For Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who unwittingly stepped into the national spotlight when she argued the case for contraception coverage in front of Congress and was called a "slut" by Rush Limbaugh for her effort, the talk show host's slur wasn't only an insult. It was also an opportunity.
"One of the things I was really concerned about when [Limbaugh's] verbal attacks began was what kind of message this was going to send to young women," Fluke said to a packed audience of mostly women at the 92nd St. Y Wednesday night.
"I was worried they would think, 'I should sit down and shut up, because if I speak out, this is what happens' ... I want women to see this as an empowering moment."
It certainly has been for Fluke. In the month since Limbaugh uttered that now-infamous slur, which came during one of several long rants about Fluke on his show, her name has become practically synonymous with the renewed fight for contraceptive coverage.
But despite her only recent introduction to fame, Fluke seemed at ease as she joined a panel of politically minded women more familiar with the spotlight: Chelsea Clinton; New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn; Nicolle Wallace, a former aide to George W. Bush and strategist to John McCain, Abby Huntsman Livingston, daughter of former Utah governor and recent presidential candidate Jon Huntsman; Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY'S List; and news anchor Amy Holmes all spoke on the Wednesday night panel. The event was co-hosted by Glamour magazine and titled "Running in Heels" (there were, for the record, one pair of peep-toes, one pair of flats, and three classic pairs of pumps, an ankle boot and a medical bootie).
The women discussed what Fluke called "the other F word -- Feminism," and what it would take to get more women to become involved in politics.
The term "running for office" is actually part of the problem, Wallace argued. It implies competition, which many women are primed to avoid.
"If you were asked, 'Will you serve?' you'd say, 'Of course!'" Wallace said.
"Part of the problem is that our politics are so sick -- there's very little young women see in our news about the essence of what the office once was, which is, public service."
Maybe that's part of the public disapproval Fluke says she felt when she mentioned that she may, someday, run for a seat herself.
"I said something totally noncommittal like 'someday, maybe I will' -- and that was a terrible thing to say, evidently, that was portrayed negatively in a lot of press," Fluke said.
"We have to stop saying it's a bad thing for a woman to say they want to do that."
Fluke also noted that women need to be careful not to pigeonhole themselves in specific government roles. When conversation turned to the relatively large number of females who have served as secretaries of state, compared to other cabinet positions, the panelists agreed women share special skills for negotiation and peace-keeping.
"Women are wired to not only appreciate but relish the incremental changes [in peacekeeping]," Wallace said, "but to pull out and maximize the areas where you can agree."
"Maybe I'm the troublemaker on the stage tonight…" Fluke said, in what wasn't her first moment gently pushing back on panel consensus.
"I agree women are socialized differently, and we come with a different set of skills and priorities -- but I think we have to be careful [saying] that women should run for office because we are special in this or that way, because that limits us," Fluke said, noting that a female secretary of defense shouldn't be out of the realm of believability because of a perception that women are only emotional and collaborative. "Women can also be tough."
Part of that toughness needs to be standing up to the recent wave of lawmakers attempting to legislate contraception coverage and use, Wallace said. But during the 2012 election, that sort of pushback might end up happening in the voting booths.
"Women don't vote in a bloc, but they are the largest percentage of independent voters," Wallace said, noting Santorum's stance on birth control will likely damage his chances with the single female independents -- so-called "swingles."
"We don't know the harm that has been done [to the GOP's chances of a presidential nomination] -- we won't know until the votes are counted for 2012."
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