Whatever Rush Limbaugh’s motives were when he maligned Sandra Fluke ’03 on Leap Year Day 2012, he probably wasn’t aiming to launch her career in progressive politics. But when Limbaugh called her a “slut” and a “prostitute,” he made her a feminist heroine.
The Georgetown law student had gone before a Democratic congressional committee to support access to birth control—arguing that her school, a Jesuit institution, should not be religiously exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s coverage mandates. “So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal,” Limbaugh added on March 1. “If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”
In the wake of Limbaugh’s tirades, President Barack Obama called Fluke to express his support—an experience she describes as “surreal.” The former Human Ecology student went on to address the 2012 Democratic National Convention and represent the President on the campaign trail. After graduating from Georgetown cum laude, passing the California bar, and practicing public interest law, Fluke was widely expected to run for retiring Rep. Henry Waxman’s seat in Congress. Instead, she’s aiming for the California State Senate’s 26th District, a primarily coastal strip that includes Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica. The race has grown crowded, with more than a half-dozen candidates vying to finish in the top two in the June primary. Regardless of party, those candidates will face off in the November election.
Fluke grew up in rural Pennsylvania, in a region that was economically challenged—and politically conservative. On the Hill, she double majored in policy analysis and management and in feminist, gender, and sexuality studies. She was heavily involved in student activism for liberal causes, starting with a protest march against the Iraq war. “My family is still scratching their heads as to how I came about,” she says with a laugh. “What went wrong?”
Cornell Alumni Magazine: When you took such a public stand on the birth control issue, did you have any idea of what you were in for?
Sandra Fluke: Of course not. But I wouldn’t do it differently, because I believe we all have a responsibility to stand up and fight, to speak up when we see something that’s wrong. Some of us get the strange opportunity to do that in a more public way.
CAM: Practically overnight, you went from a being a student at a top law school to being branded—there’s no nice way of saying it—a whore in the conservative media. How did you stand it?
SF: By understanding what was really going on. The personal attacks had nothing to do with me; those people didn’t even know me. The attacks were about young women speaking out about reproductive justice. It’s a pathetic play from a really old playbook.
CAM: Being vilified like that would’ve made a lot of us want to hide with the curtains drawn.
SF: I was not going to allow young girls to come away with the impression that they shouldn’t step forward, shouldn’t speak up in class, shouldn’t raise their voices because they could be attacked. There are a lot of communities in this country that people attempt to silence on a regular basis—not just women but immigrants, people of color, LGBT folks, poor folks—and I was determined to show that you don’t have to go away quietly. If you stand up, a lot of people will stand with you.
CAM: During the birth control debate, some pundits wondered why you’d gone to a Jesuit school in the first place. So why did you?
SF: I felt that Georgetown was the best school for me because of its amazing public interest law program, and I was accepted into a specialized public interest fellowship there. I wasn’t willing to give up those educational opportunities because of their insurance policy.
CAM: When it was announced that you’d gotten married [to writer-producer Adam Mutterperl], some in the media snarked, “To a man?” Did that tick you off?
SF: I don’t mind someone asking about my sexual orientation or who I’m married to. But it’s hateful when you think it’s an insult to imply that someone’s gay.
CAM: Has there been a silver lining to the media onslaught, in terms of gaining a bully pulpit?
SF: It’s never good for anyone to be verbally attacked. It was hard for a lot of people, because they felt it was also about them, not just about me. But if it gives me a microphone to speak about the issues I’ve always worked on, then it’s my responsibility to use it.
CAM: Why run for State Senate rather than Congress?
SF: I looked at both races, and the politics are tough in both. Where could I make the most change? Where could I continue the work I’ve spent my career on? In the State Senate, I can get legislation passed while D.C. is mired in gridlock. And California is a model for other states; we can have an impact that will spread across the country. A lot of folks don’t realize how important state legislatures are. Many states are going backward, not only on reproductive rights, but on issues such as gay rights and economic concerns.
CAM: How do you rate your chances?
SF: Some folks who are familiar with my national work have the impression that I’m going to walk into office, and that’s just not the case. This a tough race, and I really need folks’ support, because I’m not the candidate who is backed by corporate or insider interests. Those are the candidates who are running against me.