Sitting across a boardroom table, Gloria Allred looks exactly as she did during any one of the thousands of TV appearances she’s made in the last 40 years. The red power suit (she has a closet full of them), chunky gold jewelry, puckish smile – it’s all the same. What appears different about the 76-year-old lawyer has nothing to do with her personally, and everything to do with the way society has, at last, begun to catch up with her. Now the same perspective shift that changed Bill Cosby from a beloved TV dad to an accused rapist in the public consciousness, is casting the woman most responsible for making the accusations against him public in a different light too. She’s been derided for years as a spotlight-seeking opportunist – and now, finally, Allred is getting her due.
Seeing Allred, a new documentary which recently premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and began streaming on Netflix on February 9th, chronicles her career as pioneering civil rights lawyer, relentless advocate for gender equality and tireless champion for sexual harassment and abuse victims. The film traces virtually every aspect of Allred’s life, from her birth in Philadelphia 76 years ago through to last year’s Women’s March on Washington. (Regrettably, it stops just short of capturing the activist in the thick of #MeToo, the movement she helped lay the groundwork for; ditto the Harvey Weinstein scandal that embroiled Gloria and her daughter, and the defeat of Roy Moore, which she helped engineer.) She has somehow managed to spend decades at the white-hot center of every polarizing national news story – from OJ Simpson to marriage equality – without ever once soliciting a client.
Rolling Stone spoke with Allred about her life, her work, her thoughts on the documentary … and everything it missed.
What has watching the #MeToo movement – or “The Reckoning,” whatever you want to call it – been like for someone like you, who’s spent such a long time working on these issues?
It is a reckoning. It’s overdue. It’s happening. There’s a significant power shift. And I hope that we’re never going back. I don’t think we will.
Because women have been speaking out for many years: [Back in 2013,] I filed a lawsuit against Mayor [Bob] Filner of San Diego and did a news conference alleging sexual harassment of the city’s communications director. After we did that, every day – for 19 days – another woman came forward and said that they’d been sexually harassed by the mayor. Ultimately, as a result of the mediation of our lawsuit, he resigned. In other words: This has been going on, but it’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger because women have refused to be silent about what they allege the injustices against them have been.
At what point did you realize something was different about what was happening?
Well, it started building with Mayor Filner and more with Bill Cosby; I represent 33 accusers of Cosby. Then came Harvey Weinstein and I’ve lost count of how many accusers have come forward.
Did I ever think the day would come where there’d be so many accusations by so many women against the same rich, powerful, famous men? No, I don’t think I predicted that. Because the extent and the scope of the wrongs, that so many men have felt they’re entitled to inflict on women, is not something we would ordinarily think they would do. Even I didn’t. Not in the numbers. The wrongdoers obviously had a sense of entitlement, the arrogance of power, the belief that if a woman spoke up she wouldn’t be believed. Or that she would never speak up – she would live in fear.
Bottom line is: Those who have been on the defensive, namely victims, are now on the offensive. Those who have been accused are now on the defensive. It’s exciting to me that women are no longer letting fear be a weapon that has kept them silenced.
What do you think happens to the accused? Cosby, still awaiting a second trial, did his first stand-up show in years a couple of weeks ago.
With two hours notice, you mean? Why only two hours notice – was he concerned that I might show up as I did in Atlanta? When they wouldn’t let me in? Anyway, he will be facing criminal trial on April 2nd. Now the question is how many accusers will be permitted to testify. That has not yet been decided by the court.
How will that be decided?
Very carefully, I’m sure. The prosecution has made a motion to be permitted to call 19 accusers, in addition to the alleged victim. In the first criminal case, the prosecution made a motion to call 13, and the defense wanted zero other accusers. The court only allowed one … [who] happened to be my client. And the court did not indicate why that one and why not the other 12. We’ll just have to wait and see.
A few weeks ago, Cosby was approached by a reporter in a restaurant in Philadelphia. When they shook hands, he reportedly said, “Please don’t put me on #MeToo.” What did you think about that?
It’s insulting to think that sexual harassment is about shaking someone’s hand. It’s not – legally, that’s not sexual harassment. Even if the person didn’t consent to having their hand shaken. That doesn’t meet the legal standard. So I think it’s insulting to suggest that. It’s insulting to those who allege that they have been drugged and sexually assaulted by Mr. Cosby. In a way, it minimizes what they’ve said. So whether he’s just trying to be funny – drugging and sexually assaulting someone is not funny … if, in fact, he did it. And the allegations by more than half a million women on #MeToo – that’s not a laughing matter. It’s not about shaking hands, that hashtag.
So: I don’t think he’s helped himself anytime he has opened his mouth, but he wanted to say that and he did. My guess is that he is not going to be testifying under oath in a court of law, so maybe he thinks this is a way to humanize himself and make himself the funny man that he thought he once was. Because after all, the jury pool is listening.
The success of #MeToo will, to some extent, be measured by its lasting effects. It is still very much an open question what happens after all of these accusations – for instance, will someone like Harvey Weinstein disappear forever, or will he have a career again?
Will they ever? I don’t know if they’ll ever. I do represent numerous accusers of Harvey Weinstein as well as Bill Cosby. I think they’ll have to be held accountable first, if they’re ever going to. And accountability, to me, it’s a twelve-step program. In order to be forgiven you have to A) acknowledge what you’ve done and you have to acknowledge it to the person to whom you have done it. And B) you have to compensate the victim of your harm. Then you can ask for forgiveness, and then the victim can decide.
