The feminist activist and the US attorney trade notes on the president, Prince Andrew and abortion, then and now
by Emma Brockes Mon 23 Dec 2019 07.00 EST
Gloria Steinem, 85, is a feminist icon,in trademark black leather trousers and turtleneck top, hair streaked blond and back straight as a ballerina’s. Gloria Allred, sitting beside her on a green velvet couch, is, at 78, small and ferocious, one of the best-known attorneys in the world, with a four-decade history of defending women’s rights and an avowed “fangirl” of Steinem. We are in Steinem’s house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where the women have convened to talk about recent high-profile cases brought by women – many of them represented by Allred – against Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and Bill Cosby, as well as the forthcoming US presidential election, attacks on abortion legislature, and the history of women’s rights in the US.
The women’s careers exist, to some degree, in tandem, with Steinem’s decades-long work as an activist changing public consciousness that Allred may then convert into victories in court. Hers has been a controversial career, defending victims of sexual harassment in class action suits, and going after powerful men in a way that has occasioned accusations of publicity-seeking. When a high-profile story breaks featuring allegations of sexual misconduct against celebrated men, Allred’s name is often not far behind. But she has also won victories in hundreds of unglamorous suits that represent the grunt-work of legal activism. In 2004, Allred successfully filed the first lawsuit in California challenging the state’s ban on same-sex marriage; in 2008, she secured a $15m payout for 200 women in an anti-age discrimination suit against a giant electronics chain. This month, she won a sexual harassment case against Alki David, a billionaire accused of harassing a former employee. And so it goes on.
The styles of the lawyer and the activist couldn’t be more different.
Steinem is softly spoken, unsurprised by anything at this point, and
very much gives an impression of occupying her own astral plane. Last
month she released a new collection of quotes and essays, The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off.
Allred is sharp, energetic and poised always to pounce or defend. On
the subject of her daughter, Lisa Bloom, a lawyer criticised for
defending Weinstein, she says, “I let Lisa, who has a different law firm
from mine, speak for herself. And she has spoken for herself, and
continues to do so, and I’m very proud that she does.” Where Steinem and
Allred meet is in their history of successfully prosecuting a feminist
agenda, and their ability to retain a sense of humour about it.
Gloria Steinem Bill Cosby and Jeffrey Epstein had town houses across from each other just two and a half blocks from here. While Epstein was alive, I thought we should have a street demonstration between the two houses – cordon off the blocks and say, we’re taking back the streets!
Gloria Allred [Laughing.] That’s a great idea. I’ve always loved your ideas, all of them. Protests are a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.
GS But after he was no longer here, it didn’t seem… seemly.
GA We’re still pursuing his estate. Last week, our legal team filed three lawsuits on behalf of our clients who alleged that they were underaged girls when they were sexually victimised by Mr Epstein, and at least two of them were sex trafficked by him.
GS In his plane? Not that it matters.
GA No. These are serious cases, and we filed them in New York. There’s a wonderful new law in New York that provides for adult victims of child sexual abuse – you have a one-year window to file lawsuits against the accused. Now, many of the victims of Jeffrey Epstein, who perhaps would have been barred by previous laws from having access to the courts, are filing law suits.
GS And the case just got moved from Florida to here that was also crucial, because there were a lot of cases that, due to the corruption of the Florida system, had not been pursued.
GA You’re very right. It’s really important to them, very empowering to them, to know that they can still seek justice, even though he is deceased.
GS Well it’s always clear to me that if I’m in trouble, then I’m calling you up! [Both laugh.]
GA Thank you! It is clear to me that Gloria – I’m going to call you Gloria number one –
GS Because I’m older!
GA Well, not for that reason, but Gloria has been in it longer than anybody I know, and with more vision, and more activism. I call her the Philosopher of the Movement. I’m more like the soldier on the battlefield.
GS You’re the grand legal strategist!
GA Well, thank you.
GS You’re the person who makes the system in which we live responsible. The rest of us are protesting against the system, but it’s not the same as getting justice.
GA I think both are absolutely necessary, because what you do has an impact on the court of public opinion – to create a climate in which change is possible, probable, and will happen. Because unless the public knows what is wrong, what is happening to women, there would be no need for legislators to correct that wrong by passing new laws.
