For centuries, women have been carving out rooms and communities of our own, whether they be centers, book clubs, religious groups, YWCAs, or, more recently, co-working spaces like The Wing and businesses like Ladies Get Paid. But litigious men’s rights activists (MRAs) are organizing to challenge the legality of these groups, exploiting progressive civil rights legislation designed to protect the rights of the marginalized.
The fact that MRAs can’t be in the spaces women-run companies have created is frustrating a small, loud group of them—and the law’s on their side, for now. The foundational identity of these spaces, which have long been life-giving sources of support for women, is under sustained attack.
On January 20, 2018, the day of the second Women’s March, Claire Wasserman got served with a lawsuit. Wasserman, the founder of Ladies Get Paid, a small business that helps women navigate their careers and advocate for themselves, was surprised by the timing, but not the case itself.
“After Trump, we’re all realizing that our rights could be taken away in a second.”
She’d been expecting it since four months earlier, when a man named Rich Allison tried to attend an event for Ladies Get Paid in San Diego. Ladies Get Paid (LGP) did not allow Allison in the private event; he was not given a LGP drink discount; and he was asked to stay in the main bar. They were later tipped off that professional plaintiffs were afoot. When they looked up Allison, they found he was an active member of the National Coalition for Men (NCFM), the country’s oldest men’s right’s group, and a plaintiff in eight civil cases against women-focused organizations between 2011 to 2016, according to Mother Jones.
The lawsuit against LGP was served in California, home to the Unruh Act, a comprehensive piece of civil rights legislation that ensures people across citizenship, race, religion, sex, and other categories “are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.” It quickly became apparent that the law, in purpose if not intent, was on Allison’s side.
“[The NCFM] kept using language like ‘Imagine if we were homosexuals and we were not allowed in!’” Wasserman tells Girlboss. “I was personally really, really offended by that. I’m gay and Jewish and I’m a woman. On so many levels, I’m a person who is supposed to be protected.”
The broader conversation that she wished people would have had is not about equality, but about equity. “If you say, ‘Treat everybody equally,’ then that means we broke the law. But the point of this is to be equitable. We are striving to make men and women equal in the workplace—but because women are starting behind men, we believe we should be giving them additional benefits,” she says.
Wasserman vocalized her frustration, but couldn’t afford to fight in court. She changed the organization’s rules immediately and they settled a month later. She declines to talk about the terms of the settlement. “After Trump, we’re all realizing that our rights could be taken away in a second,” Wasserman says.
While much has been made of the NYC Human Rights Commission’s investigation of female and nonbinary co-working space The Wing, The Wing hasn’t been sued, nor have any findings from the investigation been publicly released. But LGP is far from alone as a target.
Alfred Rava, an attorney based in San Diego who has represented NCFM in numerous cases, has reportedly gotten a $125,000 settlement from San Diego nightclubs that held “Ladies’ Nights,” where women received discounts, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times; $12,000 from a San Diego Theater that sold half-priced tickets for women, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune; and $510,000 from the Oakland A’s, who gave free sun hats to some women on Mothers’ Day, according to ESPN and the American Bar Association Journal.
There are other settlements; that’s just a sample. One of Rava’s cases went all the way up to the California Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. Most defendants have chosen to settle rather than incur the fee of taking the case, while others have lost to him. A strange exception? Trump’s golf course, which was sued after offering a breast cancer awareness month-related discount, summoned the resources to beat NCFM in court in 2011.
“As anyone who has found solace in female and nonbinary spaces knows, the argument for these spaces is clear.”
While Wasserman’s supportive community crowdfunded her substantial legal fees, she said that the process has taken a significant emotional toll. “I’m going to continue, as this obviously demonstrates how badly I need to continue this work, but this isn’t fun anymore,” she says. “And I’m not gonna get that back.”
As anyone who has found solace in female and nonbinary spaces knows, the argument for these spaces is clear. We do not always feel that we can speak frankly about our experiences and our unique challenges in the company of unknown men. Those who sexually harass, underpay, or underestimate us in the workplace are often men.
And while the NCFM has been bringing these kinds of cases for more than a decade, according to Mother Jones,they are now operating in a political environment where disrespect for marginalized communities comes from the top down. If it weren’t enough that Trump grabs pussies and brags about it or calls immigrants “animals” (which is literally the lingo that often precedes ethnic cleansing), his actions match the rhetoric. Earlier this month, his administration tucked a line into a signing statement that implicitly questioned the foundational premise of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs); “the forgotten men and women” of Trump’s empathy-devoid imagination all look like him.
“…the problem is far easier to identify than the solution.”
So what do we do to protect spaces where marginalized communities can find some solidarity and solace inside a country that would have us variously—depending on who we are—underpaid, compromised, or dead? As with so many things, the problem is far easier to identify than the solution.
Megan Cesare-Eastman, an attorney who represents Ladies Get Paid, notes that California Government Code 11135, which prohibits discrimination in programs or activities funded by the state, is followed by a section which clarifies: “This article shall not be interpreted in a manner that would frustrate its purpose” and “This article shall not be interpreted in a manner that would undermine lawful programs which benefit members of the protected bases described in Section 11135.” Were there sufficient political will, the legislature could add a similar clarification to the Unruh Act, which applies to businesses, but, Cesare-Eastman notes, “we would, of course, want to carefully consider the wording and long-term effect of any such change.” Broader fixes are unlikely for the time being, given that there’s not much published case law regarding interpretations of Unruh, or other state civil rights laws’, parameters.
The key issue is that women and those who support them have less money to fight with than the men and corporations who would see us lose. That’s the very same issue that Ladies Get Paid was created to solve. Go figure.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated with more explicit attribution for clarity.