement in employment, in child sexual abuse, rape, sexual harassment, there's just many, many changes that need to be made in the law. So bottom line is we are still making her-story. We still are fighting to win changes and so we need more women elected to office—feminist women. We need them as representatives in our state legislature. We need them at all levels of power. In the Federal Government we often say a woman's place is in the house, the House of Representatives, now we say it's also in the house, the White House. And in the United States Senate, where we still do not have equal representation of women. We just have a small percent of all United States senators are women. And we need more women as judges and boards, commissions, and agencies.

So, in employment we need more women at the top levels. There's still the glass ceiling where women can see to the top in business but often can't make it through the glass ceiling, which prevents them from getting to the top. Glass ceiling is another way of saying women are still being discriminated against on account of their gender.

Here's the good news, women are fighting back through lawsuits and they're winning but unfortunately sometimes women say to me, "Well, why do I have to fight for my rights? I thought I had them." Well, you don't have them unless you stand up and enforce those rights. So we're like private attorney generals in our law firm. Allred, Maroko and Goldberg, where I've been practicing for 35 years, as a founding partner of the law firm. And we take these rights seriously. They are meant for the protection of our clients and women everywhere.

Question: You talk a lot about empowerment, yet in court you often present female clients as victims. Why?

Gloria Allred:  I don't believe that women should have to suffer in silence and I would say 99 percent of all or our cases no one has ever heard of, no one ever will hear of. They will not be discussed publicly unless and until they end up in a court of law. But most are settled confidentially, so you'll never hear about them. Yes they will have to describe what happened to them to the opposing party, and in a court of law if it gets to trial, which most cases won't. But some decide to speak out publicly and speaking out publicly helps them to be empowered actually, in many cases.

And also it helps to inspire other women to know that they can stand up and fight back. That they don't have to be victimized. If they are victimized, that they can move on to the next stage which is to become a survivor and then finally to the next stage which is to be a fighter for change. So they can evolve and make others accountable for the wrongs that have been inflicted upon them. It's about accountability, it's about transparency, and it's about change. It's about justice, most of all.

Question:
  How do you decide whether or not the media will be a useful tool in your cases?


Gloria Allred:  It really depends on the case. Sometimes it's, like, an educational moment or opportunity, and sometimes it's strategic, sometimes it's both. For example, we had a case years ago of AIDS discrimination. Our client went... Paul Jasperson went to Jessica's Nail Salon to get a pedicure. He made an appointment then they heard  that he had aids and they called and canceled it or that he was HIV positive at the time. They canceled it.

And we fought them for 16 years, we said: "That's discrimination." And my client spoke out and said, "I'm not going to take this type of discrimination. It's wrong and it's also illegal." And by doing so he let another businesses know that people who are HIV-positive need to be treated with respect and dignity and have a right to enjoy their rights, to be free of discrimination under the law. That sends a message not only to Jessica's Nail Salon but other businesses as well that you better watch yourself. That you might find yourself on the wrong end of a law suit and being spoke of publicly if you make the big mistake of discriminating.

So it's a teaching moment, and I know that Paul was very happy that he did that. He was never sorry that he did that, and even though he passed away at some point we continued the battle even after his death

It's a case-by-case analysis of what we're trying to accomplish in the case and how best to accomplish it. There's no one general rule, one-size-fits-all. It really depends on the case. As I said, most of the time you'll never hear about most of my cases, and every once in a while, for example, I'll get a call from the L.A. Times or someone else saying, "We just found out that you filed this case. Nobody told us." And they just find it but most of the time they will never know what we're doing and that's the way it should be because what is best for the client is what's most important.

Question:
Has our cultural obsession with celebrity helped or hurt women's rights?

Gloria Allred: Well there definitely is a culture of celebrity and a fascination with it. And I think generally the media is very interested in cases involving celebrities. I do represent a lot of women who have been hurt by the rich, the powerful, and the famous. Many of whom are celebrities and so while the... we're on the end of representing essentially the underdog—the typical person against the celebrity. Now celebrities have their highly paid legal mouthpieces. They have their publicist. They have their promoters, they're managers, their agents, various and sundry hanger-oners, groupies, fans, and others who will be supportive of them because celebrities have often been in millions of living rooms through television or the Internet or through feature films.

Often they are well-liked, well-known, and supported by many. And we're taking the person who is not known at all, a typical person, but who may have been hurt by the arrogance and the sense of entitlement and privilege the celebrity has, and inflicted an injustice on our clients. So it is a very David-and-Goliath type of situation where the David or Davida versus Goliath. But I'm a gorilla fighter—that's G-U-E-R-R. And I am very happy to take on these battles where there's legal merit to the claim and what we want to do is we want to equalize the power. And win as much justice as is possible for our client who has been the victim of injustice by celebrities.

