Famed civil rights attorney Gloria Allred has been fighting on behalf of women for four decades. And finally the world is joining her mission. 

By Sarah Cristobal
Nov 05, 2018 @ 8:00 am
Jeremy Lieberman/Art Department

As Gloria Allred makes her way through the lobby of a swanky New York hotel, a gentleman stops her. “I’m a corporate lawyer from Ohio,” he says. “You’re doing great work. Can I take a selfie with you?” Primed for the moment in a fitted gray Altuzarra suit with impeccable hair and makeup, Allred happily obliges. She’s in good spirits. Just a week earlier, 33 of her clients, each of whom had accused Bill Cosby of sexual misconduct, saw justice served when he was sentenced to prison for three to 10 years for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, the only woman who was able to bring criminal charges against the actor. Though Allred did not represent Constand, she was at the courthouse when the verdict was delivered. She was invested. After all, she had reportedly been working on the case pro bono for three years.

Not all lawyers could handle a case as sensational as Cosby’s, but Allred, who has defended the rights of women and minorities for 42 years, is not easily intimidated. At 77, when most people might consider slowing down, she is busier than ever. She loathes vacations and doesn’t have much of a social life because a) she doesn’t want one and b) she is always on call. She likes to get press coverage, which has given her the reputation of a fame seeker of sorts. In actuality, she learned early on that becoming an outspoken TV personality was the most effective way to draw attention to the issues of injustice she combats on a daily basis. By the time this story goes to print, she will have organized a press conference to shed light on another transgression: Four Mrs. America contestants claim that the organization’s CEO and co-founder subjected them to racist remarks. Allred is always ready. While we’re saying goodbye after this interview wraps, she tells me, “You know how to find me. But, hopefully, you won’t have to.”

RELATED: Gloria Steinem on the Acts of Rebellion That Have Defined Her Life

As a civil rights lawyer who has seen it all, how are you feeling about the current state of things? It’s wonderful to be alive at this time, when women are so empowered. You’ve seen the women’s marches. That was not a one-day event. We’ve seen the #MeToo moment. We’ve seen women refusing to suffer in silence. We’ve seen them speaking out—whether it’s Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testifying in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing or women speaking out in lawsuits, like the witnesses who testified in the Bill Cosby trial. This movement is gathering momentum.

What do you make of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements? I have met Tarana Burke, who began using the phrase “Me Too” as early as 2006, and I admire her for what she did. It was very positive and continues to be. I’ve been doing this for a long time, helping women speak their truth, so this is nothing new to me. We started the Women’s Equal Rights Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1978, which I’m currently the president of. For the most part, celebrities have not donated to it. They can’t buy me, they can’t rent me, they can’t lease me. All right? They can’t give me money not to sue them. All they can do is give me justice for my clients.

Amen to that. In addition to women fighting to win new rights, which is important, we also need to assert the rights we have won because they were passed for our and our daughters’ protection. And, yes, sometimes I will name and shame men who have hurt women. If they’re worried about it, then maybe they should consider treating women with respect. President Trump complained about fairness toward young men. Well, they have nothing to worry about if they don’t rape and sexually assault women.

I was wondering what you think of those headlines. I mean, President Trump’s mocking of Dr. Ford was so outrageous. It really is not a statement about her; it’s a statement about him. I call him the Insulter in Chief. Is he [supposed to be] a role model for young men? It’s disgusting. Worst of all, it’s harmful to victims of sexual assault. It’s their worst fear becoming a reality—that if they speak up, they will be attacked or discredited or not believed. These are very challenging times, but no one should be depressed.

What do you tell women who are feeling discouraged? That’s not an emotion we can afford. [Depression is] really anger turned inward. Don’t tranquilize yourself out of your anger. Take it and turn it outward in a positive, constructive way to win change. Contribute to those who are running for office whose values you share, or consider running for office yourself. In addition, you can help volunteer in the campaigns. Contribute time, money, ideas, support. Do what [19th-century labor activist] Mother Jones said: “Don’t agonize—organize.” That’s what you do. 

RELATED: Why You Should Vote in the Midterms

Like you did for the Cosby case. In my Netflix documentary, Seeing Allred, you see many of the women who allege they are survivors of Bill Cosby, but it was too late for them to sue or even have their cases prosecuted. And that was if the district attorney felt there was sufficient evidence to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather than getting depressed, we worked in three states to change the laws. Many of the women testified. We extended the time period for the statute of limitations in Nevada and Colorado. We completely eliminated the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of rape and sexual assault in California—and at the beginning so many people said, “Oh, you’ll never be able to do that.”

In terms of that case, it is amazing how you were able to galvanize all those women—33 out of the 50-plus accusers. I didn’t galvanize them; they galvanized themselves. For most of them the statute of limitations had run out. But it’s never too late to speak out in the court of public opinion. I felt that even though there was no lawsuit I could file for them, I could help them have their voice. Courage is contagious. When they saw the courage of others, they started finding their own. 

What is the toughest part of your job? Nobody comes to me with a case that’s easy. Let’s start there. If it were easy, they probably would have somebody down the street do it. I do feel a great responsibility for those who contact me seeking justice. We can’t help everybody, but we do help as many people as we can and try to refer them if we can’t.

How many cases does your firm [Allred, Maroko & Goldberg] take on? I don’t really have the number. We just do the best we can. I feel very blessed to be able to do this every day. I feel very honored as a person who grew up in a row house with parents who had an eighth grade education to have become an attorney. We had no car. We had no money. I feel it is my duty to do this. I do it with every ounce of energy I have. I love what I do. 

Do you keep in touch with your former clients? Yes, many of my clients keep in touch with me. For example, I’m still in touch with Amber Frey [the former girlfriend of convicted murderer Scott Peterson]. A lot of them call me Mama Gloria or Auntie Gloria. Yesterday I got an email from somebody saying, “My Mama Bear is protecting me.” It’s very sweet. I don’t see them because I don’t have that much of a social life. I’m always working.

Do you ever take time for yourself? Working is time for myself. It’s not like I have to get away from it. For me, cruel and unusual punishment would be taking a vacation and not having my computers or phones.

RELATED: How One Mom Has Taken Gun Safety Into Her Own Hands

How do you keep up your energy? Are you into fitness at all? My daughter used to say, “Mom, you need to exercise.” I’d say, “Well, I talk a lot. Does exercising my mouth count?” Once in a while I work out on an elliptical, but not as much as I should. I feel guilty. I could do better. I run through airports. I’m hoping that counts. 

Is there anything that scares you? No, not really. I don’t think fear is useful. I think fear is a weapon that has been used to deny women their rights. Energy is a very valuable, finite resource and asset that we each have. I always like to think of how we can use our energy in the most positive and productive way.

Where do we go from here, Gloria? Onward and upward. We’re not going back; we’re going forward. That’s the way we’re going to have to fight to win our rights. Did any of us ever predict the women’s marches? Not only in the United States but around the world? Women who were never involved in politics, or any issue-oriented movement, are now involved. They’ll never be uninvolved again. A lot of times their husbands and significant others and little children are seeing their wife and mama standing up for equal rights. It’s beautiful.  

You’re this issue’s Badass Woman. Who is badass to you? I would say those who dare to challenge power and the stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions about women. Those who won’t stay in their place, which is at the bottom of the ladder with someone’s shoe on their neck. That’s why we love Ruth Bader Ginsburg, aka the Notorious RBG. She speaks her mind. I speak my mind too. 

Photographed by Jeremy Liebman.

For more stories like this, pick up the December issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Nov. 9.