Feminism’s Fresh Face: Sandra Fluke Talks Politics
SACRAMENTO, CA — Seated in a dirty overstuffed office chair, in my too-pink twill business dress, I waited for the phone to ring. A clock ticked dully in the background, as the fluorescent light buzzed overhead, and I glanced up at the ceiling — beseeching the feminist gods of politics to not let me muck this up. My phone interrupted my silent divine appeal, vibrating like a hot potato and singing, Look what they’ve done to my song, ma. This was it: the second formal interview of my amateur journalist career with one of the nation’s most visible political feminists. I squeezed my eyes shut and hoped I would not overstay my welcome on the topic of Rush Limbaugh’s divisive radio commentary. “Hello?” the voice on the other end said, the “o” reaching a soft crescendo as if in hesitation. “This is Sandra Fluke.”
WASHINGTON, D.C. — In 2012, Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke was invited to speak before a special congressional committee in Washington D.C. The committee convened to review a policy that exempted religious-affiliated institutions and organizations from supplying birth control on moral grounds.1 During the hearing, Fluke argued that contraceptive care be included in Georgetown University’s insurance plan, regardless of the institution’s Jesuit foundation. A seemingly banal testimony in just another committee hearing, Fluke’s statement should have been nothing more than a drop in the pan; arguments in favor of reproductive justice had been heard before. But this time, someone with millions of listeners and a loyal fan base was paying attention: Rush Limbaugh. And he had something to say about it.
Fluke testified that women should have access to contraception regardless of a university or organization’s religious affiliation, and that the financial burden of finding alternative means through which to obtain birth control disproportionately affected female students and employees. Conservative news retorted that if the female students knew the university’s religious affiliation would prevent access to contraception, they should have chosen a different school. Fluke claimed, “We refuse to pick between a quality education and our health, and we resent that, in the 21st century, anyone thinks it’s acceptable to ask us to make this choice simply because we are women.” As former president of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice, Fluke presented herself as both knowledgeable and socially engaged. Critiquing systems of power within the framework of the university’s policies, Fluke remarked: “When you let university administrators or other employers, rather than women and their doctors, dictate whose medical needs are legitimate and whose aren’t, a woman’s health takes a back seat to a bureaucracy focused on policing her body.”
Through a series of personal anecdotes and emotionally charged pleas, Fluke presented herself as a voice for the voiceless, speaking on behalf of the faceless women whose stories were discredited and unheard. Poised, intelligent, and witty, she quipped that a colleague of hers seeking contraception was “denied repeatedly on the assumption that she really wanted the birth control to prevent pregnancy. She’s gay, so clearly polycystic ovarian syndrome was a much more urgent concern than accidental pregnancy.” Sandra Fluke stood before members of Congress with the backing of the heartfelt, tragic stories of her fellow female law students, who were denied access to healthcare on the basis of religious beliefs many of them did not even share.
PALM BEACH, FL — A few days after Fluke’s congressional testimony, the news of “sex crazed” female college students seeking subsidized contraception reached the conservative news airwaves. From the shadows of his broadcasting studio, “America’s Anchor,” Rush Limbaugh, caught wind.4 Forever cementing himself in talk show history, Limbaugh retorted, “What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford contraception.” In a subsequent broadcast, Limbaugh added that if the American people were going to “pay for her to have sex,” they (he) wanted something from it: videos. Inspiring a national frenzy, even Republican politicians condemned Limbaugh’s inappropriate remarks, and President Barack Obama reached out to Sandra Fluke personally.
Fluke’s subsequent critique of Limbaugh’s slut-shaming rhetoric, and general misunderstanding of the logistics of birth control, spurred her meteoric rise to fame as a politically involved feminist who would not accept the coerced apologies of a conservative talk show icon. The call from President Obama, in which he reassured her of his commitment to the legal protection of women’s rights, rendered Fluke a highly visible supporter of Obama’s reelection campaign, and a keynote speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Within months, Sandra Fluke went from a nondescript Georgetown Law student to a feminist hero. But the question on everyone’s mind was: could Rush Limbaugh take the credit?
SACRAMENTO, CA — “No,” Fluke says. “But exposure is important because it lets us shine a light on important issues we need to be talking about.” Fluke capitalized on her exposure, crossing over to formal politics from her background in law and reproductive justice. In 2014, Fluke made a run for the California State Senate promising to break up the Sacramento stalemate and offer a fresh perspective. While ultimately losing the race to fellow Democrat Ben Allen, Fluke continues to put forth a new angle that has not been produced by the political machine. At 34 years old, Fluke simply has not been alive long enough to be a career politician. She sees this as an advantage, noting: “I have not come up through the traditional party structure, and am not beholden to special interests in some of the same ways that others are.”