Celebrities are used to being able to get whatever they want, do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want. They're often surrounded by yes-people, who don't exercise their judgment to say "no" to the celebrity or even suggest that they might be doing something wrong or even illegal. Because those people surround them in their entourage sometimes are afraid that they will be risking their own jobs if they anger the celebrity by telling them the truth.

I'm in the business of letting the celebrities know what the truth is, that we know it, that what they've done is wrong. They need to be accountable for it. They need to compensate my clients in an appropriate case if they have hurt them, and if there's legal merit to the claim. And so that's what we do and this is shocking to most celebrities. They're not used to being challenged at all. And especially by a woman. And they have generally underestimated the people they have hurt. Not realized that those people do know enough to contact me or another attorney, and do that they have rights and will exercise them in an appropriate case.

So I don't know why they should be shocked. I've been practicing for 35 years. It would not be a surprise to most people that a lot of women who have been hurt by celebrities would come to me. But somehow sometimes these celebrities are just in total shock or express surprise. But I'm a practical person, they know that I'm reasonable, that they can resolve things with me. If they're going to be people who are knowing how to open up a dialogue. But if they want to battle it to the end I'm there for the battle.

Question:
Why do celebrities continue to do things that carry such immense potential risks?


Gloria Allred:  Because they can. Because they do. And because in most cases they get away with it. So where they can be challenged, should be challenged, and where we have evidence to support our claim, we will challenge them, if our client wants us to, because we're not afraid of them. I've challenged government. I've challenged big corporations. I've challenged small business. I've challenged wrong-doers. Famous, infamous and not known at all. Batterers, killers, discriminators, sexual harassers, those who sexually abuse children—many, many people.

And, you know, I'm not in fear. I know we're doing what is right. We're standing up for typical people who would otherwise have no voice and have no power, and would not otherwise have anyone to advocate for them or enforce their rights. So the celebrities can say and do whatever they're going to say and do but we're going to do what we need to do that is legal and peaceful to vindicate the rights of our clients.

Question:
Does a large monetary settlement really translate into justice?

Gloria Allred:  Well, in many cases there is no justice. There's just minimizing the injustice. We're mitigating the injustice. For example, if a woman has been raped or battered, you can't undo the rape and you can't do the battery, the bruises, the broken arm, the other injuries that may have been inflicted upon her. But what you can do is try to minimize the injustice by winning her compensation and sometimes criminal prosecution as well for the wrong that has been done to her, civilly and sometimes criminally.

It's all about accountability, and imposing appropriate consequences for the person and on the person who has inflicted the wrong and the harm, and the damage. For me, it's all about winning whatever it is my client is seeking that is possible in the legal system. We do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world that is somewhat flawed and we work in a flawed justice system. Having said that we want to win as much justice or minimize the injustice to the fullest extent possible.

So in some cases that means criminal prosecution and civil settlement. Sometimes it's just civil settlement but I would like to win whatever and whenever it is possible to do so, as much justice as the system can afford.

Question:
Do large monetary settlements actually serve as a deterrent for crime?

Gloria Allred: I do think it has an educational impact. Having to reach into one's wallet and pay out a large amount because of the wrong that one has done definitely makes one think about whether one wants to do this again to someone else, because there is a cost to inflicting wrongs.  The real question is who should bear the cost of the wrong?  I say it should not be the victim, should be the wrongdoer.  And that's the message I'm trying to send.  So for example in many cases involving sexual harassment—that's mainly what we do is plaintiff sexual harassment for individuals who have been sexually harassed. Then, you know, we want the full measure of damages that is possible under the law from the sexual harasser and/or those who might have condoned or encouraged that sexual harassment.  Because sexual harassment is a barrier to the enjoyment of equal employment opportunity. So, for example, a woman who is sexually harass in a workplace is going to have to battle that... fight that. If she says, yes to the sexual harassment because she's afraid she'll lose her job if she doesn't, then she's in a no-win situation. If she says no, then she's in a no-win situation. It's not fair. It's not right and it's against the law. So we want to get her compensation so she can go on with her life and be free of that barrier of sexual harassment.

We've done child sexual abuse cases, we've been able to get the abusers prosecuted—the child molesters prosecuted. And also sometimes filed civil lawsuits against them resulting in very significant damages that have to be paid to the victim of child sexual abuse. Same with rapists and others who have inflicted wrongs against women and children.

Question: Do the kinds of cases you take demand toughness?
 

