Claire Wasserman says she had never heard of men’s rights activists until she was sued by those affiliated with one group last fall. Now she’s well-informed about the world of incels, MGTOW ("mig-tow," Men Going Their Own Way who want as little as possible to do with women), and some of the determined individuals around the country who believe her work is sexist — and illegal.
Wasserman founded Ladies Get Paid 18 months ago to provide salary education and professional advancement tools for women around the country. The company hosts events, workshops, and webinars (ranging from free to ticketed at $15-$25) on topics like negotiation and career pathing. Hundreds of women have used the platform online and in person to network, recount their experiences with harassment, find mentors, and share job opportunities.
Wasserman says she didn’t set out to create a business; her first event was a town hall following the 2016 presidential election that was more of a sharing circle than a goal-oriented venture. But after researching the wage gap and the dearth of women leaders in business and in public office, she felt compelled to create a more structured resource for female-identified and nonbinary people.
I just thought, 'We can't have men in the room.' That would totally disrupt it.
At the first event, Wasserman was struck by how vulnerable these women were sharing their personal stories. "I just thought, We can't have men in the room. That would totally disrupt it," she says. "A lot of women who come [to LGP events] say, 'I had this interaction at work that made me really uncomfortable but, you know, whatever.' And people in the room are like, 'No, no — hold on. Tell me about that experience.' 'The way you feel is legitimate.' 'Here’s something you could do to speak up about it.'"
Ladies Get Paid has rapidly expanded to more than 20,000 members since that first town hall, opening 18 committees across the country. Until last fall, Wasserman had been getting positive feedback from the women joining her group, and seemingly, the public at large. She says she once asked the community in a newsletter if they should start integrating men "every now and then" at events to avoid creating an echo chamber, but got "so many emails" telling her no. Doing so would change why these spaces felt special, members said, and besides, they saw themselves as actively doing something positive in society. Which made it that much more shocking for Wasserman to learn that she was being sued for sex discrimination in violation of California's Unruh Civil Rights Act.
In the lawsuit (which named Wasserman, Ladies Get Paid, The Red Door Restaurant and Wine Bar, and the San Diego Chapter of LGP as defendants), the plaintiff Rich Allison says he was "kicked out" of a Ladies Get Paid event held at The Red Door in August 2017 even though he registered to attend. (Red Door did not answer multiple requests from Refinery29 for comment, but owner Trish Watlington told The San Diego Reader last October: "The Red Door does not endorse, nor have we ever endorsed, discrimination of any kind. At no time was I, or any member of The Red Door team, aware this was a public event nor did I know that the group would market it exclusively to women.")
Allison says he was permitted to enter a different section of the bar where the event was not being hosted and buy a drink, but that since he wasn't given a discount (which the event attendees were), he and other male clients were effectively being charged "a Man Tax on drinks and services." In the document, Allison's attorney Alfred G. Rava calls the incident "as repugnant and unlawful as businesses being involved in a 'Caucasian Night' or a 'Heterosexual Night.'"
Wasserman says after the lawsuit was filed in San Diego, she Googled Allison and Rava and learned the attorney was once a member of the National Coalition for Men (NCFM), the nation’s oldest men’s rights group. Rava has filed numerous suits against entertainment venues and organizations that have run ladies’ night discounts and gender-focused campaigns, including one against the Oakland Athletic Baseball Club for a Mother's Day promotion and the San Diego Fire Rescue Foundation's girls-only firefighter camp. Alarmed, Wasserman asked all of Ladies Get Paid ambassadors to "change policy ASAP" and admit men, but it was too late.
The Los Angeles committee notified her that two men had tried to come to an event in Santa Monica in September and been turned away with refunded tickets. Again, they looked up the men’s names and saw one, George St. George, had also been represented by Rava on similar occasions. Wasserman says Rava filed the second lawsuit in L.A. in December 2017 and that she was served in January on the day of the Women’s March. She finds it "mind-boggling" to be positioned as "the discriminator."
"Shame on these guys but at the same time, what the fuck is this law that it can be used and abused this way?" she asked. "When will it stop?"
The answer is: possibly not any time soon.
In an email to Refinery29, Rava said: "Victims of sex discrimination such as Mr. Allison or Mr. St. George often come to me after they learn that a seemingly man-hating business operating in the progressive state of California in 21st Century [sic], is brazenly – some people might say 'stupidly' – promising or threatening in an advertisement for an event or promotion that will ostensibly favor women over men."
