After women's health advocate Sandra Fluke delivered a speech about reproductive freedom in a primetime slot at the Democratic National Convention in September, a number of prominent conservatives, many of whom are women, attacked her with sexist, personal insults. "Feminism weeps as Fluke and other DNC women get on their metaphorical knees to beg for government to take care of them," tweeted conservative MSNBC host S.E. Cupp, just after commentator Ann Coulter tweeted, "Bill Clinton just impregnated Sandra Fluke backstage."
A month later, as Fluke relaxed on an Obama for America bus Tuesday afternoon, she took a few minutes to reflect on the fact that some Republicans can't stop insulting her.
"I've read some of it, but not all of it. Much of it is just as sexist and as problematic as some of the things we saw earlier in the year," she said in a phone interview with The Huffington Post, referring to the incident in which Rush Limbaugh called her a "slut" on his radio show because she advocates for contraception coverage. "It can be frustrating. I certainly don't want to be a polarizing figure, and I don't try to say things that are polarizing -- I just try to say why these are important to my generation and to me, and evidently that's upsetting for some people to hear."
The slurs that are coming from women, she said, are particularly disappointing to her.
"I think, unfortunately, that women are not immune from being sexist or misogynistic," she said, "in the same way that being a person of color doesnt mean you're not racist. It's unfortunate, and I wish women would stand with each other. I certainly try to stand with other women whether I agree with them politically or not, because when we have a lot of these strong public voices attacking someone personally in this way, it gives everyone else in society permission to do that as well."
Despite the personal insults, Fluke said the attacks that frustrate her the most are the ones that mischaracterize what she is advocating. When she attended a congressional hearing on the contraception mandate, she was planning to testify on behalf of a fellow law student who needed the birth control pill to alleviate her ovarian cysts, but couldn't afford it because the school didn't cover it in its student plan. But Fluke's conservative opponents have characterized her as the poster child for government dependency and accused her of wanting taxpayers to pay her to have sex.
"Think about this, a 31, 32-year-old law student who has been a student for life, who gets up there in front of a national audience and tells the American people, 'I want America to pay for my contraceptives,'" Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) said at a campaign event. "You're kidding me. Go get a job. Go get a job, Sandra Fluke."
Fluke said the argument that contraception coverage is about taxpayer funding is "factually incorrect and designed to mislead people."
"I of course do support programs like Title X, but I think people need to be honest during political debates about what's being discussed," she said. "The attacks about the 'entitlement generation' are really insulting, and also are just a real mischaracterization of what's at stake. I don't think policies that help people have affordable access to health care and things like Pell grants and financial aid are about young people feeling like they're owed something. It's about our vision of the country as one in which we help each other."
Fluke is currently on a busy campaign tour in support of President Barack Obama and various congressional candidates, but she says she's not a pawn of the Democratic Party. "I'm working for these candidates as a way of advancing these policies and concerns," she said. "I look at their records in meticulous detail, much to the chagrin of folks who are trying to get everything scheduled, because it takes me a while to agree to put my name on someone. I pick and choose carefully, and then I can feel more confident telling people that this is someone I believe in."
Candidates have begun to listen to her on particular issues of concern, she said, and she is beginning to take a broader political advocacy role at her campaign events. For instance, in Florida this past weekend, she talked to four Democratic congressional candidates, Lois Frankel, Patrick Murphy, Val Demings and Keith Fitzgerald, about Amendment 6, a state ballot measure that would limit women's abortion rights, and about policies that could help trafficking victims.
As for whether she'll eventually run for office, like many speculate that she will, Fluke reiterated that she hasn't made a decision yet. "It's something I would think about," she said. "It's becoming very clear to me that we need more young women in office and that running for office is one of the ways we can advance issues, but it's not what I'm focused on right now."
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Eric Fehrnstrom, senior campaign adviser for Mitt Romney, <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2012/06/03/494238/fehrnstrom-shiny-objects-women/" target="_hplink">said on Sunday</a> that issues pertaining to women's reproductive rights, such as abortion and birth control, were "shiny objects" meant to distract voters from the real issues. "Mitt Romney is pro-life," he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "He'll govern as a pro-life president, but you're going to see the Democrats use all sorts of shiny objects to distract people's attention from the Obama performance on the economy. This is not a social issue election."
The Senate will vote Thursday on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would expand and strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and make it illegal for employers to punish women for bringing up pay disparity issues. Dana Perino, a Fox News contributor and former press secretary for President George W. Bush, <a href="http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/04/30/perino-equal-pay-issue-is-a-distraction-for-just-48-hours/" target="_hplink">called the equal pay issue</a> "a distraction" from the country's real financial problems last week. "Well, it's just yet another distraction of dealing with the major financial issues that the country should be dealing with," Perino said. "This is not a job creator."
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Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose home state's legislature recently defunded Planned Parenthood and voted to pass a bill that would allow employers to deny women birth control coverage, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/26/john-mccain-war-on-women_n_1455591.html" target="_hplink">delivered a floor speech</a> in which he insisted that the war on women is something imaginary for Democrats to "sputter about." "My friends, this supposed 'War on Women' or the use of similarly outlandish rhetoric by partisan operatives has two purposes, and both are purely political in their purpose and effect: The first is to distract citizens from real issues that really matter and the second is to give talking heads something to sputter about when they appear on cable television," he said.
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Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tried to trivialize concerns about the legislative "war on women" by comparing it to a "war on caterpillars." "If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we'd have problems with caterpillars," Priebus <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-04-05/priebus-says-gender-battle-as-fictonal-as-caterpillar-war.html" target="_hplink">said in an April interview</a> on Bloomberg Television. "It's a fiction."
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Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Sarah Steelman (R) took heat from her opponents in May when she contended that Democratic lawmakers' focus on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act was "a distraction" from the issues they should be dealing with instead. "I think it's unfortunate that the Democrats have made a political football out of this thing, which I think is what they keep doing to distract from real problems that are facing our nation," she said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio.
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South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) defended the Republican Party in April for going after insurance coverage for contraception by arguing that women don't actually care about contraception. "Women don't care about contraception," she said on ABC's The View. "They care about jobs and the economy and raising their families and all those other things."