An hour before her live Q&A with the Huffington Post, Sandra Fluke met with me at a Starbuck's (even though she doesn't drink coffee) to talk about her campaign to empower women.
The contraception debate and Rush Limbaugh's personal insults are what placed Fluke in the spotlight, and her concerns are not over. The Affordable Health Choices Act requires all university health care plans to provide free contraception starting in August 2012. But religiously affiliated universities are allowed to request a one-year delay in providing contraception -- and those requests are being made right now, often without student input.
"This is inevitable at this point -- there's no reason to deny coverage for another year and make these women wait longer when they have real medical needs right now," Fluke said, who goes to a Georgetown Law -- a university affiliated with the Catholic Church. She encourages students to find out what decisions their administrations are making, and take action to make sure contraception is on the agenda. "Students will soon become engulfed in finals, so the time for action is today."
But Fluke is also using her media spotlight to highlight a number of other issues that women in America are facing today -- continuing a century-long struggle that Margaret Sanger began in the 1910's.
Sanger, who was one of eleven children, devoted her life to legalizing birth control, beginning her advocacy during a time when women did not even have the right to vote. Although birth control prevented unwanted pregnancies, Sanger was concerned with the health risks associated with many womens' self-conducted abortions (often leading to illness or death). Of women who aborted their own pregnancies, 76 percent faced health complications.
In 1921, after years of opposition and getting herself arrested for providing contraception illegally, she founded the American Birth Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood. But although Sanger can be criticized for some of her other political positions, Fluke says the women's activist started a war for justice that women are still fighting today.
"I'm not sure it's even a different battle, it's just an ongoing one," Fluke said. "Clearly, Ms. Sanger lived in a different time and not all of her positions are ones that I would agree with, but she was definitely a pioneer in thinking about women's reproductive health and needs and standing up for them."
Particularly important to Fluke is the Violence Against Women Act - a bill that is up for reauthorization this year. Some members of Congress are attempting to make the services that the bill gives to victim's of sexual assault less available to women, by lowering the age group that services are available to (including counseling, legal aid, victim programs, and funding for rape crisis centers, and protections for victims of domestic violence).
"Domestic violence is still rampant in our country and that's unacceptable in the type of industrialized wealth country that we have," Fluke said. "I'm hoping that young women will contact their senators about that. What we need is for Senator Harry Reid to bring the bill to the floor for a vote as soon as the Senate gets back in session in April."
What disappointments Fluke is that the bill, which has been around since 1994, is causing bipartisanship in Congress, with conservatives fighting against expanding the budget for domestic violence programs. The new version of the bill would increase free legal assistance to victims of domestic violence, include women who are victims of stalking, and increase coverage to include illegal immigrants and same-sex couples.
Another cause that Fluke, who is unsure about her own post-graduation plans, is taking up: bringing more women into politics. Currently, women make up only 17 percent of Congress, and Fluke thinks this number should be closer to 50.
"If we had equal representation in government, we'd pay more attention to the issues that affect women," she said. But those women who do make it into powerful political positions are the ones that Fluke admires.
"Women who are in powerful political positions are real role models for us and I'd love to see more and more women going in that direction," she said.
Her own role model? Sandra Day O'Conner, the first female member of the US Supreme Court.
"She was the first woman on the Supreme Court and she had the same first name that I did," Fluke said, remembering her childhood heroes. "I thought that was just really cool when I was really little. She went on the court in 1981, and I was born in 1981, so when I was little that was a pretty big deal - it's still a pretty big deal."
Although rumors about Fluke running for office have been spread by the media, one thing is clear: she will continue to fight for women's issues.
"There are so many issues, and to assume as a generation that the work has been done for us and we can just move on without engaging on those issues is just absolutely wrong," she said, before rushing to her Live Q&A with the Huffington Post.
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