From "slut" to speaker

Sandra Fluke's unlikely journey culminates with a speech at the DNC. Why she matters

Published September 6, 2012 3:20AM (EDT)

Sandra Fluke, attorney and women's rights activist addresses the Democratic National Convention (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)     (Associated Press)
Sandra Fluke, attorney and women's rights activist addresses the Democratic National Convention (AP/J. Scott Applewhite) (Associated Press)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Here is why Sandra Fluke was onstage at the Democratic National Convention tonight -- and it's not just because so much of the week was devoted to a robust defense of reproductive rights in a bid for female voters. It's because of "Not the words I would have used," which is what Mitt Romney said when Fluke was attacked by Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators.

"Your new president could be a man who stands by when a public figure tries to silence a private citizen with hateful slurs," Fluke said tonight. "Who won’t stand up to the slurs, or to any of the extreme, bigoted voices in his own party." In other words, Romney is Limbaugh (is Akin, is Ryan). And Barack Obama is the guy who called her up and told her she was doing a good job by defending his healthcare reform bill's women health provisions for private insurers.

You could argue, as some critics have (even ones sympathetic to her position), that Fluke is only famous because she was attacked by misogynists. She happens to be an articulate and committed activist, but even if it was just about Limbaugh, so what? True, the right to speak up in public does not mean the right not to be criticized. But the pathetic, gleeful, spiteful ganging up on her was a teaching moment for anyone who half-believed that this was about religious liberty, not sex and sluttery.

A most amusing and telling right-wing conspiracy theory about Sandra Fluke is that the Obama administration planted her to try and fail to testify at that hearing about contraception destroying religious liberty. As the videoblogger and writer Jay Smooth pointed out at the time, it was a tacit admission from conservatives that all it would take for them to make themselves look bad was putting a young woman in front of them. Why did Democrats force them to show their cards?

In fact, 30-year-old Sandra Fluke is, more than anything else, a product of viral Internet culture. It was because the photo of the all-male panel without her was huge on Facebook; because "Stand With Sandra" raised money online; because relatively unengaged women related to Fluke, saw her as just someone speaking up for her friend who lost an ovary, her classmate who was raped. Who did everything by the books and was called a slut who needed to have sex on camera for Rush Limbaugh's benefit anyway.

It wasn't so much about Sandra Fluke as it was about what conservatives really thought about women.

By Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at

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2012 Elections Democratic National Convention Sandra Fluke War On Women