POLITICS

Why The Most Sexist Arena Is Still Electoral Politics

For Sandra Fluke, it was easier to slay Rush Limbaugh than win a state senate race.

WASHINGTON -- In early 2012, few seemed to capture the attention of Washington, D.C. like Sandra Fluke. After initially being denied the opportunity to testify before Congress about contraception coverage -- and then testifying only before Democrats -- the Georgetown Law student became a target of Rush Limbaugh, who called her a slut on his radio show.

Rather than shrink from the moment, Fluke pushed back on the radio host and his platoon of conservatives attacking her. On this week’s episode of the Candidate Confessional podcast, she said it was an easy decision, as she “felt very strongly that we could not allow it to in any way appear that this had been successful in silencing me or silencing other people who were speaking out on this issue.”

It was also a decision that would launch a political career -- one that remains promising despite some stumbles. Soon after the Limbaugh confrontation, President Barack Obama gave Fluke a call to convey his encouragement and empathy; a top communications firm in D.C. began advising her and the DNC invited her to speak at its convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. With her television-ready poise and deep policy background, Fluke had caught the imagination of operatives and feminist supporters who didn’t just see her as celebrity ally but as a future successful politician. Gradually, Fluke became convinced.

“I eventually just came to feel that it was a responsibility that I had, that evidently this was the set of skills that I might be decent at,” Fluke said. "I wanted to find whatever way it was that I could most effectively advance the principles and the ideas I believed in, and this seemed like the way to do it."

After she considered running to replace Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who was retiring, Fluke chose to run for a seat in California’s state senate in 2014, representing West Hollywood, where she and her husband had roots.

While she may have been a rock star in Washington, Fluke found it difficult to find a comfort zone on the campaign trail. Slaying Limbaugh proved easier than battling a crowded field of fellow Democrats, including a front-runner whose most contentious fight centered around whether or not to ban chocolate milk from school cafeterias.  

With few ideological differences among the candidates, Fluke struggled to differentiate herself. Voters sought out personality differences among the candidates and looked for someone that they could trust. Fluke was still trying to introduce herself as someone other than a contraceptive rights icon. "You do need to spend more time talking about yourself and that’s something that I wasn’t comfortable with," she said.

Her celebrity, in the end, wasn't the only complication. Fluke also came to observe how the conventions of electoral politics work against all female candidates.

"I think that electoral politics is perhaps one of the areas that is still the most sexist in our society,” Fluke said. “The biggest thing I felt was that there’s a de facto assumption that male candidates are qualified and we require female candidates to prove that they’re qualified. There’s not the same benefit of the doubt. I think it’s subconscious.”

After speaking at a community meeting, Fluke recalled getting an email from a voter who wrote “you seem incredibly well versed on the policy and really smart and capable and it’s too bad your opponent is such a nice guy.”

The nice guy finished first that November, while Fluke, who says she wants to try another run for office, only figured out how to tell her personal story after the votes were counted. "I think again this is something women struggle with,” she said.

This podcast was edited by Christine Conetta. Listen to it above or download it on iTunes. And while you’re there, please subscribe to, rate and review our show. Make sure to tune in to next week’s episode, when our guest will be Rev. Jesse Jackson on his 1984 and 1988 run for the White House. 

CONVERSATIONS