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Funny Business

Gloria Allred, the famous feminist lawyer, has accomplished a great deal for women. She’s also something of a national joke.

Michelle Goldberg
November 29, 2011
Gloria Allred speaks as the attorney for Sharon Bialek, right, in New York City, Nov. 7, 2011.(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Gloria Allred speaks as the attorney for Sharon Bialek, right, in New York City, Nov. 7, 2011.(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, when word went out that a woman accusing Herman Cain of sexual harassment had retained the celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, eyes rolled across the political spectrum. “Well, the presence of Gloria Allred doesn’t help anyone’s case,” Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News, even as he acknowledged the severity of the accusations. In the Guardian, the writer Hadley Freeman explained to her British readers that “Allred, like bed bugs, is a strange phenomenon who could very well exist in other countries but seems to flourish in America.”

Savaged by the Cain campaign and the right-wing press, Cain’s accuser, Sharon Bialek, had just begun her return to obscurity when, yesterday, another woman surfaced claiming she’d had a 13-year affair with the Republican presidential candidate. That’s likely to keep Allred in the headlines for a while longer. And when this scandal fades, there will doubtless soon be another, because whenever there’s a salacious news story, from the Scott Peterson murder case to Tiger Woods’ serial affairs, Allred manages to become part of it. Though the most famous feminist attorney in the United States, she has become something of a national joke, a media hound who has undermined her reputation by pushing victim-feminism well past the point of caricature.

It’s tempting to see the low esteem in which Allred is held as a product of sexism. After all, she is a tremendously accomplished lawyer. According to her autobiography, Fight Back and Win, her firm, Allred, Maroko & Goldberg, has represented more sexual-harassment victims than any other in the country. In 1984, she sued the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles on behalf of Rita Milla, who Allred says was the first woman to go public with charges of sexual abuse against multiple priests. She’s also represented Mel Mermelstein, a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald who successfully sued the Holocaust deniers at the Institute for Historical Review.

In Los Angeles, Allred helped eradicate the barbaric practice of forcing female prisoners to give birth in chains. She’s battled anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers posing as health clinics, and she’s represented a prostitute whose rape accusations were dismissed because of her profession. Last year, Allred helped destroy Meg Whitman’s gubernatorial hopes by bringing a suit on behalf of Whitman’s undocumented housekeeper Nicky Diaz Santillan. “There is a real serious core to her,” legal writer Jeffrey Toobin, who has often encountered Allred as a fellow CNN commentator, told me. “She is a real lawyer, who generally does very good work for her clients.”

But the fact that Allred isn’t taken seriously is partly her fault. It’s true that powerful women in the public eye are often castigated as gluttons for attention. In most instances, that’s a sexist slur. In Allred’s case, it’s an undeniable truth.

Her hunger for media attention, even when it doesn’t seem to help her clients, appears almost pathological. Beyond that, Allred’s cases, especially those involving jilted lovers of famous men, increasingly represent the depressing terminus of a vision of feminism based solely on victimization, one in which every wronged woman deserves a legal remedy. Thus, even when she represents a woman bringing grave charges—a woman, say, like Bialek, who claims that in 1997 Cain groped her and tried to extract sex in exchange for employment help—the whole thing ends up looking like a bit of a farce.

Perhaps the nadir of Allred’s career came last year, when she represented two of Tiger Woods’ ex-girlfriends: nightclub promoter Rachel Uchitel and porn star Joslyn James. Allred demanded, on James’ behalf, that Woods issue a public apology for cheating on her with other women. (At the time, of course, he was cheating on his wife with James.) “She’s a victim because he broke her heart,” Allred told the Atlantic. It wasn’t the first time Allred went after a famous man for caddishness. In 1997, she filed a lawsuit on behalf of model Kelly Fisher for breach of contract against her onetime fiancé, international playboy Dodi Fayed, for betraying her with Princess Diana. “Mr. Fayed needs to take responsibility for the woman that he ‘left at the altar’ and treated with such total disrespect,” said Allred at one of her famous press conferences.

