PARK CITY, UTAH — Seeing Allred, a Netflix documentary that premiered at Sundance, features footage of subject Gloria Allred on the talk show Dinah! in 1977. Allred, in a brown suit and bowl-cropped hairdo, pops up from the audience to respond to a question from the host, Dinah Shore, about the outdated expectations husbands have of their wives. “Well, Dinah, I think we have a uterus and a brain and they both work,” Allred says with a shining smile. “I think it’s very insulting to women.”
The appearance serves as an early public record of Allred’s life as a unicorn among men. To thread together the story of how she positioned herself as America’s most vocal attorney and women’s rights activist, directors Roberta Grossman and Sophia Sartain use archival footage, interviews with clients (including Bill Cosby’s accusers) and Allred’s own testimony. Shot over the past three years, the film attempts to connect Allred’s professional labors with her personal ones and contends with the criticisms that birthed the Gloria Allred caricature.
A day after Allred spoke at the Sundance Respect Rally as part of this year’s Women’s March, Seeing Allred was screened for a Sundance audience. Allred spoke with Jezebel over the phone about the documentary’s purpose, the new leg of the women’s movement, the national focus on sexual assault, and how white women continue to uphold the traditions of white men. Here’s our lightly edited conversation.
JEZEBEL: First, I want to know how this project came about. And how much of participating in this documentary was a desire to clear up some misunderstanding about you and write your own narrative?
GLORIA ALLRED: Well, the project came about because Sophie Sartain approached me, along with Roberta Grossman. Both have been very successful documentarians in the past. They were aware of my battle for justice for women’s rights and the rights of gay and lesbian individuals for over 42 years and they thought it was an important story to tell. I had to be persuaded, but they were persistent over two years. I felt that I had obligations to my clients. I would not allow the documentary producers to be covering confidential communications with my clients or with anyone who sought legal advice with me. And I was reluctant, also, to give up some of my privacy to do it. But I did want the story to be told because I wanted everyone to see what heroes so many of the women who stand up are, who fight for justice, how they go through this transformative process where they start as victims and they become survivors and then they become fighters for change to help other women.
It’s a wonderful story to see them become heroes of their own lives and to know that they had to have enormous courage to do this. To see them know that maybe it’s too late for them to assert rights, but it’s never too late to have a voice. To see them come in tears and then finally celebrate because they’ve helped to change the law for others. I wanted that story to be told. Ultimately, I decided to do it, and this was even before the Bill Cosby story broke, before the #MeToo movement, before the election of President Trump and Harvey Weinstein. [The directors] had the vision to do this and I’m very happy that they did. The audience for screenings of Seeing Allred gave it a standing ovation. Others, I hope will be inspired and empowered by this and say I can stand up to the injustices against me just like the women in the film.
You mentioned Weinstein and the fact that sexual assault is now a national conversation. I’m curious what your initial feeling was seeing this movement toward open conversation about an issue that you’ve basically focused your entire life on—
And now everyone is kind of talking about it. What was your initial feeling seeing the movement happen?
It’s definitely a shift. It’s a wave that’s been coming in for many years and now it’s a tsunami. I mean, this is to me a new age of empowerment—that women are standing up to the fear, that they’re speaking truth to power, and they’re taking risks because they want their voices to be heard. They feel that they’ve been hurt and the wrongdoers, those who they alleged have raped or sexually assaulted them or lied to them, betrayed them, have not paid consequences. So they’re now trying to shift the consequences to the wrongdoers. And their fear of not being believed, their fear of being ashamed, they’ve been released from that fear. Now it’s the person they alleged has wronged them, the accused, who are facing serious consequences and who are now in fear and who are now being shamed.
Is there some kind of emotional release for you in seeing that?
For me? A lot of my clients call me Mama Gloria, so I’m proud of the young women, the middle-aged women and the older women. I’m proud like a mama that they have decided to take control of their lives and to release the fear and to speak out. There are risks to speaking out. Some of them are being sued for defamation. But many of them have decided to take those risks. I never tell any of them they should speak out or shouldn’t. I just inform people who ask me, “What do you think I should do?” I talk to them about the benefits and risks of all of their choices and they’ll make an informed decision. What’s happened, though, with so many more people speaking out, I think there’s a shift in that more people are believing women than did in the past.
Related to that, the documentary highlights the responsibility of being the person who brings these traumatized women on camera, which allows the public to paint a picture of abuse. But the film also shows the criticism you’ve received because of that.
