Anyone who watched the emotional press conference last Thursday on the steps of the court-house following the guilty verdict in the Bill Cosby rape trial — as one survivor after another approached the microphone to share her reaction (“we are vindicated”, “women are worthy of being believed”) — will have noticed a woman in a red blazer standing amongst the sea of survivors.
Many of the survivors publicly acknowledged this ever-present woman for her tireless work to “give them a voice”.
So who is she, the woman who opened the press conference with the ebullient statement, “Justice has been done.”?
She is the famed US women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred, who is quite well known for her decades of work in the US, but perhaps less well known here in Australia. She is certainly less well known than the other Gloria, Gloria Steinem.
Allred represented 33 of the 62 publicly known Cosby accusers. She also represents many of the women who have made accusations against Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump.
A new documentary on Netflix, Seeing Allred, provides an excellent opportunity for Australians to learn more about Gloria Allred.
I first watched the documentary a few months ago when it was released here in Australia, and I re-watched it over the weekend following the Cosby verdict. And I urge others to do the same.
While Allred may have come of feminist age at the height of second wave feminism in the 1970’s, Seeing Allred tells the story of a “foot soldier of the movement” (as one of her admirers calls her), who has soldiered on for more than four decades with a distinctive brand of fierce feminism, even as interest in and commitment to her agenda by the broader community has ebbed and flowed.
For anyone who is all too aware that the journey to gender equality is a marathon, not a sprint, Seeing Allred provides timely inspiration and practical lessons to stay the course over the long haul.
Thriving on confrontation
The documentary opens with a clip of Allred appearing on the Dinah Shore Show circa sometime in the 1970’s. Sporting a mullet and polyester leisure suit, Allred is asked what she thinks of some rather dated advise advising women to greet their husbands upon their return from work wearing a negligee. “I think we have a uterus and a brain and they both work,” is her reply.
“Don’t tiptoe around it,” the TV host Shore responds with some amusement.
And as the documentary progresses, a picture of a woman who has probably never tip-toed around anything in her life emerges. A montage of newsclips follows featuring Allred’s decades in the public eye features commentators describing her as, “a feminist crusader”, “lightning rod for controversy”, and “easily the most famous women’s right’s attorney in the country” whose “zeal has put her at the centre of countless cases”.
Then the other Gloria, Gloria Steinem, emerges on the screen. “I hate conflict. I think Gloria enjoys it,” she says. It’s clear Gloria Steinem intends this as a compliment of the highest order, recognizing Allred’s fearless and unflinching willingness to go hard in the name of feminism.
The personal experiences that have informed her work
The documentary, however, also provides a more holistic picture of a woman who has too often been reduced to the caricature of “shrill feminist lawyer” and the life events that have informed her work, including being raped at gunpoint in Mexico in the 1970’s and the resulting back ally abortion. She describes the latter, not the former, as the “worst thing that ever happened to her”.
We also see Allred struggle through the end of her first marriage to a husband who suffered from severe depression and was sometimes violent. And we observe her bitter disappointment on the 2017 election night when America failed to elect its first female President.
Given Allred is best known for providing a platform for women to tell their story in the interest of justice, it is noteworthy that she is clearly uncomfortable talking about her own sad and traumatising experiences.
Perhaps that’s because she worries showing her more vulnerable side will pierce the armour of the public persona she has cultivated over many years – a persona she believes benefits her clients. Early in the film she says, “Power only understands power.”
A timely chronicle of the Cosby accusers long journey to justice
But in light of the recent Cosby verdict, Seeing Allred not only tells Allred’s story, it also tells the story of the many Cosby accusers and the obstacles they faced in their long fight for justice.
The documentary first notes Allred’s involvement in the case in 2014, when there were a handful of accusers publicly on the record. And over the course of the film we see more and more women come forward – and more and more women sit behind a bank of microphones in Allred’s conference room to tell their story.
We come to realize that these press conferences, a hallmark of Allred’s approach, which are often criticized as an act of shameless self-promotion, are actually a stroke of tactical genius.
Having realised that as a lawyer there was very little Allred could do for many of the accusers because their experiences fell outside the statute of limitations, Allred decided to give them a voice, which she hoped would still hold the perpetrator accountable.
“Here for the first time, in the press conferences, the women owns the narrative and is able to speak her truth as she experienced it,” says Mariaan Wang, a Civil Rights Attorney and friend of Allred. “Although critics might say it’s tawdry, it’s rude, it’s embarrassing, it allows the public to see what happens in the dark and to see the abuse that often occurs in secret.”
The collective impact of the Cosby accusers’ stories certainly achieved that. As has the collective impact of the #MeToo movement that followed. No one can now claim to be unaware of what’s happening in the dark – or, more likely, in the cold light of day, an “open secret”.
As Allred said on the courthouse steps last Thursday, this is a “herstoric” result.
Seeing Allred is currently on Netflix.
Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica