Rush Limbaugh, conservative radio talk show host, attempted to silence women’s voices in the public square through sexual shaming. The early church did the same thing to Mary Magdalene, sexually shaming her in the 6th century, mistakenly calling her a prostitute, and effectively undercutting her spiritual authority.
But today, women are not Mary Magdalene, demeaned by church authority and made into the poster woman for the repentant prostitute. Today, women have fought back against Limbaugh’s sexual shaming and they are winning.
After Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student and articulate spokeswoman for women’s reproductive health care, a “slut” and a “prostitute,” and then worse, a growing firestorm of social media driven protest pushed many of Limbaugh’s advertisers away; Limbaugh has been dropped by at least seven advertisers at last count. A Facebook page has been leading the boycott, and the Twitter hashtag, #StandwithSandra, is increasing in use.
Republican strategists, speaking anonymously out of fear of Rush’s power, have pointed to how his sexual shaming strategies “hurt Republicans.”
Indeed, Republicans are probably losing a generation of young women and men who are appalled by this sexually demeaning attack on women.
The rapid Internet driven protest, and perhaps even more, the advertisers pulling out, has prompted an “apology” of sorts from Rush Limbaugh. The “apology,” however, included Limbaugh’s insistence that the birth control debate is about “personal sexual recreational activities,” not health care, and he compared contraception to sneakers.
Some advertisers aren’t buying it. Both ProFlowers and Carbonite dropped their advertising on Limbaugh’s program after the apology. Carbonite CEO David Friend posted this message on Facebook:
“No one with daughters the age of Sandra Fluke, and I have two, could possibly abide the insult and abuse heaped upon this courageous and well-intentioned young lady. Mr. Limbaugh, with his highly personal attacks on Miss Fluke, overstepped any reasonable bounds of decency. Even though Mr. Limbaugh has now issued an apology, we have nonetheless decided to withdraw our advertising from his show. We hope that our action, along with the other advertisers who have already withdrawn their ads, will ultimately contribute to a more civilized public discourse.”
Unlike what happened to Mary Magdalene, this time the attacks on women’s authority in the public square through sexual shaming didn’t work. The advent of new media, and especially social media, means women’s voices can retain and even gain authority in the face of attack.
Limbaugh ought to have paid more attention to what modern media like film did for Mary Magdalene. “The Da Vinci Code,” both the book by Dan Brown and the film based on it, has pretty much restored Mary Magdalene’s reputation as a wealthy woman and a leading supporter of Jesus of Nazareth. She was last at the cross and first at the tomb; Jesus appeared to her after his resurrection and she gained Apostolic authority in the years after Jesus’ death that rivaled even Peter. The fictional account by Dan Brown does add some non-biblical innovations, as readers and film-goers know, but the counter-narrative on Mary Magdalene has been effective.
More seriously, the Gospel of Mary, written in the second century C.E. and discovered in the 19th century, has been given scholarly attention in the 21h century. Karen L. King, in her wonderful work, “The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle,” examines this incredible text. This long lost Gospel exposes the lie that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute, and presents a convincing argument for women’s religious leadership in the early church. It is also a “sharp critique” of illegitimate power and a vision for spiritual growth. And all of this is written in the name of a woman.
Mary Magdalene had to wait almost 1500 years for her sexual shaming to be ended by new media, and then by rigorous religious scholarship.
Not now. This time, the end to the sexually demeaning attacks on women’s public authority by the likes of Rush Limbaugh takes only days, not centuries.
Somewhere I have to feel Mary Magdalene still has this message for Rush Limbaugh: Your apology was nowhere near adequate. Stop trying to sexually shame women. We won’t stand for it any more.
PS: Do read the Gospel of Mary. It’s very illuminating, especially given our times.
An On Faith panelist and former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.