Sandra Fluke isn’t finished testifying
FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Sandra Fluke watches her old speeches like game tape, studying her gestures and delivery. She practices her sound bites on Twitter, sharpening arguments down to 140 characters.
Fluke has also learned to tell “slut” jokes. Given the rest of her material, audiences could use a laugh.
“Contrary to some recent rumors,” she told a crowd in this beat-down beach town, where she is endorsing Patrick Murphy, a local Democrat, for Congress, “I don’t actually support just any guy who comes up to me.”
This, she hopes, is how you excel as a culture warrior.
Fluke became an election-year celebrity seven months ago — a law student made famous by a snub in Congress and an insult on the radio. Since then, she has been a walking, talking symbol of the nation’s polarized politics, caricatured either as an oversexed whiner or as a noble casualty of the “war on women.”
The latest proof of that came Saturday night, in a debate between Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and conservative Bill O’Reilly. In his opening statement, O’Reilly used Fluke as the face of a “slacker” culture sapping the country’s vitality: “The poster person for the entitlement society is Sandra Fluke,” he said, joking that he’d left a pack of birth-control pills at will-call for her. “Sandra! Buy. Your. Own.”
“A good portion of this country has created an alternate universe,” Stewart retorted. “In which the issues that we face revolve around a woman from Georgetown,” where Fluke attended law school.
Now, Fluke is campaigning hard for Democrats. But she’s also applying her perfectionist’s tendencies to one of the hardest tricks in politics: outlasting the political moment that created her political persona.
After nine months of talking about birth control, she says, “I want to talk about a lot of other things.”
Fluke, 31, graduated from Georgetown Law School in the spring and now lives in Los Angeles with her fiance, a comedy writer. She has had job offers from social-justice groups but has accepted none. Money comes from speaker’s fees, awards, op-eds.
“I’m racking up some debt right now,” Fluke said recently, in the front seat of a car zipping down the Florida coast from one Democratic event to the other. A Democratic staffer drove. A public relations adviser sat in back, working for Fluke pro bono.
This is what Fluke (whose name rhymes with “look”) does instead. She joined a bus tour for President Obama in the Midwest last week. Coming up: California, Upstate New York, Ohio.
There could be more, Fluke said, but she turned down some Democrats she doesn’t fully agree with. She won’t say whom.
“Oh, my God!” Fluke says, imitating campaign staffers. “You actually did research about the candidate?” This is a woman who out-crammed other first year students in law school by not sleeping or changing clothes for days. She’s surprised that they’re surprised.
Every campaign season creates a few accidental, usually disposable stars. The 2008 version was Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher — now an underdog Republican candidate for Congress in Ohio.
This year, Fluke’s story has included more accidents than most. In February, she was a third-year law student at Georgetown. She wanted the school to offer health insurance that covers contraceptives, despite the Catholic Church’s religious objections.
Democrats on Capitol Hill needed a witness to say that. They found Fluke in a Google search. But instead of simply allowing other witnesses to rebut her, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) barred her from testifying at all.
His bungle made Fluke a Washington cause. Then Rush Limbaugh’s insult made her famous.
“She must be paid to have sex. What does that make her?” the conservative radio host said about Fluke on Feb. 29, erroneously saying that she wanted taxpayers, and not a private school’s insurer, to pay for contraceptives. “It makes her a slut, right?”
Limbaugh later apologized. But since then, Fluke has been living in a strange world that he created.
In it, the straight-arrow daughter of a Methodist minister — who had worked her way from small-town Pennsylvania to Georgetown Law — became famous as a byword for entitlement and sex.
That hasn’t abated, even months later. “In the past, people would be ashamed of taking such a stand. But she continues to be self-righteous about it . . . that’s what makes her funny,” said Oleg Atbashian, a Florida-based conservative whose Web site, thepeoplescube.com, came up with popular caricatures of Fluke: She’s a slot machine, she’s a belly dancer, she’s got a collection of condom wrappers.
