More than a Fluke

Social justice, women’s rights advocate Sandra Fluke, famous for being a target of Rush Limbaugh, comes to T.O.

By Michael Sullivan 09/05/2013

Not everyone who testifies (or at least aims to tesifty) before Congress makes national headlines. But Sandra Fluke, then a 30-year-old student at Georgetown University Law Center in 2012, saw a fundamental need in her community for contraception to be covered by private health insurance since the cost of birth control created a financial hardship for women who needed it. And so she headed to Congress in February 2012 to testify, only to be denied such an opportunity by Republican Congressmen. She later testified before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. It was at that time that conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh decided to put her sex life in the spotlight of public scrutiny, referring to her as a slut and a prostitute. It was surely a nasty tirade, one that led to many of his advertisers dropping him. Later, in July 2013, it was announced that Cumulus Media would not be renewing his contract due to renewal costs — which may just be half the truth. Whatever the case may be, Fluke found herself with a golden opportunity to advocate for women’s rights as well as other important issues despite all of the negative she had experienced with Limbaugh.

Now an attorney, Fluke continues the fight for women’s rights, currently taking on California’s family cap on public assistance as well as number of other civil rights issues. She’s a straight shooter, knows what she is talking about, and her efforts in advocating for social justice are well-thought out. She spoke with the VCReporter as a prelude to her upcoming visit as the keynote speaker at the Democratic Club of the Conejo Valley’s 11th Annual Garden Party, Saturday, Sept. 7, at the Thousand Oaks Inn, 75 W. Thousand Oaks Blvd., beginning at noon.

What originally compelled you to go to D.C. to testify on the issue of requiring insurance plans to cover birth control?
I was organizing on my campus at Georgetown law school and was seeing this was an issue impacting in my community. And so that’s why, as a community, we began organizing around the issue that led me to testifying before members of Congress. But now I am going to be doing something very similar, which is working on some issues that affect folks here in Southern California and working on domestic workers’ bill of rights, as well as repeal of the family cap on public assistance and some other priorities, but for me it’s always about seeing who is impacted in the community and helping to mobilize that community.

What was your feeling at that time when Republican congressmen refused to allow you to testify?
We had seen this as one example happening; we had seen this as a problem with our elected officials, shutting out the voices of those who are most directly impacted by these types of policies. That’s why I am now focusing on making sure we have elected officials that really represent the communities, and I am doing that in a couple of ways. One is by campaigning for a variety of progressive champions last year and I have helped to elect over a dozen folks to Congress who have been doing good work since then. Now I am on the board of Emerge California and we train women to run for elected office, and working with an organization called Close the Gap as well, to make sure we get to 50/50 parity for women in elected office in California. Right now we are only at about 26 percent in our state legislature and 19th in the country. California really shouldn’t be 19th in the country on having women in elected office. A lot of us don’t think about where we are and don’t realize that we have quite a challenge in that respect. So it’s making sure we get these voices into office. It makes a big difference.

You became an overnight sensation when Rush Limbaugh put your sex life in the spotlight, plus the aftermath. How did that make you feel?

My reaction to it has been to think about this about how is this, an opportunity to talk about things that are important. We spend a lot of time working on issues that are critically important to the daily lives of people in our communities that don’t get as much press attention, so when you get that kind of a microphone, we amplify things that are critical issues, shine a light on what we are seeing in legislatures across the country.

Do you think what happened after that show revealed that more people are moving away from extreme political views? This situation may have been a catalyst in changing our views.

I hope that we are able to move away from that extreme rhetoric and toward a more productive path on our political stage but I think that it is really important that no one thinks the 2012 election solved all of the issues that we are talking about. It certainly didn’t solve the types of sexist, racist, homophobic attacks on public figures that they deal with in the media.

I am concerned about what state legislators are doing to turn back the wheels of time and limiting access to safe abortions. From what you experienced with Rush Limbaugh, it seems then it’s a shame for women not only to have sex out of wedlock but to use contraception even if you are married. I don’t understand that mindset.
I think that it’s actually similar to a lot of other issues in that what we need to do is to talk about our own personal experiences. If we look to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) movement, in the way the coming-out campaign has changed the way being gay is viewed in this country and has led to positive, progressive changes in advancing equal rights. That is what has to happen for a variety of social issues, and that includes reproductive rights. So everybody needs to have the privacy and the ability to speak in a safe space. But we have to start being more “out” about how these issues impact our daily lives because when people realize that what we are debating are the lives of our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, it changes the way we think about it rather than about some abstract stereotyped woman that we can imagine as being someone making a series of poor decisions rather than being someone we need to care about. It’s true for the reproductive rights movement. It’s true for a variety of other social justice concerns.

Is there a particular case you are working on that should be getting more media attention?
Right now, I am working on the repeal of the family cap in California. Our public assistance system has a policy that if a woman has a child while she is receiving public assistance, that child receives no benefits for their very basic needs. And that’s a policy we have had for 20 years now and it’s based on a stereotype, on the psyche of making a profit off of having another child. But people need to check their math on that. An additional child is far more expensive than the paltry amount that we give for public assistance. After 20 years, it has not impacted the birth rate in California. It has not resulted in fewer poor children. It has resulted in poorer children, so then they are even deeper in poverty because they don’t have the benefit of the very small support. But even deeper in this policy is the inherent lack of respect of reproductive choices of poor families. Now we saw recently really shocking news coverage of California prison officials who were encouraging and persuading women in prison to have sterilization procedures. And in fact, we actually have a policy on the books and it’s completely legal and known, but the state just says, if a woman wants to be able to avoid the family cap policy what she has to do is be sterilized, using an intra-uterine device or Norplant. That is the only form of contraception in family planning that the state will accept.

So basically if she has a child while having an IUD, that’s acceptable.
She will be able to have benefits for that child, but those are the most invasive, expensive and long-lasting forms of contraception for not allowing for families to make their own choices about how many children they want to have and when, or even about their reproductive health care, about how to plan those families. That’s not right. If we are going to be a state that stands up for reproductive rights and stand up for a woman’s choice to not have a child, then we need to stand up for our choice to have a child. Every family, every individual needs to have information and empowerment to be making those choices deliberately and intentionally. 

Sandra Fluke will be the keynote speaker at the Democratic Club of the Conejo Valley’s 11th Annual Garden Party, Saturday, Sept. 7, at the Thousand Oaks Inn, 75 W. Thousand Oaks Blvd., beginning at noon.



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