For the last forty years, Gloria Allred has advocated tirelessly for civil rights for women and beyond. She has taken on and won numerous high-profile cases that challenge the structures of power. Earlier this year, Netflix debuted a highly anticipated documentary about her life and work called, Seeing Allred.
FRIARS CLUB: How did you become the first female member of the Friars Club in 1987?
GLORIA: There’s a chapter in my book, Fight Back and Win: My Thirty-Year Fight Against Injustice and How You Can Win Your Own Battles which describes how I became a member of the previously all male Beverly Hills Friars Club and how I won equal rights for women at both the Beverly Hills and New York Friars Club.
FC: Can you give us the short version of how you won some of these battles with the Friars Club?
GA: I always enjoyed the good humor and friendliness of the members at The Friars Club in Beverly Hills. The club was near my office and I visited often as the guest of a member. It was a men only club at the time.
FC: What happened when you looked into joining?
GA: Milton Berle suggested that I become an honorary member.
FC: Which you respectfully declined.
GA: It would be a dishonor for me to become an honorary member of a club that discriminated against women. Milton, who was head of the Beverly Hills Club, agreed to make the motion for my admission and he said he would even second his own motion. With him as my sponsor, I became the first dues-paying woman member of the Friars Club.
FC: A milestone… but there’s more to the story.
GA: There were details to work out, like how I would use the steam room, and attend the raunchy male-only Roasts. But I was proud of my new club accepting me voluntarily, without being compelled to do so by an ordinance or a lawsuit. It showed courage and leadership and imagination.
FC: But when you visited the New York Friars Club and tried to make a lunch reservation, you were told women were not permitted to be members and that they were not allowed to have lunch there?
GA: I was in the city for an appearance on The Phil Donahue Show and wanted to take my clients to lunch at the New York Club. I knew that male California Friars were allowed to have lunch there. This was clearly sexual discrimination by a private club, and there was a new city ordinance banning such discrimination. I was determined to do something about it.
FC: So you became the first individual to file a complaint with the New York City Human Rights Commission?
GA: Suddenly, no one was laughing.
FC: And the Commission found probable cause to believe you were discriminated against because of your gender?
GA: Yes, but the Club still refused to admit me for lunch. Meanwhile, back at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills, I was told I was not allowed to use the steam room, sauna and showers or exercise facilities.
FC: Wait a second, no schvitizing?
GA: Not for women. I even suggested a compromise; we could all go in, appropriately clothed, or there could be separate days for men and women, or new facilities could be built for women. As far as I was concerned, the fight for equality wouldn’t end until women were permitted both in the boardrooms and in the steam rooms.
FC: So you became the first individual to file a complaint with California’s State Board of Equalization.
GA: Under a new statute that could deny tax deductions for club membership to members of clubs that discriminated on the basis of gender.
FC: Hit’em in the wallet… There was a rather significant court decision in 1987.
GA: That’s correct. The United States Supreme Court upheld the New York City Ordinance which prohibited private clubs from discriminating on account of gender.
FC: Where were you when you heard the news?
GA: I was in Los Angeles, and I immediately called the New York Friars Club and told them to get ready, because I was coming in for lunch the next day. I jumped on a red-eye, flew to New York and headed straight for the club. When I walked up to the entrance, it was blocked by none other than Henny Youngman. He shouted, “Stay out!” But I said, “Mr. Youngman, stand aside, I’m coming through. You can’t block progress for women.” I went up the maître d' and cited the Supreme Court decision, and this time he gave me a table.
FC: A high-noon showdown… How was lunch?
GA: The poached salmon never tasted so good.
FC: It still is. Did you ever end up entering the steam room after they told you that women were not allowed to use it?
GA: Yes. Back in Los Angeles… I arrived at the club in my 1890’s swimwear. Once I was in the steam room with the men, most of whom were naked, I took out a tape measure and started singing Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” Suddenly, towels snapped and the men covered themselves. A little tape measure can go a long way toward assuring equal rights.
