By Cottle, Michelle
Newsweek , Vol. 159, No. 22
Byline: Michelle Cottle
How Sandra Fluke turned a sexist slur into a feminist battle cry.
So what's the worst part of having the nation's most famous radio personality call you a "slut" and suddenly finding yourself a lightning rod for the inchoate rage of the conservative blogosphere?
For Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown Law student who, after testifying in February before House Democrats on the subject of reproductive rights, found herself under assault by Rush Limbaugh, the "low point" may have been when she had to call and warn her parents about the political hurricane she'd been swept up in.
"It was hard," recalled Fluke over breakfast last week in Washington, D.C. Her brown eyes turn serious and her open, makeup-free face looks far younger than her 31 years. "I don't say those words to my parents."
Rush's bashing of Fluke was rough even by the caustic commentator's standards. The public outcry (and the decision by several advertisers to pull their spots from the show) prompted Limbaugh to issue a rare public apology. His critics have called on him to go further and personally reach out to Fluke. This idea fills her with horror. "The personal attacks were personal enough that I don't ever care to hear from him," she says. (Limbaugh's office declined to comment).
Even before Rush jumped into the fray, however, right-wing websites had made Fluke the subject of countless conspiracy theories, many revolving around the idea that she is a Democratic operative dispatched to bait conservatives into a public fight--a suspicion fueled by Fluke's being taken on as a pro bono client by the PR firm run by former White House communications director Anita Dunn. Her favorite loony rumor? "That I changed my last name to Fluke, which means a random occurrence, to make it seem less like the administration and Democrats had planted me." She smiles wryly, "So what was my last name before? 'Left-Wing Conspiracy?'"
Jokes aside, Fluke has endured enough partisan vitriol to unnerve the most grizzled political veteran. "There were things that were frightening about it. There have been some security concerns," she acknowledges hesitantly. Asked about threats, Fluke demurs, "I shouldn't go too far into that." She then adds brightly, "I'm OK. How's that?"
By some measurements, Fluke is far more than "OK." While demonized in certain quarters, she has emerged as a hero to women's-rights advocates and many Democratic lawmakers. "She is an extraordinary person," gushes New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, one of the members before whom Fluke spoke. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand agrees, "Sandra Fluke personifies what my Off the Sidelines campaign has been about--a call to action for all women to be become engaged in the political debate."
An overnight celebrity, Fluke has been deluged with speaking invitations and pleas to appear on political panels and at fundraisers. In late March, she attended Glamour's Running in Heels event, alongside political celebs like Chelsea Clinton, Abby Huntsman, and EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock. A late addition to the Women's Campaign Fund's April fundraising gala, Fluke was the star of the show, says WCF President Siobhan "Sam" Bennett. "As soon as she said, 'Hi, I'm Sandra Fluke,'" recalls Bennett, "the place went wild." Multiple Democrats have reached out personally to Fluke, most notably President Obama, who phoned her in early March. Many in Washington are already drooling at the possibility of her one day running for office--despite the fact that Fluke graduated from law school just this month. "I think she has arrived and that she is staying," asserts Bennett, who delights in having introduced Fluke at the gala as a future U.S. senator.
Fluke, raised in rural Pennsylvania, is an unlikely feminist icon. Her mom is a school guidance counselor; her father is a tool-and-die maker who became a part-time Methodist minister when Sandra was in college. …