GS Yes. Consciousness comes first. And actually, you can see that in the progression of sexual harassment, for instance. Because it was in the early 70s that students at Cornell University were trying to describe what happened to them on summer jobs, and they invented the term sexual harassment. Then we at Ms magazine [which Steinem cofounded in 1972] did a story on sexual harassment and used puppets on the cover, so we wouldn’t be too shocking – nonetheless we were pulled off the newsstands in supermarkets. Then Catherine MacKinnon wrote sexual harassment into law. Then three women, all black women, brought law suits because of sexual harassment. Then the Clarence Thomas events educated the country, even though the outcome was wrong.
Sexual harassment turns work into prostitution; to continue to get paid, you have to put up with this unwanted attention
So it’s been a progression. And I think only with the populist cases you have brought, and the #MeToo movement, has it become a majority consciousness that it’s wrong. Because otherwise it was blamed on the victim. What were you wearing, why were you there, what did you say, what did you drink, etc?
GA Well, the reason that we have laws against sexual harassment, is because sexual harassment is considered a form of sex discrimination – it’s the denial of equal employment opportunity. And that is the law of our land, that women are entitled to enjoy equal employment opportunity; sexual harassment interferes with that enjoyment. It places a woman in a no-win situation: does she go along with it, and then he may get tired of her, and then she loses her job? Or does she not go along with it, and then he goes into ego-shock and she loses her job?
GS It turns work into prostitution; in order to continue to get paid you have to put up with this unwanted sexual attention.
But actually the first case after the passage of the law was a man against a woman, in California. Remember that? It was the employee of an executive woman who she was requiring to go to bed with her, and she won the case.
GA Well we’ve had a case that’s similar, many years ago, representing a man against a woman boss. He was employed at a very large grocery chain in southern California, and the jury found that he was not sexually harassed. However, they also decided that he was retaliated against for protesting against the sexual harassment and was awarded, I believe, $16m.
In any event, we’ve always said that of course men are also entitled to protection from sexual harassment.
GS I’m happy to say that what we haven’t had yet is the case of a woman against a woman.
GA I’ve had this! [Both laugh.]
GS Never mind. Forget I said it.
GA Let me put it this way: we settled those cases confidentially, so we haven’t tried them. Most cases are settled confidentially. And this is true not just of our cases – most cases are settled prior to going to trial.
This week we represented a woman who was sexually harassed, she alleged, by Alki David, the billionaire, in the work place, and the jury found in favour of us for $8.25m for our client Mahim Khan, and then awarded $50m in punitive damages against Mr David – which are damages to punish the accused for conduct that shocks the conscience of the community.
The point is, it’s accountability, it’s empowerment of women, and it’s a very exciting time in the #MeToo movement.
GS But I still don’t think we have a popular understanding of why we have this problem: because we live in a patriarchy, and by definition that means men control women’s bodies as the means of reproduction. Before Europeans showed up here, the systems were matrilineal not patriarchal, and rape and sexual assault were virtually unknown, because power was equal. So it’s comforting to me to realise that it’s not human nature, that it wasn’t always this way – and it won’t always be this way.[The conversation turns to non-disclosure agreements, the controversial legal mechanism whereby accusers are prohibited from speaking publicly in return for a financial settlement, many of which Allred has negotiated for her clients.]
GA OK, let’s talk about that. There are many misconceptions by people who are not lawyers, about confidential settlements. For example: some of the reporters for the New York Times, who wrote the book [She Said], alleged that I entered into a confidential settlement for one of my clients in reference to Mr Weinstein. I never comment on whether I have or have not entered into a confidential settlement.
They say 200 women have accused Trump of harassment. I think we should invite them all to campaign at the election
Some reporters have said, “She silenced her clients.” So let me try to be concise and clear: I stand by the fact that every woman, and every man, has a right to choose whether she wishes to enter into a confidential settlement, by which she will be compensated and make that wrongdoer accountable to her. And it is her choice. It’s a voluntary process and I am very disturbed by anyone who wants to take away that choice. Not everyone wants their mother, their sister, their brother, their community to know they were raped, sexually abused as a child, sexually assaulted, whatever. Some people think it might hurt them in their next job if they were known to have sued someone in their career path. And let me put one last line on that; no confidential settlement can prohibit a victim from going to the police, asking that criminal charges be filed against that same perpetrator. They can still do that. What’s more, they can still testify in someone else’s civil lawsuit, if they are subpoenaed.