FC: Sometimes justice is a lengthy process. We want to thank you for opening the door for women to become Friars, because the club would have been a lot less dynamic without the likes of Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Carole Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Candice Bergen, Elaine Stritch, Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Rita Rudner, Jeanne Carroll, Sophie Tucker, Joy Behar, Janeane Garofalo, Susie Essman, Lisa Lampanelli, Whitney Cummings, Sarah Silverman, Cathy Lee Gifford, Betty White, Renée Taylor, Kelly Preston, Candice Bergen, Susan Lucci, Brooke Shields, Lainie Kazan, Anjelica Houston, Bebe Neuwirth, Neve Campbell, Rosario Dawson, Lea DeLaria, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Nancy Sinatra, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Debbie Reynolds, Aretha Franklin, Padma Lakshmi, Barbara Walters and Natalie Cole, to name just forty or so…
GA: It’s a good start.
FC: You must be inundated with requests for legal representation. How do you decide what cases to take?
GA: Very carefully.
GA: There are certain criteria that have to be met: Is it within our area of expertise? Is it timely? What is the probability of success? Are there any conflicts and a number of other factors.
FC: Based on those criteria, it appears you’ve chosen well… You were born in Philly, and attended the University of Pennsylvania where you were graduated with honors in English. You commuted to New York to earn your Master’s Degree from NYU and ended up in Law School at Loyola in Los Angeles. Is law school what made you go west?
GA: Not exactly… I had been a teacher in Philadelphia at Benjamin Franklin High School. Long before law school, I had decided that if I was going to be poor, I would be poor in the sunshine. Two suitcases, a hundred dollars, a five-year old child and a lot of dreams... And off we went to Los Angeles.
FC: Dreams bring most of us west. And sometimes they come true. You became a formidable lawyer. Was that something inside you as a kid? Did you win a lot of arguments with your parents?
GA: I wouldn’t call it arguing. My father was very strong and stubborn. So I wouldn’t say we had arguments. I had to learn how to persuade him if I wanted to do something that he didn’t want me to do. But it was not often because ordinarily he just let me make my own decisions.
FC: Was there an “aha” moment that made you dedicate yourself to the law?
GA: I would say… no. I wanted to go to law school after I was graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. But I went to obtain an application, and realized as I stood at the counter, that I wouldn’t have the financial means to do it. And I didn’t have any confidence that I would be able to get a scholarship. Even if I did, I would have to support my daughter. But I had a cousin we called Uncle Ike, who was, before he died, the oldest practicing lawyer in Philadelphia, so I knew I wanted to attend at some point, but right after college was not the right time.
FC: Hypothetically, if you could pass a law today, what would it be?
GA: Just one?
FC: I’m sure you have a few at the ready, but let’s start there.
GA: I would advocate for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and adding it to the United States Constitution. The ERA simply states “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.” I’ve been advocating for it since the 1970’s and I continue to advocate for it. We have 37 states that have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment and we’re working on the 38th.
FC: It can’t happen soon enough. You’ve said that making someone accountable is a form of justice. What do you mean by that?
GA: I believe that women are more empowered than they ever have been. This is the Age of Empowerment. And more and more, women who are victims of injustice by rich, powerful, famous men, are reaching out and learning the benefits and risks of their legal options, and exercising those options. I’m a lawyer, and I’m looking for justice in the criminal and justice system.
FC: Understood… Out of curiosity, if you weren’t a lawyer, what other vocation could you see yourself inspired by?
GA: I loved being a teacher.
FC: The Roasts are bawdy by nature. As we enter this new era, do you have any advice to help the Friars Club evolve and thrive?
GA: Integrate more women, fifty percent of the membership should be a goal. Have more racial diversity. Include the LGBT community.
FC: The club couldn’t be more open to the idea. The truth is, it’s already happening. Your Roast is another first, by the way: an all-female dais. Can’t wait to see how that goes.
GA: I’ll be there.
FC: So will we. Thanks for spending some time with us, Gloria.