A large part of Fluke’s bid for the California State Senate was informed by her experience in feminist and LGBTQ activism, and her acknowledgement of the potential for progressive, LGBTQ-oriented legislation. “It’s really incumbent upon us to find the areas in which we can invest in social and community services through some of the most trusted partners and providers that the LGBTQ community looks to for services, support, and counseling.” In her presentation of herself as a viable politician, Fluke relies upon her experience organizing on behalf of marginalized groups and communities. While living in New York, Fluke co-founded the New York Statewide Coalition for Fair Access to Family Court, which advocates for legislation that protects unmarried survivors of domestic abuse, focusing particularly on LGBTQ youth. While at Georgetown, she personally represented many domestic abuse and human trafficking survivors, establishing her as a highly capable and socially conscious attorney. Fluke’s story of activist-turned-politician, and how one congressional testimony enabled her to apply her activist background to her position as a political hopeful, brought reproductive health and gender politics to the forefront once again.
As a woman with her eye on public office, Fluke’s political awareness is intrinsically tied to politics of gender. With one of the lowest rates of female representation in politics globally, the United States has a lot of explaining to do. What does it mean to fiercely represent democracy, yet deny the full representation of women in politics? Fluke addresses the masculinist atmosphere of formal politics, and the obvious contradiction of a group of men making choices about female reproductive health. The “no uterus, no opinion” slogan comes to mind, and she laughs before adding, “There are rooms in which women’s voices are not being heard. We see instances like the five men testifying on an aspect of women’s health, and it becomes very clear what the impact is of not having women in elected office.” The ripple effect of a lack of women in positions of power is visible in what gets prioritized in state and federal budgets. Thus, the lack of female representation in politics affects laypeople and politicians alike; decisions are made about women’s bodies and life structures without their knowledge or presence. For Sandra Fluke, this is the ultimate expression of gender inequality in politics.
Well documented in any election, a female candidate’s every move and out-of-place hair often defines her viability as a political leader. For some, the reward of holding a public office hardly seems worth the onslaught of criticism. Is it worth it? Fluke claims, “There are a number of things we can do as states and individual communities to encourage women to run for office and help them win their races.” Emerge California, an organization for which Fluke serves on the board, prepares women to run for elected office. At the core of the organization, a training program prepares women to run for office while also meeting their intersectional needs as women and political candidates. “We need to make sure that we are contributing to races in which women are candidates, because the research shows that fundraising can be more challenging for women candidates, and donors tend to give less statistically.” The fear of many contemporary feminists interested in politics is that if an increase in female representation in politics does not occur, the advancements in women’s rights over the past several decades will be effectively nullified.
As exhibited in the permutations of “I won’t vote for Hillary Clinton just because we’re both women,” however, Fluke complicates her advocacy for increased female political representation. Alone, this will not solve the problem. “We need to think about which candidates we support, not only around gender, but also around sexual orientation, racial identity, immigration and class status, all of the aspects of diversity that are important to have represented within our government.” Fluke places the onus both on elected officials and voters to encourage representations of diversity, and to understand gender as one component among many that will lead to the diversification of United States politics.
A key component of Sandra Fluke’s 2014 California State Senate bid was her social media presence, an aspect of her public persona that continues to shape her contemporary work as a social justice attorney. While largely using her personal Twitter account in 2014 to disseminate information about her campaign, a quick visit to Fluke’s account today shows an invested human rights advocate and social justice crusader, supporting Planned Parenthood and the upcoming Supreme Court decision on abortion access. From her time as a Georgetown Law student to her rise to public attention and eventual run for the California State Senate, Fluke’s virtual persona has been a key factor in her success. She states that her social media presence allowed her to reach beyond her specific State Senate campaign to address issues that affect individual communities and the nation as a whole.
The development of Sandra Fluke’s public persona in the 2014 State Senate race contributed to her present day position as a leading voice in feminist politics, at the forefront of progressive economic and social change. For Fluke, the usefulness of organized politics lies in its ability to effect change in the lived experiences of everyday people. To those concerned that she may be a one trick, reproductive rights pony, she assures them that she’s a feminist onion with layers: “I think one of the earliest pieces of legislation I worked on was an LGBTQ rights bill around access to family court. I’ve also worked on immigration issues, labor issues, and public assistance, so there is a wide range of policy issues that I have worked on in addition to those I am best known for.” Currently based in Los Angeles, Fluke continues to provide a voice to those whom mainstream politics tends to silence. Rush Limbaugh may have uttered the fighting words, but Sandra Fluke has the last laugh: and she does not plan to quiet down any time soon.