I was born Gloria Rachel Bloom on July 3, 1941—an only child in a working-class home in southwest Philadelphia. My dad, Morris, was a door-to-door salesman with an eighth-grade education. Selling Fuller brushes and photo enlargements, he worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, and rarely had time to spend with me, except on Sundays. We never had a car. We lived modestly in a row house with a view of a stone wall. I always wanted to get beyond the stone wall in my life.
My mother, Stella, was originally from Manchester, England. She didn't work outside the home, but devoted her life to me and was adamant that I get a good education. She had been forced to leave school in the eighth grade to support her family. Even though she was lighthearted and easy going, my mother never seemed content about being a stay-at-home mom. All her life, she looked back with regret and imagined what she could have achieved if she had been able to get the education and enjoy the opportunities that her intelligence warranted. My mother insisted that I grow up to have the opportunities she missed.
"Don't grow up to be like me," she would tell me.
My father was very strong; some called him stubborn. He was like a rock, which was good because you could lean on him, but bad because he was hard to move. He made up his mind fairly quickly. He seldom talked, except to tell jokes. In order to challenge him, I had to be really strong and use my wits. My father agreed with my mother that I should have a career if I wanted it. He always told me I would be going to college. I wasn't supposed to worry about it—the money would be there.
Even though they were poor, my parents tried to give me the best of everything. If we could afford only one ticket to a movie, my father would pay my way and wait for me in the park. I earned extra money by selling potholders that I made myself. I also sold new and used comic books and, of course, the old standby— lemonade. I was fairly successful at sales. Every birthday I would ask my parents to put some money away for me, in case I ever needed it for a rainy day.
I didn't have much in the way of toys. I had Scrabble, Monopoly, a checkers game, and a couple of dolls. I loved to read, and my father regularly took me to the library. I enjoyed books by Charles Dickens and Somerset Maugham. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott was one of my favorites.
I was fortunate to be accepted into an all-academic, all-girls public high school, the Philadelphia High School for Girls (aka Girls' High). It was like a private school. Many people believed that girls could receive a better education there than at the public coed high schools in Philadelphia, where more attention was paid to boys. To attend Girls' High, a girl either had to have a high IQ or be at the top of her class. No one ever told me which category I'd qualified under, but I was excited to be admitted. I met my best friend, Fern Brown Caplan, during my first week at school and she remains my best friend to this day.
The faculty of the school consisted mainly of women who em¬phasized the academy's motto: Vincit Qui Se Vincit ("She conquers, who conquers herself"). The vice-principal once told us, "Girls, your husbands or your boyfriends will probably say to you, 'Send me to medical school or law school, or graduate school.' You just look them in the eye and say, 'No. You send me.'"
It was a truly rebellious statement for that time. I remember all of us looking at each other as though somebody might burst through the door at any minute and arrest the vice-principal for saying something that radical. I think, for many of my classmates, she was their first exposure to a feminist.
It wasn't mine. My father's cousin, Rachel Ash, was—as far as we know—the first female cardiologist at the Children's Heart Hospital in Philadelphia. I considered her a revolutionary. She never married and never had any children. In addition, she was the only woman I ever knew who didn't cook.
We would see her about once a year, and during those visits she would have food delivered to the house (remember, there were very few take-out places in those days) then serve it right out of the take-out containers. She didn't cook and she didn't care. That was extraordinary to me. Aunt Rachel, as I called her, wasn't particularly interested in my mother and father (they seemed to be a bit of an annoyance to her) but she took an interest in me. She sent me to a special science seminar in Philadelphia one summer, and stayed in contact with me over the years.
At Girls' High, we were encouraged to aspire to fulfillment through careers and community leadership, in addition to marriage. The classes were hard. I remember thinking at one point, "This is too much for me. I'm going to drop out." I was also feeling insecure because my parents only had eighth-grade educations, and the parents of many of my classmates were lawyers, bankers, and other leaders in Philadelphia. I felt that they had an edge over me.
I went to the counselor and asked to return to "regular" high school. "I'm not smart enough for this school," I told her.
"Gloria, who do you think the smartest person in this school is?" she asked me.
"Sandra Walkowitz," I replied.
She took out a file, opened it up, and looked at me. "Okay, I'm looking at Sandra Walkowitz's IQ and I have your IQ here. Did you know that her IQ is only five points higher than yours? That's not even statistically significant. I can't let you drop out. You belong here."
I didn't realize until many, many years later that she never had Sandra Walkowitz's IQ in that file. Nor did I realize that I could have dropped out without the counselor's permission. I'm so grate¬ful to her for giving me that confidence.
Excerpted from FIGHT BACK AND WIN, by Gloria Allred. Copyright © 2006 by Gloria Allred. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.