Feminist lawyer criticised for taking on sexual harassment case

Susan Estrich is the chief defender of former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, who lost his job after sexual harassment claims.
Susan Estrich is the chief defender of former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, who lost his job after sexual harassment claims.

NEW YORK • Susan Estrich is known for being first.

A celebrated feminist legal scholar, she was the first female president of The Harvard Law Review. Working for former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis in 1988, she was the first woman to manage a presidential campaign. And in 1991, she coined the term "nuts and sluts" to describe the cam-paign Clarence Thomas supporters waged to discredit law professor Anita Hill's sexual harassment accusation.

Estrich took a different position in a 1998 opinion column defending President Bill Clinton. She wrote: "The reason men resort to the 'nuts and sluts' defence is because it may be the only way to undermine the credibility of a woman who is not, in fact, telling the truth."

And that seems to be part of her strategy as the chief defender of former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, who lost his job after a number of women accused him of sexual harassment.

Estrich, the author of the 1988 book Real Rape: How the Legal System Victimizes Women Who Say No, is now one of the last voices vigorously insisting that Ailes did nothing wrong. Even the owner of Fox News, Mr Rupert Murdoch, seems not to agree. And that twist is bringing her back into the spotlight, and is puzzling, not to mention enraging, some of the people who once saw her as a role model.

When the accusations first surfaced this summer, it shocked many feminists that Estrich, of all people, would represent Ailes, a take-noprisoners political operative and the guiding force of Fox News.

But it was not entirely surprising. For many years, she was a lively liberal commentator on Fox News and has defended another Republican man accused of sexual misconduct, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a telephone interview, she described Ailes - whom she met on the campaign trail in 1988, when he was advising Mr George W. Bush - as a close friend.

"In the 18 years I was at Fox News, Roger has never told me what to say, what to do or what to wear," she said. "He kept me on the payroll for seven months when I was too sick to work."

But what really turned heads was her zeal in attacking the New York magazine reporter who first broke the scandal. Interviewed for an article in The Daily Beast, she said: "Ultimately, it will become clear that the real enemy of women is Gabe Sherman."

That sounded a little like a "jerks and perks" defence, and Estrich went on to suggest that Mr Sherman, who published an unflattering biography of Ailes in 2014, had his own agenda for pursuing the story.

She told The Daily Beast that Mr Sherman was willing to "use and abuse" vulnerable women to pursue a vendetta against Ailes. (Mr Sherman declined to comment.) The response on social media was vivid, to say the least. "Everyone knows @GabrielSherman is a brilliant journalist and Susan Estrich is a Fox hack," is how Ms Joan Walsh, a Washington political reporter, put it.

Those close to Estrich say she is staunchly supportive of her friends and clients and feels particularly beholden to Ailes for the way he stood by her when she fell gravely ill after a botched gastrointestinal operation in 2014.

"Susan is fiercely loyal, to a detriment," said Ms Cathy Moran, a nurse in Los Angeles who took care of Estrich during her illness. "She will not bail on him."

Ms Moran said that as a friend, she wished Estrich was not involved in defending Ailes but that once she takes on a cause, she will not let it drop - even after 21st Century Fox reached a US$20-million settlement with former news anchor Gretchen Carlson and apologised to her publicly.

Ms Moran grimly likened Estrich's position to an unwanted pregnancy: "At some point you reach the point where you can't terminate."

Estrich, a partner in the Los Angeles office of the litigation firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, said she first heard the allegations against Ailes on her return from London, and by the time she got to her apartment, there were 10 messages from her old friend on her home voicemail. She did not hesitate to take the case, aware that some feminists say she sold out.

"It is painful, but at the same time I am a lawyer: Once she takes on a case she stands by her client," she said in a phone interview. "Roger needs someone to help him through this extremely difficult process. The last thing any client needs is a lawyer sitting in judgment."

She is a busy lawyer. In addition to her work at the law firm, she is a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law and writes a syndicated political column. Although Ailes has been advising the Republican nominee, Mr Donald Trump, she recently referred to "the demagogue's angry rants" and his "feet of clay".

Estrich, who is less visible on television these days, has a strong, somewhat disconcerting on-air presence. She speaks in a raspy voice, has an intense gaze and a disarmingly animated manner.

There could be a case to be made that she is being held to a higher standard than male litigators. There was no such outcry when a male colleague at her law firm briefly took on Bill Cosby as a client last year.

But some feminists say they do expect more of her.

"She has a higher level of accountability," said Mr Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Magazine. "For someone who was such a pioneering legal scholar to make Ailes an exception to the trenchant line she has drawn is a depressing irony."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2016, with the headline 'Feminist lawyer criticised for taking on sexual harassment case'. Print Edition | Subscribe