Atbashian says he tries not to let the jokes get too sexual. But he hasn’t removed a commenter’s post that shows Fluke facing a long line of male suitors, plus a horse. “I also don’t want to limit people too much,” he said.
After Limbaugh’s remarks, Fluke got a phone message from S.R. Sidarth, a Democratic campaign tracker who then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) called “macaca.” Another came from Meghan McCain, the Republican senator’s daughter and a target of Internet ridicule.
“It’s about them,” Fluke recalled Chelsea Clinton saying when they had tea. “It’s not about you.”
Using the spotlight
Fluke’s reaction was to try to use the spotlight while she had it. She has said that, at one point, she broke down and told her fiance that she couldn’t handle an activist’s role while studying for the bar exam. Her answer to herself was: Push harder.
“You have to push through whatever that moment is that’s making you want to run and hide,” she told an audience in July. “Keep pushing through it. Because you have a responsibility.”
Since then, there have been good moments: At the Democratic National Convention, her practice paid off. Fluke had previously seemed rushed, unsmiling, joyless when she spoke in public. Now, she paused and smiled at the right times.
“Staying classy about it. She didn’t take it personally,” said Deborah Epstein, a mentor at Georgetown Law who oversaw a program where Fluke helped domestic-violence victims in the D.C. Superior Court. She’d taught her that emotions get in the way of effective lawyering. “I hope that she learned some of that from someone at this law school.”
But it is not always easy to stay level-headed and even-tempered.
On Twitter, for instance, she doesn’t always ignore attacks: When a particularly vulgar insult (“When are you gonna shut that [expletive expletive expletive expletive]?”) came in from @geotie2323, Fluke wrote back.
“The sooner u change, the sooner I can stop fighting,” Fluke wrote back.
But then her supporters swarmed. Called the man names. Called him at home. Called his work. Soon, Fluke found herself urging respect for the troll. That Twitter account has since been removed from the Web.
“When you have a big microphone,” she says now, “you have to be careful.”
On the campaign trail, also, Fluke is too much of a hard worker to simply tell and retell her own story. At a campaign event in Boca Raton, she left out much of the saga of sex, sin, the Hill and the pill that had made her famous.
Instead, she had written a specially designed speech about something far less epic. The race for Florida’s 22nd Congressional District.
“She has really presided over an economic revitalization in West Palm Beach,” Fluke said of former West Palm Beach mayor Lois Frankel (D), who is running for the seat.
A voice for choices
Fluke’s goal is not just to disappear after the election but to stay on the national stage as an independent voice.
But a voice for what, exactly? In some recent speeches, she has been an eloquent advocate for her own tribe: a generation of high-achieving women who have plunged into consuming careers and delayed starting families.
For them, Fluke has argued, the pill is not just a choice. It is a necessity, therefore must be kept cheap and easily available.
“That is absolutely essential to our ability to follow our dreams, to pursue the education we hope to achieve and to navigate a successful career path,” she said in a speech to the California delegation at the Democratic convention in Charlotte. “It is essential that we have control over our own reproduction, to have equality of opportunity.”
That could be a powerful restatement of a feminist idea: Women’s careers deserve protection from sex, just as from sexism.
Of course, there are a lot of people who don’t agree.
“I really resist the argument that a woman can’t be free and equal without a pack of pills,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List. “If we want it, we can get it [ourselves]. . . . It seems very patriarchal that we could be bought off as women voters” with contraceptives, she said.
Anyway, that’s just one fight Fluke is interested in. There are others. She also wants to help poor women who want contraceptives but can’t afford them. Online, she has also opined about locked-out NFL referees, domestic violence, child labor and the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“When you have the opportunity to do something important for what you believe in, you have a responsibility to do that,” Fluke said.
But there are so many things she believes in. “What next? What are the big ideas I can put out there? . . . Sometimes, I put a lot of pressure on myself” to figure that out, she said.