Well, the point is nobody’s compelled to do this. Nobody’s required to do this. It’s the women’s decision—and I, by the way, represent many, many accusers of high-profile men who’ve made the decision that they don’t want to be public, they don’t want to be on the internet. I represent numerous accusers of Harvey Weinstein whose names you will never hear, whose stories you will never know. But we’re handling their cases confidentially, and the same is true for Bill Cosby. We represent many accusers of Bill Cosby who’ve never gone public and never have any intention of doing so. They want to protect their privacy and they have every right to protect their privacy and I am going to protect their privacy, as I have for many years and always will. I’m there to support women and it’s a case-by-case analysis. I’m sure there are many wrongdoers who would like these women to be silenced so they’ll criticize me for helping them to be heard, but that’s what I’m going to do because I think what they have to say is important.
Was that something you wanted to make sure to highlight in the film?
Well, no, I wanted the women’s stories highlighted. It’s not about being in the film. These were press conferences that were done and they would be available to anybody and have been available to anybody. By the way, I don’t make the decisions as to what was in the film. I’m not a producer of the film. I’m just appearing in the film.
Seeing the old footage of your debates with men and you being labeled as aggressive reminded me of a recent New York Times piece about the anger of a woman. You’ve always been one to display anger outright. The feeling of fury.
Good way to put it, yes.
That was something that came out in the film. You could see the anger and the way that the anger led to change.
It’s rage. It’s rage that’s been bottled up in women because of the injustices that have been inflicted and they felt they had to suffer in silence and they felt they might’ve been the only one. The rage is in part because they now see that there are so many other women that have similar accusations. Sometimes women take that rage and they bottle it up and they just live with it, sometimes they become depressed, and sometimes they have to turn to alcohol or drugs—or they feel they do—and it’s destructive. Now, the release of it is empowering to them, and then they move that into constructive action for change, to change the law which has denied them their day in court and to help make it a better world for others. So I say, don’t tranquilize yourself out of your rage. Use it as a source of energy to propel you forward to make this a better world for others. They’ve done that and I just highly respect them and support them in doing that. It’s good for the health. [Laughs] I always say fighting injustice is very good for the health.
There’s a point in the documentary where the viewer is reliving election night through you watching the votes coming in. Was it weird watching that yourself and seeing the moment that Trump was going to become president?
I obviously was a delegate of Hillary, a supporter of Hillary. But as I said at the rally, they can break our hearts but they can’t break our spirits. I think that’s what you see in the film because it goes from those moments when it appeared that Hillary was not going to win, not become the first woman president of the United States, to the shock of it, and from the shock of it to the Women’s March and all of the incredible women and girls who were standing there as a statement for their daughters and their mothers and their grandmothers. I loved being part of that and it’s a wave of empowerment that we have never seen before in these numbers and now we see it in this film.
Seeing Allred really couldn’t be more timely. I was proud and honored to be a speaker at the Respect Rally and then to have this film screened at Sundance and just to see the enthusiasm—so many people want to know, what can I do. One woman came up and said, “I was so fired up by the first Women’s March, then I got depressed the rest of the year and now your film has fired me up again. So I’m happy because now I’m gonna take even more action than I have before.” ’Cause they realize what’s at stake. I’m very very, very glad that the film does that, because it’s important that we stand up for our rights and show our commitment and speak truth to power and elect those who will support us in our values and in our rights.
I’m curious about your thoughts on how intersectional feminism has evolved and what progress you think has been made there. I’m not sure if you saw the Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards calling on white women to “do better.”
I think all women. Women and men, we need to make a strong commitment to, as they say, not just words but deeds. Actions.
Right, you’ve played a role in civil rights along with women’s rights. But the election in Alabama showed the percentage of white women voters that are holding up this system. How do you try to talk to them or address that blind spot?
I mean, it’s disappointing that not everyone felt the way many other women did. But I don’t think that President Trump’s base is what it used to be. And this constant disrespect that is shown of women, I think it’s firing up people in a way that they haven’t been fired up before. So yeah, I do think—you mentioned talking to them—I think it’s important to continue the conversation and I feel that we’re able to do that in this film as well. But the film is really about the truth that women say exists about their lives and what their values are and what their hopes and dreams are and the justice they’re fighting for. I formerly was a teacher, so I do believe that we need to have the conversation even with people that may disagree with us.
Yeah, I mean white women need to have a lot of conversation [laughs].
Everyone. With everyone.