GS They can’t initiate that suit –
GA They can’t file a lawsuit themselves, but through the confidential settlement they’re saying I don’t want to file a lawsuit, I just want to resolve this now. I want to be able to get a settlement, which may be as much as, or more than they would get going through three or four years of litigation. Using words like “hush money”, or that an attorney silenced them – it’s voluntary, they can say no.
GS It’s important to know that. You know, last night I did a book event at Symphony Space, and three women who have publicly accused President Trump of sexual harassment were there and came back to talk to me afterwards. They said that there are now 200 women – 200 women! – who have accused Trump of sexual harassment, and that the press is not interested because it’s not news. It’s old news. So I thought we should invite all 200 women to get on buses and campaign during the next election. [Laughs.] [The subject of Brett Kavanaugh’s supreme court confirmation hearing comes up, and whether or not the US has advanced since Clarence Thomas was voted to the supreme court after facing accusations of sexual misconduct in 1991.]
GA Well, if you look at public opinion polls, you will find that Anita Hill was not as believed as Christine Blasey Ford. It took years for her [to be believed], because consciousness was changing about sexual harassment.
In the Kavanaugh case, I think the accuser was much more believed and Kavanaugh was much more disbelieved, but the votes were already there, because that’s the nature of the people who were sitting in Congress. The public consciousness is evolving, and part of the reason why is because of Gloria and other leaders of the feminist movement. It wouldn’t have happened if there was no speaking out.
GS It’s always that way, with racism, with sexism, with antisemitism: it’s perceived as natural, inevitable and justified, until people stand up and say, wait, this is unjust. When I was growing up in the east side of Toledo, if a woman was beaten up by her husband they said, what did she do wrong? And the goal of the cops was to get the couple back together again.
GA I hate to say it, but sometimes people still say that.
GS But now we have laws. We didn’t even have a term for it. There was nothing. So it’s a process. Consciousness comes first; then describing it in terms of personal experience; then describing it in terms that enter into the law; then prosecuting.
GA There’s been a lot of discussion about sex trafficking of underage girls, and I’m feeling that for the first time we’re seeing actual criminal prosecutions. I represent a number of accusers of R Kelly – and I do feel that some of those accusers were ignored because they are African American. Now, Lifetime TV did a documentary about Kelly that has encouraged and empowered victims to come forward, and the US justice department [is pursuing him]. There’s a state prosecution in Cook County, Illinois, and a state prosecution in Minnesota. He’s charged with, among other things, the sex trafficking of underage girls. Epstein was charged with that, and now there’s a serious criminal investigation into who may have conspired with Epstein to assist.[The subject of Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s friend and alleged co-conspirator, who has denied wrongdoing, comes up.]
GA I’d definitely be interested in taking Ms Maxwell’s deposition in a civil law suit. I’ve also been saying Prince Andrew needs to voluntarily come forward and speak to the FBI. He’s got to do this without conditions, without delays. Because he did stay with Epstein in his New York home; in Palm Beach; in the Virgin Islands. He has information.
GS We founded this country on a rejection of royalty, so I’ve never understood how anybody could seriously stand up and call themselves prince, princess, queen. Are you kidding me? [Laughs.] [The talk turns to reproductive rights.]
GS If we didn’t have wombs, we’d be fine. It all stems from that. The definition of patriarchy is controlling reproduction. And it becomes even more important when there’s race and racism, because in order to maintain racial separation and racism, you have to control reproduction. So those two things are always intertwined. There’s no such thing as trying to uproot racism without also uprooting sexism, and vice versa.
GA The issue of reproductive rights and who controls a woman’s body is so essential now, because it is being challenged. There are a lot of legislators all over the world who are still trying to control women’s bodies.
GS In the southern states it’s still very connected to racism. The white nationalists are very upset that white women are not having as many children as women of colour and therefore hastening the day when we will no longer be a majority white country. As if that mattered. But it matters to them.
