Gloria Allred, a name we’re accustomed to seeing in the news, has been in the news even more than usual the past few days.
First came the reports that she’d be defending John Travolta’s accusers, two male massage therapists who have filed a sexual battery lawsuit against the actor. Then, we learned, she’d had a lawsuit filed against her for allegedly stealing those clients from another lawyer; and then came the news of her threatened countersuit over defamation. Tuesday, the cover of New York’s two major tabloids featured an entirely different client and case—a woman who’s suing her former employer for firing her for being “too hot.”
Allred’s been in the lawyer business since the mid-’70s, and she’s been involved in numerous cases you’ve probably heard of; she clearly has a knack for this sort of thing. She represented Amber Frey when Scott Peterson was being tried for the murder of his pregnant wife Laci. She represented a case against the Boys Scouts for excluding a girl. She sued the Beverly Hills Friar’s Club for its discriminatory policies and won. She also represented Nicole Brown Simpson’s family in the O.J. trial, and requested an investigation into the safety of Michael Jackson’s kids. She appeared at a press conference with former porn star Ginger Lee in the aftermath of the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal, which Lee said Weiner had coached her to lie about. She stepped in to call for an investigation and punishment for Rush Limbaugh when he called Sandra Fluke a “slut,” and worked with Rachel Uchitel and Joslyn James with regard to their alleged affairs with Tiger Woods. Many of her cases are on behalf of women: Some have been involved in relationships, often sexual, with more powerful or wealthy men; some charge that wealthy or powerful men have sexually harassed them.
Allred and her firm also filed the first lawsuit in California to challenge the denial of marriage licenses to same-sex couples as unconstitutional—and kudos for that—but that’s probably not the first thing you’d remember when hearing her name in the news yet again (John Travolta, breasts?). Yet Allred claims over and over again on her website to support women and rights causes, calling herself a “fearless advocate for justice and equality,” a “tireless crusader against discrimination in all areas of our lives,” and a “fearless lawyer, feminist, activist, television and radio commentator, warrior, advocate, and winner.” Because she’s a woman, working for “victims rights” (usually, those victims are women), and also, because she’s a lawyer who may threaten suits over defamation, we are not supposed to criticize. As her website tells us, “Allred has devoted her career to fighting for civil rights across boundaries of gender, race, age, sexual orientation, and social class.”
So why do we feel so dubious? There’s a growing disconnect between what she says and the cases she takes, for example, this “too hot” nonsense. Can a lawyer call herself a feminist or a pioneer of social justice if she appears to be primarily fighting on behalf of women (or men) who want a payout for some perceived trumped-up injustice, or who have made poor decisions and gotten involved in questionable things and want to evade punishment by the law? Feminism and “social equality of the sexes” requires accountability for our actions; we can’t rely on the excuse that just because we’re women we’ve been discriminated against and therefore don’t have to own up to mistakes or pay for our crimes. It’s also not using sex to make someone else pay—that seems the reverse of feminism, actually.
It’s gotten to the point that when you hear about a certain type of legal matter, the next thing you hear is the announcement that Allred is taking it on. It’s hardly a surprise that she’d be the lawyer in the latest “too hot” case; she was the lawyer in the last one. But do either of those cases match her claim of fearless civil rights activism?
Perhaps we can give Allred the benefit of the doubt and assume that civil rights and equality, and the fight for those ideals, was what brought her into the business of law in the first place. In some cases, she has forged change in that regard, winning awards for doing so, fighting for women and men. But we’re in a 24-hour news cycle, as we keep hearing, where memories are short and there’s an ever-ratcheting-up factor for “newsiness.” As much as Allred may be hoping to grab ahold of that cycle with sensational cases featuring ready-for-reality-TV characters, surely there are greater rights violations happening in these United States than a girl being fired for her temp job for dressing inappropriately and claiming, in her suit, it’s because she was “too hot.” Certainly Allred could work in support of some of those actual victims.
In contrast to Allred’s claims of feminism there’s another story in Tuesday’s Daily News from the earlier “too hot” Allred client, Deborahlee Lorenzana, who has emerged to say that she wished she hadn’t used Allred as her lawyer. “The only times I saw her (Allred) was when the media was there,” she said, “I thought because she was a woman that she would really fight for me.” Allred replied in a statement to the News that she and a co-counsel had worked hundreds of hours for Lorenzana and “due to our legal obligations as attorneys we were required to withdraw.”
The media laps up beefs both in the courtroom and out of it. And if we’re living in a world of painfully obvious self-promotion in which everyone’s aching for their own reality show, Gloria Allred may be the pre-eminent attorney for that time. But that hardly means she’s a feminist, or even a feminist lawyer. Maybe she was, once; maybe she still is, but all we have is our perception, and at this point, she looks more like an ambulance chaser for feminism. A woman who fights in the name of feminism to focus the media on unimportant topics (with the benefit of getting attached to another “high-profile” case) when we should be discussing things that matter is not really a feminist at all: That’s called an opportunist.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.