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March 7, 2006

Gloria Allred fights back. And she wins

Attorney Gloria Allred is not universally beloved. One critic was so irritated by how frequently she delivers legal commentary on cable TV news shows — and by her love of press conferences (she once called one to announce that her client had “no comment”) — that he tagged her as “the ultimate symbol for what’s wrong with the media.” But she is a force to be reckoned with, and when there’s a fight in process that relates to women’s or minority rights, she will take on anyone. Her clients have included Nicole Brown Simpson’s family, Hunter Tylo (the actress fired from “Melrose Place” because she was pregnant) and Amber Frey (the girlfriend of Scott Peterson). Her foes have included folks like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dodi Fayed, the Boy Scouts , Bill Clinton and the New York Friars Club (she earned the right to be the first woman permitted to have lunch there).Her new book, “Fight Back and Win” (Regan Books; 285 pgs., $25.95) offers details on dozens of her cases. If you’d like to hear her tell her tales in person, though, that chance arrives Thursday evening when Allred appears at the Culbertson West in New Albany. LEO is sponsoring the event with support from several organizations, including Destinations Booksellers in New Albany.LEO: Your career as an activist and attorney has involved you in a very wide range of causes and issues — sexual harassment, employment discrimination, discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. You’ve been involved in high-profile cases involving folks like Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tommy Lee and a group of women applying for jobs at Hooters. Is there a single unifying thread that pulls all those activities together?Gloria Allred: Well, I’ve been a civil rights attorney for the past 30 years. And on behalf of the typical person who has been injured, I have sued the rich, the famous, the powerful, government, large corporations and others who have injured people and deprived them of their rights. It’s been an honor and a privilege to represent people who have found the courage and the stamina to fight back against injustice and to win. And in the last 30 years, we’ve won hundreds of millions of dollars for victims, and we’re proud of that record. I wrote this book, “Fight Back and Win,” because I want others to be empowered and to learn that they can win justice in their own lives — that they have they the power to win more justice than they ever realized.LEO: You’ve brought a particular focus to women’s rights …GA: Women’s rights and minority rights. LEO: Yes, in light of that, could you reflect on how the struggle for women’s rights intersects with, for instance, the Civil Rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s and the abolitionist movement in the 19th century? Within the overall struggle for social equity and justice, it often seems that women’s rights have been forced to ride on the back of the bus.GA: It’s interesting, conservatives will often look back and say, “Women, look how far you’ve come. Things are really improving.” And I think we, as feminists, look forward and say, “Look, we want to be equal under the law, and we still have a long way to go.” Yes, we’ve made progress. But we have not yet been able to enjoy equal rights under the law. For example, we don’t enjoy the protection that would come with the passage of an equal rights amendment to the United States Constitution. And so we still have to fight for that right. And there are still many other ways in which women are deprived of their rights. For instance, in “Fight Back and Win,” I talk about child support and how millions of mothers are not yet able to collect their court-ordered child support on time or in the amount ordered. This is the number one reason women are forced onto welfare, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and into lives of poverty. That’s why we often talk about the feminization of poverty, that poverty has a female face, and the main reason is that they can’t collect their child support. So I offer some creative strategies for going after these deadbeat dads and for improving the child support system. And then, of course, there are still problems of women being victims of violence, rape, child sexual abuse, battery, and how we need to fight back to get sexual predators, rapists and high profile killers.LEO: And at this point, of course, abortion rights seem very much beleaguered.GA: Well, it’s certainly true that the right to choose legal and safe abortion is very much under attack. In the book, I talk about how I had to have an abortion when abortion was illegal — that is, it was illegal for a doctor to perform one although it was not illegal for a woman to have one. As a result, since licensed medical professionals wouldn’t perform them, women like me had to go to back-alley butchers, and often died or were maimed from illegal abortions, which is why I talk about my commitment to keeping abortions safe and legal. And we see now in South Dakota, for example, most recently, that the governor is about to sign a bill that would outlaw in all cases except to save the life of a mother. There would not even be an exception for rape and incest. And they are open in saying that the reason they want to do this is they feel they have a newly constituted Supreme Court with the appointment of Chief Justice Roberts and Associate Justice Alito, and they’re hoping they can reverse Roe v. Wade. I certainly hope they’re wrong, but they want to use that as a test case.LEO: Are you astonished that at this juncture in history, this battle is still being fought? GA: No, I’m not astonished at all. I’m saddened by it, but not astonished. We know we’ve made an impact with our rights when there is a backlash against it. If it weren’t important, and if it weren’t significant, there would be no backlash. And so there has been a constant battle since 1973 to undercut, erode and reverse Roe v. Wade. There have been some successes by the mandatory motherhood movement, the anti-choice forces. But they’re looking for their biggest success with this new Supreme Court. We have to be very vigilant, and fight every effort to cut back on a woman’s legal right to choose safe abortion. Because if abortion is criminalized, those who will be hurt most will be the poor and the young, because they’ll be the ones who can’t travel elsewhere to get a legal abortion. LEO: We tend to think of attacks on women’s rights as emanating from conservatives, but your career has often pitted you against people who were generally perceived as liberals — people like President Clinton and Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood. GA: Well, I think I know in politics we don’t have friends, we have allies in particular causes or issues. Obviously, Sen. Packwood, who was a Republican, was pro-choice and he was very good on women’s rights in many areas, but as I talk about in my book, he was a person who was accused of harassing a number of his employees or prospective employees. And I felt that the Senate, being the largest old boys’ club around, needed to do something about that, and that’s why I filed a complaint with the ethics committee of the Senate asking them to open an investigation into Sen. Packwood, and it ultimately led to a big blow-up politically, and ultimately Sen. Packwood having to resign from the United States Senate.LEO: How do you assess young women’s awareness of the struggle women have fought for equal rights? I’m thinking, for instance, of Maureen Dowd’s notion that we’re in a post-feminist era …GA: I don’t know whether Maureen Dowd is describing herself as a post-feminist, or a pre-feminist. I’m not sure she describes herself as a feminist at all. I don’t know what she’s thinking. All I know is people have been predicting the death of the women’s movement for as long as I can remember. But it’s alive and well and living in Los Angeles and many other parts of the country in millions of hearts, and there are battles being fought every day. There is no such thing as a post-feminist era. I don’t know where she came up with that because it’s ridiculous as far as I’m concerned. Feminism — you know, there’s an old expression that’s not original to me — someone once said, “I don’t know what feminist is. I just know that’s what they call me when I refuse to be treated like a doormat.” And I think that’s about as good a definition as you can get. And by that definition, there are millions of women who are not going to allow themselves to be treated like doormats. And also, of course, a feminist is a person who wants legal, social, economic and political equality under the law. And we don’t yet have that. So if you’re not a feminist, I guess that means you believe in second-class citizenship for women. I think most people would consider themselves feminists once they understand the definition. So I would disagree with Ms. Dowd. She writes a column, and I’m sure it’s fun and interesting and a challenge. But I’m in the trenches fighting the good fight in cases where women have been discriminated against on account of their sex and they’re fighting back, or they’ve been sexually harassed and they’re fighting back, or they’ve been rape victims and they’re fighting back. Contact the writer at martyrosen@gmail.com