He explained that he has been involved in "approximately 300" Unruh Civil Rights Act-related cases as an attorney, plaintiff, and consultant for other lawyers, and added he would be just as likely to file a lawsuit against a business in California "that similarly prohibited women from entering because of their sex, but I have yet to see a scenario in my practice." (Rava is currently representing Osmar Aaron Lopez, a transgender woman who was allegedly denied entrance into the Oxford Social Club in San Diego on the pretext that the club was at capacity.)
"I take great umbrage at businesses operating in California that treat people unequally, i.e., that favor one group of people over another, based on people’s immutable personal characteristics such as race or sex," Rava said in an email interview.
Something to think about is the difference between equality on the one hand and *equity* on the other.
Melissa Murray, a law professor at University of California, Berkeley and visiting professor of law at NYU, says lawsuits like these seem to be part of a trend in which groups “we might historically have understood as being part of a privileged majority are now claiming a kind of minority status.”
Men aren’t alone in this, she adds. Religious conservatives have also made similar arguments: Colorado baker Jack Phillips is currently arguing before the Supreme Court that freedom of religion exempts him from the state’s anti-discrimination laws. (So, he believes, he has the right to refuse services to same-sex couples.) Affirmative action opponent Abigail Fisher also brought her case against the University of Texas to the Supreme Court, and lost. And Kursat Christoff Pekgoz, a member of NCFM, recently sued Yale University for its "affirmative action programs for women."
"I think this is not a situation the legislators had contemplated when the act was passed," Murray says. "Rich Allison and George St. George who [sued] Claire Wasserman are saying this is a straight-up question of sex equality, but something to think about is the difference between equality on the one hand and equity on the other."
She says Wasserman could have launched a defense in court that took into account "the spirit in which the law was enacted, which is to provide opportunities for people who have historically been shut out" — rather than a strict interpretation — but that would have required the Ladies Get Paid founder to have the financial resources to continue a costly legal battle. As a result, when taken at absolute face value, the "compelling narrative of these women longing for gender equality [but] discriminating against men" trumps "a more complicated story," Murray says.
In some ways, the question of equity and women’s earnings makes the act of repeatedly suing them even more ironic. Because LGP ambassadors were sued as a result of Wasserman’s no-men policy, she decided to "put the money where our mouth is" and represent them in court. (She also gave them the option of removing the organization from their LinkedIn pages and resigning from their roles. None chose to do so, she says.)
A woman in an Instagram post said, 'You realize you’re giving into the patriarchy because you settled?'
Wasserman settled last month rather than go to trial and officially changed Ladies Get Paid's policy to admit men, but the decision wasn't an easy one. She borrowed money from her mother, signed agreements with sponsors that agree not to sue her either, and started a crowdfunding page with a $100,000 goal to defray the costs of her legal fees. She says the money will first be used for legal fees, and any excess will go toward growing the business. So far, she's raised over $80,000.
"I'm so grateful that I have a parent who could help and that my lawyers didn’t require payment upfront, otherwise I literally would have nothing," she says. "A lot of my expenses in my life have been going on my credit card. I got a prescription for anti-anxiety medication yesterday that I am thrilled about."
Wasserman adds that she doesn’t anticipate the dynamic of Ladies Get Paid changing much now that men will be allowed— but the incident may portend an ill-wind for the growing number of women's only events and spaces around the world. She says she will no longer host events in San Diego and knows of women who don't want to host events in California at all because "that’s where these guys are located." Even if Ladies Get Paid itself is fine, her biggest concern is about a chilling effect overall on the efforts of marginalized groups looking for safe spaces.
"We had a woman who was super rude to us in an Instagram post saying, 'You realize you’re giving into the patriarchy because you settled?' I was like, you have no understanding of the legal system, and you don't know how much it would have cost us to even go to court," Wasserman says. "It was really upsetting, especially to see a woman accuse us of not standing up to the patriarchy — because that's literally all we do as a company," she continues. "We chose to settle because that was the financially prudent decision, and we want to get on with our lives."
Disclosure: Claire Wasserman has worked with Refinery29's business team. Their work is unaffiliated with this story.
Note: An earlier version of this article quoted Alfred G. Rava as saying: "Victims such as Mr. Allison or Mr. St. George often come to me after they learn that a seemingly man-hating business [is] operating in the progressive state of California in [the] 21st Century." We have updated this article to include Mr. Rava's statement in full.