UPDATE, February 5, 9:35 a.m.: According to news reports, Sandra Fluke has announced she will not seek a congressional seat, but instead will run for state senate.
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Reproductive rights advocate Sandra Fluke has filed to run in the California Democratic primary to fill the seat that will be vacated by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA). This is an important moment in women’s history.
Fluke came to national prominence in 2012 after Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) denied her the opportunity to testify on a hearing he convened on the topic of contraception and religious liberty, claiming that Fluke was not a member of the clergy and therefore not qualified to speak on those topics. In response, women’s rights advocates widely circulated an image of five men sitting on the first panel during that hearing, along with a now-familiar question leveled against House Republicans: “Where are the women?”
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Ultimately, House Democrats held an unofficial hearing where Fluke, at the time a Georgetown University law student, gave testimony discussing the difficulties encountered by students denied contraceptive coverage through the Catholic university’s health plan.
In response, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh went on multiple hate speech-filled tirades, calling Fluke a slut, a prostitute, and ultimately saying taxpayers were owed an online video of Fluke having sex: “If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, 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 response, Fluke issued a classy statement naming the problem and refusing to back down from her advocacy on the issue of discrimination against reproductive health care for women. She said, in part:
This language is an attack on all women, and has been used throughout history to silence our voices. The millions of American women who have and will continue to speak out in support of women’s health care and access to contraception prove that we will not be silenced.
Since then, Fluke has graduated from law school, moved to California, and continued to advocate on a range of liberal issues, especially reproductive health. She gave a speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention that highlighted the importance of that election to women’s rights and women’s history. In that speech, she cemented her role as not just an advocate, but a symbol for what other women’s rights advocates, and especially feminists of a new generation, can and must achieve.
The push-back against Fluke has been strong, and persistent, and it promises to grow only louder now that she is taking steps to run for Waxman’s seat.
One reason why the right wing hates her so much is that she is the person who is most strongly associated with providing an alternative voice to a backward, anti-modern, anti-woman—to say nothing of overwhelmingly old, white, and male—Republican party that truly can not handle a young, liberal woman taking up space in the public sphere on issues that directly affect her.
Right-wingers want to say things about young women and shame them out of the conversation. Fluke has taken that narrative and disrupted it, to the point of public advocacy and now taking the risks that come with what will surely be a contested political primary in a congressional district that overlaps with a highly competitive Los Angeles Democratic machine.
Fluke is 32 years old, and her potential candidacy sends a message that young women will not shut up and be cowed. Within the pro-choice movement, it sends a message that young women will not just serve supporting roles in the political process, but will help make the rules in the primary institutions of power themselves. Her actions are not limiting, and do not suggest that only one white, privileged young woman with a law degree should be eligible to serve as a voice for feminism in the most powerful corridors. A Fluke candidacy may urge other young women to respond to an endless barrage of attacks on our economic, human, and reproductive rights with the most direct possible attempt at seizing power: running for public office.
When men fill more than four out of five seats in Congress, it’s time for more left-leaning women, including young women, to follow Fluke’s lead and hop to it. Congress is not run by women, and it certainly will not be run by women who plan to wait patiently for their turns.