GA I was a person who had to have an abortion prior to Roe v Wade. Women like me had to go to people who gave back-alley abortions, who were not licensed health care providers, and I haemorrhaged and almost died – some did die, from illegal abortions. I had to be taken to a hospital with a 106-degree fever, packed in ice, and the nurse told me – and this was after getting pregnant from a rape in Mexico – the nurse told me, “Well, I hope this will teach you a lesson.”
So I said, many years later, it did teach me a lesson: that abortion should be safe, legal, affordable and available. This is a key issue and you, Gloria, started to speak about this in, what, the 60s?
GS In the 70s. I went to cover an abortion speak out, when the New York state legislature was trying to decide whether to slightly liberalise New York state laws. They had invited 14 men and one nun to testify. [Laughs.] So a group of women said no, wait a minute, let’s hear from women who’ve had this experience.
GA I’ve heard that there are some cemeteries near convents in which foetuses have been discovered. It may be that some nuns have gotten pregnant.
GS We have seen a wave of disclosure about sexual abuse of children by priests. We haven’t yet seen nuns, and that’s going to be huge.
GA Yes. I predict that could happen. I represented a woman in the 80s. She wanted to be a nun, she was 16 years old, very religious, and we alleged that she was sexually abused by seven Catholic priests and had a baby by one of them. It’s a long story, but I pursued the church for 23 years, and ultimately we were able to get her a great settlement. By litigating our case, it raised consciousness.
GS Well, the fact that the church imposes celibacy is ridiculous. And as Catholic historians will tell you, it’s because the church didn’t want to share whatever the priest was going to inherit with the family. That’s where the requirement of celibacy came from.
GA I’ve read that. They wanted them to leave their property to the church, not to their children.[The conversation moves on to next year’s US presidential election.]
GS I will work my heart out for any one of those [Democratic] candidates to make sure they get elected, and not Donald Trump. I think they’re all good people with good hearts and good minds. Of course, there is still a big difference between the way male and female candidates are treated, and that will take a while to go away. But it is a step forward that we have multiple women candidates this time.
When I was growing up, if a woman was beaten up by her husband, people said, what did she do wrong?
GA We cannot tolerate four more years of Donald Trump. It has been a catastrophe, and I’m actually very conservative in my use of that word. But this is a catastrophe for the country. He has packed the federal courts with judges who are incompetent and not qualified, and in many cases these people have extreme right wing views. And of course, because there’s a senate majority, the Democrats can’t stop it. But the chronic lying; the shame he has brought on the country; the damage worldwide. The very anti-women policies of this administration; the roll back of civil rights for minorities, the Latinos and how they’ve been attacked.
GS He was not elected president.
GA That’s true.
GS He has made us woke, that is his only good purpose. He has shown us everything that’s wrong with the country at a high level.
Also, he has helped us to get rid of the electoral college. At least 14 states have already rejected the electoral college, which you can do by constitutional amendment but it’s a very long process. So what’s happening is that states are voting to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. And at a certain point that makes the electoral college academic.
GA That is very interesting.
GS Because the electoral college was a requirement of the slave states in the first place.
GA And of course Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than Donald Trump, popular votes. The only other good point for those of us who want a different administration, is that it has really mobilized so many of us.
GS Because I travel so much, I see that. I’ve never seen the degree of activism, ever, in my life.
GS People who didn’t even vote before are now running for office. It’s amazing.
GA We are going to see, in the coming year, more women being brave. We have the Harvey Weinstein trial starting on 6 January. I feel that, both in the political arena and in the judicial arena, women want to be constructive. They want to help to empower women and make sure men are accountable, politically or in the courts. 2020 will be a good year for women – and we should mention it’s the hundredth anniversary of suffrage in this country. So we will see a lot of activism reminding everyone that women had to fight to win the right to vote, just like in the UK with the Pankhursts – my mother’s from England. We want people to get out and use the vote.
I’m sure, Gloria, you’re going to be involved in that effort.
GS Oh, yes. Absolutely.
GA We want Gloria leading the charge to vote!
GS Voting is a very local, regional, door-to-door process. So each of us has to say: not only am I going to vote, I am going to sit with my neighbors kids while they vote. I’m going to make sure everybody in my block votes. We don’t exist if we don’t vote!