But saying I’m sorry, in general, to the public, without saying it directly to the victim, without making yourself accountable to that victim? That, to me, is meaningless. We want deeds, not words.
Very early on, your daughter, Lisa Bloom, was representing Weinstein – and got a lot of criticism. Did you offer her any advice during or after the blow-up?
No. My daughter has a separate law firm. And she doesn’t give me advice on my clients, or second guess me on my clients, so I don’t second guess her on hers. I love her. I think anybody would be fortunate to have her as an attorney, and that’s all I can say about that.
There have been men (and some women) who have asked, “Isn’t this #MeToo thing going a little too far? When is it going to end?” What do you say to them?
Well, it’s going to end when violence against women ends, and not before that. If they want to know when it’s going to end, they could do something now, those men: They could start being accountable to the victims. They say the cost of the wrong should be borne by the wrongdoer, not by victim. And they could make lifestyle changes and behavioral changes – where they start obeying the law and not sexually harassing women, not requiring sexual favors in order to get and keep a job. Those are things they could do, other than throw their hands up in the air, and then wake up in the middle of the night worried that they may be next. They may be next! I’m not going to tell them they’re not going to be next. We’ll have to wait and see.
Are you worried at all about a backlash to #MeToo?
I believe in action. Worrying … you’re just kind of sitting there paralyzed. It’s not a good use of my time. But if we’re doing anything significant, there’s always going to be a backlash. At least we know we’ve done something significant. If we haven’t, there’s going to be no backlash because no one is going to care. But real change? There’s always a backlash. Fine. We move two steps forward, one back. As long as we’re moving forward, that’s a good thing.
There’s a power shift. Women are empowered. And life will never be the same for women or men, as long as women are being empowered. We still have a long way to go. But the power shift is significant.
One of the places where that power shift was evident was in the special election in Alabama, when Roy Moore was defeated after accusations of sexual assault and misconduct. You represented one of his accusers – what was that like?
First of all, I was very proud of the courage of my client, Beverly Young-Nelson. What she went through – what we went through together – just took an enormous amount of courage on her part. Lies that were being told about her [that] just went viral around the Internet. But she prevailed and she was, I think, rewarded for her courage, by the voters of Alabama. So, the fact that many women did believe the accusers, is, I think, significant. And I was so happy for her.
When you and your client first came forward there were some people who believed your presence could backfire and help elect Moore. Obviously it didn’t. But do you ever worry, in a situation like that, that your celebrity might do more harm than good?
First of all, every client of the thousands that have contacted me over the 42 years that I’ve been practicing law, they contact me because A) they trust me and B) they think I can help them. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t. But I’m willing to evaluate each person’s legal issue and see whether we are able to help them or not. If not, maybe we can refer them. As Greta Van Susteren said [in the documentary], our clients are very happy, for the most part. And they know we’ve done everything possible to win them as much justice as is possible under the circumstances of their case.
You’re also, at the moment, representing a Trump accuser in a lawsuit against the president.
The case against Trump is on behalf of Summer Zervos. It’s a defamation lawsuit filed here in New York in Manhattan Supreme Court.
The president filed his motion to dismiss. We filed our opposition. He filed his reply. We had oral argument on it at hearing in early December and are awaiting the court’s decision, which she said she will e-file. She has not said the timeframe, but there are complicated legal issues and she is obviously being very thoughtful in making her decision. I do not know when she will be making it. Only she knows when. What we have said is that we would like this case decided in a court of law, not by a tweet in the middle of the night. So we’ll await the court’s decision.
If you could wave a wand and change one law, what do you think would be the most impactful for women?
There are two. One, I’d like us to win the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution.
And in addition, I would like to see the end to statutes of limitations for civil cases of rape, sexual assault and child sexual abuse. It’s slamming the courthouse door in the face in the face of victims and saying “It’s too late.” I’d like to remove that time period so that adult survivors of child sexual abuse and rape victims can win some form of justice. Just by having access to the courts. A lot of wrongdoers say, She never took me to court. Well, it’s too late in many cases. So let’s open the courthouse door and bring their claims in and let a jury decide, or a judge decide.
The ERA, as you mentioned, was first introduced to Congress in 1923. It’s been re-introduced every year since 1982. Do you think it’s ever going to pass?
Do I think it’s ever going to happen? It’s never going to happen unless we fight for it. Because no one’s ever given us any rights. We always have to fight to win them. So, we have to continue to talk about it and say why it’s needed and then fight to win it.
There are more women running for office this year than ever before, so maybe it’s not far off. You’ve called this year “The year of empowerment of women” – what do you think that will mean politically?
We still, obviously, do not have the majority of Congress. The majority of Congress is not women, although they should be because the majority of this nation are women. But I am encouraged by the fact that more women are running for office. More minorities are running for office. We need a more diverse class of elected officials. That’s good. We need women at the highest levels in every aspect of life. Not just politics. But politics matters.
Have you ever thought about running for office?
I have and I don’t have any interest in running for office. I’ve thought about it because others have asked me to run … [but] no, I don’t want to run for office. We act as a private attorney general in many ways in our firm: to enforce the laws that are passed for the benefit of women. That’s what I love to do. I’m an advocate and a warrior and I have a passion for justice and a passion for change. That’s what I want to do. I have no interest in running for office. I want other good women and feminist men to run! I try to be supportive of them, but I need to do this and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life – and from the great beyond, if that’s possible.