In such cases, Allred pushes the feminist notion of the personal as political to the point of ridiculousness. Skeptics of the idea of sexual harassment sometimes claim that feminists want to be the dating police. Allred often seems like she’s out to prove them right.

Laurie Levenson, a former Los Angeles prosecutor who now teaches law at Loyola, Allred’s alma mater, points out that Allred, 70, came of age at a time when women’s futures hinged on their relationships. “I think it’s deeply ingrained in her that women need a voice, and one of the times women need a voice the most is when they’ve suffered personally,” she told me. This is understandable, but it threatens to reduce feminism to the revenge of scorned women.

Allred’s own life was definitively shaped by men’s misdeeds, criminal and otherwise. The only daughter of a working-class Jewish family in Philadelphia, she married a blue-blood boy during college and was pregnant at 19. Soon, she writes in her autobiography, her husband’s mental health deteriorated and he became emotionally abusive, forcing Allred to leave him. (He later committed suicide.) As a single mother, Allred became a teacher, working in inner-city schools. In 1966, on vacation in Acapulco, she was raped at gunpoint, became pregnant, and had an illegal abortion that almost killed her. By the time she enrolled in law school in 1968, Allred was a 30-year-old woman deeply versed in the ways the world brutalizes her sex. Her work as a defender of women, built on her own experiences of powerlessness, has resulted in some heroic victories.

But every time a man hurts a woman, it’s not necessarily a matter of public concern. “One of the things that happens is that people start discounting her cases, saying she’s doing it just for the publicity,” Levenson said. “That probably is not an accurate or fair characterization, but it is one of the risks of what she does.”

Thus, when Allred introduced Bialek to the public this month, the event had a sideshow quality, despite the gravity of Bialek’s accusations. Allred had staged the press conference in a way that made it seem a reprise of one she’d held in June with Ginger Lee, a porn star who had an online flirtation with then-Congressman Anthony Weiner.

Both took place at the Friars Club, a private hangout for comedians and entertainers, famous for its bawdy celebrity roasts. The Friars Club has special meaning for Allred. In 1987, she became the first female member of the club’s Beverly Hills branch but found her access to its health club restricted by men who wanted to use the steam room naked. In protest, she barged into the steam room with a tape measure, reporters in tow. Referring to the penises on display, she sang Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” (The men were quickly convinced to cover up.) She also filed a sex-discrimination charge against the New York branch of the club, a conflict that at one point led Henny Youngman to physically block her entrance to the on-site restaurant. Allred’s ability to hold a press conference in one of the Friar’s Clubs stately, dark wood-paneled rooms is a symbol of personal triumph. Nevertheless, a club dedicated to comedy was an odd place to introduce a harassment victim hoping to be taken seriously.

At both press conferences, Howard Stern producer Benjy Bronk hijacked the microphone before Allred and her client took the stage, adding to the absurdity. (At the Bialek event, Bronk used his time to plug his crush, the former keytarist for Cobra Starship.) The first press conference, at which Ginger Lee called on Weiner to resign, left journalists a bit baffled. At one point, a reporter shouted out, “Why are we here?” to which Allred replied, “That’s a question you have to ask yourselves.”

The reason for the Bialek press conference, by contrast, was obvious. What was baffling was Allred’s decision to echo the atmospherics of the earlier media scrum, thus creating a symbolic link between the two, much to Bialek’s detriment. The hoary joke Allred made in her opening statement didn’t add to the occasion’s dignity. Describing how Bialek had sought job assistance from Cain, Allred quipped: “Instead of receiving the help that she had hoped for, Mr. Cain … decided to provide her with his idea of a stimulus package.” The whole event, with its weird mix of high principle and tawdry spectacle, embodied the tragic tension at the heart of Allred’s work. Few have done more to advocate on behalf of sexual-harassment victims. And few have done more to make harassment seem laughable.

Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer at The Nation. She is the author, most recently, of The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Her Twitter feed is @michelleinbklyn.

Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer at The Nation. She is the author, most recently, of The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Her Twitter feed is @michelleinbklyn.