Gloria Allred: I'll do whatever is necessary to get the best results for my client. And sometimes that means smiling and making nice, and sometimes it means being a warrior and being very, very tough with the other side. I often say I do live in a war zone for woman, and, believe me, it's a very ugly war zone. The people who do heart surgery they see a lot of blood... and often the person who is being operated on doesn't see as much blood as the surgeon sees in the operating room.

Well what I do is a blood sport. It has serious consequences, however.  So I'm doing battle with some of the best and most highly paid attorneys in town. And often they'll play dirty.  It will be ugly.  It will be vicious, behind the scenes. And I'm ready for that.  I'm ready for that battle.  And that's why they know they have to take me seriously, because I will do anything and everything that is legal and peaceful to win for my clients, and I'm ready to fight back.

I'm not the shy type.  If they're in my client's face I consider that they're in my face. And they're going to have to go through me.  And it's not going to be pretty if they attack my client.  I mean, I'm going to stand up for them.  I am going to be strong, and they're going to have to do what is right and what is just and the only way for them to make peace is going to be to do justice with my clients.  My clients know that and the opposing party knows that.  So when the smoke all clears and the shouting stops we're going to have to have a just result. And then, and only then, are we going to be able to shake hands on it. And the battle will end.

Question:
Are there things that lawyers shouldn't do in order to advance the cause of their clients?

Gloria Allred: All lawyers are governed by the canon of ethics of their particular state bar.  And there are many lawyers, including high profile lawyers, who have crossed the lines and done things which they should not have done, which they knew they should not have done.  And they've gotten in trouble.  The trap door is open and they've fallen right through.  They've been disciplined by their state bars.  Sometimes they've been criminally prosecuted and it's the end of their careers. 

And it's really very, very sad when that happens.  I'm happy to say that we've been practicing for 35 years. We've never been disciplined at all by the state bar.  We've receive many, many commendations from other lawyers for the great work that we've done for our clients.  We are very, very careful to always follow the ethical canons which govern us, and we do so because we know they're the right thing to do. They are the guidelines and they have to be respected, and we will not cross them for anyone or anything, or to achieve any result.

But we can do what we can do, and we can do it well and win those hundreds of millions of dollars for our clients by acting in an ethical way.  There are a lot of battles we can fight.  We know what the weapons are that we need to fight them.  And we use those weapons to the fullest extent possible. So, unfortunately some other lawyers don't exercise the best judgment that they could exercise.  They take unacceptable risks when they cross those ethical boundaries and we refuse to do so under any set of circumstances.

Question:
How is feminism today different from the way it was 30 and 40 years ago?

Gloria Allred:  I'm not sure how different they are actually because I've been practicing 35 years.  I mean, as a feminist I believe the legal, social, and political economic equality for women with men.  I often say if you're not a feminist then you're a bigot.  I mean, there is nothing in between.  It's like being pregnant: you either are pregnant or you're not.  What else is there?  There is no in between. 

So either you are for first class citizenship—that means you're a feminist—or you're for second class citizenship for women, which means to me you're a bigot or you're in support of insubordination or women instead of full equality, full partnership for women in each and every aspect of life.  So feminism is about improving the condition in the status of women and vindicating their rights.

Conservatives usually say, "Look how far you've come, looking to back to where you are now. Isn't that great progress?"  But as a progressive person I don't look to see where we're come from.  I look to where we should be.  And so no I don't think we've come far enough, because I'm judging by the gold standard and that is equality.  And we should be at the level of equality political, economically, legally, emotionally, socially.  We're not there.  And so we still have a long, long way to go.  And we need more activism. 

Legally, politically, in the streets, everywhere, to make this happen.  As I say no one ever gave us our rights, including the right to vote.  We had to fight to win it. 

Question:
Do you think we will "get there" in the next 50 years?

Gloria Allred:  Well I don't think there's revolution, I do think it's evolution.  But it's not going to happen unless women stand up and demand it.  It's as simple as that, because no one gives up power without a struggle.  And there is a huge struggle going on for power and for control over women's lives.  So I would like to think that both my daughter and my granddaughter will enjoy equality in their lifetimes.  I'm sure that I will not in my lifetime, but it's not going to happen unless women demand it.  Unless our daughters say: "This is what we have a right to and we are going to force the rights we have. And we are going to demand more rights.  And we're not going to be satisfied until we win those rights."

That's how change is won and there are just so many women and girls around the world who do not yet enjoy that equal educational opportunity.  Some of them can't get any educational opportunity at all... do not enjoy employment opportunity, do not... I mean, they are just living desperate lives.  And some of them are being trafficked as sex slaves and exploited in sweat shops.  Some of them are literally prisoners in their own home.  We have so much more work to do.  The work really has just begun.

Recorded on June 9, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman