March 9, 2012

Like so many others, I was appalled by Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, whose brave testimony about the need for birth control coverage led to his characterization of her as a “slut” and a “prostitute.” But I’ve watched this debacle unfold with multiple perspectives as an insider. I’m a woman, a Washingtonian and a U.S. citizen interested in maintaining that delicate separation of church and state. And I’m also a women’s studies professor. At Georgetown University.

My home campus is George Washington University, but since 1996 I’ve taught part time at Georgetown, too: one class every semester. I teach material that includes the history of reproductive rights and U.S. feminism. How’s that received, at a Jesuit campus? Answer: In the classroom, and on my teaching evaluations, there’s no problem at all. Georgetown students are just as interested, appreciative and respectful as those in my GWU classes. I respect their views, too, of course; the level of civility in our discourse couldn’t be higher.

On the other hand, since (A) I don’t need birth control and (B), if I did, it would be covered by my GWU benefits, I’m not affected personally by Georgetown’s policies toward its students and workers. But I am affected personally, in every nerve of my body, by Limbaugh’s name-calling.

As a women’s studies professor, I deal every day with how words such as “slut” — and a lack of access to contraception — affect the young women I mentor. That we’re returning to this sort of mentality, akin to stoning the female non-virgins among us, with the attendant double-standard for sexually active young men, is as frightening a parallel to Taliban-style intimidation of women as anything I’ve seen in a while. We seem to be suffering historical amnesia toward all that women fought to overcome in our culture. Even as I write this, my students are wrapping up midterm essays on how until very recently the control of women’s “good reputation” — calling them immodest and unchaste — limited opportunities for girls outside the home.

Or at least I thought it was until very recently. Are we crawling back in time? In his vitriol, Limbaugh asserted that basic health care for women amounts to paying them to have sex. That kind of rhetoric will never lead to compromise and understanding. But there is middle ground if we look for it. Even at a Jesuit school like Georgetown, the pro-life position should be flexible enough to grasp that the pill is also prescribed for serious medical conditions, including the sort of irregular bleeding and other uterine problems that can keep students (and faculty) out of class for weeks.

But the larger point is that an attack on any young woman’s reputation feels like a personal attack on all women who are, in this bizarre historical moment, once again being forced to stand before the judgment of Great Men.

Twenty years ago, when Anita Hill had her reputation impugned before an entirely male committee, quite a few women were sufficiently enraged to run for Congress. And many won, thanks to female constituents who said: Enough. That’s the kind of statement that needs to be made again. When one of us is bullied, all of us are bullied.

Yeah, it’s personal.

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