But obviously there’s a focus on that because the percentages have called attention to—
Obviously, there was a greater vote by African-American women. Many suburban, married white women, maybe they had a different life experience, different hopes and dreams, for whatever reason, I don’t know. I haven’t analyzed the polls, but minds can always be changed with new information, so I’m always hopeful that information will empower people and provide an opportunity to change minds and hearts.
You’re right that information empowers people.
Yeah, it’s empowering. I didn’t know this, I didn’t know that. Now I know this and now I have a different view. But again, this is about the hopes and dreams and the actions of women and what they care about and the struggle for justice. It’s always been a struggle for justice. It took us 72 years to win the right to vote. Nobody ever gave us our rights, we always had to fight for them. Ninety-five years, we’ve been working to win the passage of equal rights amendments to the U.S. constitution. We have to still keep fighting for it. And no one has ever given African-Americans rights at all. African-Americans have always had to fight to win them. But I said after the screening [on Monday], you too can be a Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks was not rich or famous, was not a celebrity, but she is a woman who has left a legacy which inspired others and helped to afford rights that had been denied and now enjoyed, although we still have a long way to go in that regard. You too can be your own Rosa Parks. I say in my book Fight Back and Win, you too can be a warrior for equality.
On a personal note, you mentioned your reluctance to open up your private life. There’s a point where you’re asked about your relationship. Did you want to keep that out of the film?
I wanted it to be about others, the accusers, the women who allege that they are victims and about their struggles. But I understood from the producers, look, people want to know why you’re motivated to do what you do, why you have this hundred-percent commitment to women’s rights, to civil rights and rights for gay and lesbian and transgender individuals, rights to African-Americans. Why. What is it in my life experience that has led me onto this path and kept me there for 43 years every day in every way. And so I decided, okay I’ll make the sacrifice that I can, of my own personal privacy. Because women need to know that the reasons I’m motivated have to do with my own life experience, but also my rage. Look, I used to think what happened to me was only something that happened to me perhaps because of my bad luck—I’m talking about the rape in Mexico. [Ed note: Allred has previously spoken about being raped while vacationing in Mexico in the 1960s and does so in the documentary as well.] Or I was in the wrong place, wrong time, maybe self-blaming, who would believe me. I understand that by revealing some of that, people will understand why women feared they would not be believed, why women would not do anything about it if they’re a victim of injustice. But why I have decided to do something is I realized I was never alone in that. This is happening to millions of women. It was necessary to talk about that and so I did. Am I comfortable talking about it? No. But I did it. And a lot of people came up and said to me, “Thank you for doing it,” after the screening. “Cause now we understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
People are curious about your relationship with your daughter Lisa Bloom, in that she initially represented Harvey Weinstein. Do you guys have conversations about the different ways in which you’re both contributing to the conversation around sexual assault? Do you have conversations with her about Weinstein?
Look, I respect my daughter. She’s a terrific attorney, she cares about women and women’s rights, and I think anybody would be fortunate to have her as their attorney. But I don’t— She doesn’t discuss her decisions with me as to who to represent. I don’t discuss my decisions with her as to who I represent, nor do I discuss them with any other attorney. But I love her and I respect her and she’s spoken about why she made her decisions and I only have good things to say about my daughter I’m very proud of my daughter.
People have talked about how long they knew about Weinstein. Had it been on your radar?
Let’s put it this way, I certainly was aware of Harvey Weinstein prior to stories breaking about him, but that’s all I can say about that because I know quite a bit about what goes on in the Hollywood community.
With the film, what type of person do you hope sees it?
I would like everybody to see this film! I had a mom who said, “I’m bringing my daughter to see the film.” It’ll be on Netflix on February 9. I might add, there were men there [on Monday] and at the screening the day before and some of the men came up to me and said, “I’m a father of two girls and I know you’re doing this for my daughters to make it a safer world for them and a better world for them so they can be respected and have more rights, treated equally and treated with dignity. Thank you for doing that.” So I want everybody to see it because everybody’s got a stake in making sure that women have the rights that they deserve to have and to be treated not as second-class citizens but as first-class citizens in every way and have all those opportunities that men have. You see in the film, I struggled to make sure that single moms can get their child support, to make those in power, district attorneys, enforce the rights so the single mothers don’t have to live in poverty and be forced into welfare. There are so many issues covered in the film and people see how their lives are affected by the denial of rights. This is not an academic discussion. It’s a real-life struggle for justice and hopefully it’ll inspire others. People are looking for actions and steps they can take and I’m glad they are.