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A True Role Model: My Interview with Sandra Fluke

by Maya Paley

January 29, 2013 | 4:42 pm

Sandra Fluke at NCJW/LA 1/22/13

Remember Sandra, the former Georgetown law student who spoke in front of a Democratic congressional panel on women’s health and reproductive rights back in February, 2012 only to be publicly attacked on national radio by none other than Rush Limbaugh?

I’m not going to go into the details of that incident, but I admit that I’m ironically happy that Rush made such a stink about Sandra because it brought her and all of the issues she advocates for to the forefront of our national media. And after meeting Sandra last week, I couldn’t be more pleased with the woman behind the name.

On January 22, 2013, Sandra spoke on a panel at NCJW/LA with Michele Kort of Ms. Magazine, Serena Josel of Planned Parenthood LA, Reina Martinez of Hollywood NOW, and Dr. Arthur Fleisher, long-time abortion provider. The panel, “Abortion Under Siege,” commemorated the 40 year anniversary of Roe v. Wade by highlighting where we are in the reproductive justice movement today.

Sandra is sincere, intelligent, and capable and she just gets it. I was honored that Sandra took the time to sit down with me and answer some questions. Here is the interview:

Maya: Some reproductive rights advocates have been dialoguing about the use of the word “abortion” as opposed to “women’s health” or “access to healthcare” or the use of “pro-abortion” versus “pro-choice.” What do you think about such discussions on lingo within the movement?

Sandra: There are real opportunities for commonality when we talk about the values that underlie these efforts. When we talk about things like allowing women to make decisions for their own healthcare, which I think some people feel is a euphemism for abortion, a way of avoiding saying it. But I think that’s an overly simplistic criticism. I think when we talk about allowing women to make those decisions and to control those decisions, what we’re appealing to is the values behind these types of rights. It’s a way of finding common ground with those who have more concerns about abortion, for example, in their own personal life, but can respect other women making their own decisions.  I don’t think that it’s a bad thing to use that kind of language as a way to talk on a grander scale and to find commonality and allow people to be part of the conversation who might be turned off otherwise. It’s really situational and about context. It’s the same as when we speak about…rather than say “gay marriage” we say “allowing people to marry the person they love.” That’s not about being afraid to say the word “gay.” That’s about why we believe that this is a right that everyone should have. I think that it accomplishes something to use that kind of language.

Maya: How do you personally define the word feminism?

Sandra: I think it can be defined in a lot of different ways. And it's hard to have one all-encompassing definition. I believe it was Rebecca West who had that great quote; something to the effect of “I get called a feminist when expressing views that differentiate me from a doormat.”

Side note (here’s the quote): “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is:  I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”--Rebecca West (1913)

Sandra: For me, what my feminism is about is my broader social justice agenda and that is both the reproductive justice aspects of everyone being able to control when and if they have children, free of violence and discrimination, but it’s also about ensuring that there’s racial equality in these types of questions and that LGBT folks have equal rights with their straight brothers and sisters. So for me feminism is about all of us having full access and being full persons in our society regardless of gender and identity.

Maya: Do you identify as a feminist yourself?

Sandra: Absolutely.

Maya: Growing up did you plan on becoming a women’s rights activist?

Sandra: No, I grew up in a conservative area and there were some limitations that seemed unjust to me and sometimes I felt the things I was seeing weren’t right, but I did not have a construct for explaining why or the language to use to oppose them. It was really when I went to college that I discovered the rich feminist history that we have and the rich social justice history as well and formed the language and way of understanding the types of oppression and how these practices fit together and formed a repressive framework. A lot of people experience this big eye-opening awakening moment in college, but it was really about accessing those tools and beginning to understand why everything went wrong and how to explain it and how to fight it. Law school was another step in that path of having another set of tools to be able to fight these social justice battles and to advance social justice.

Maya: Do you want to practice law?

Sandra: I have always intended that my career as a lawyer would be public interest focused and that it would contain both litigation and legislation and advocacy and perhaps go back and forth or try to use both of the strategies. That is why I went to law school. We know from the history of social justice movements that we need both and that different tools are best at different times and that there are roles that need to be played by people other than lawyers. I think at the moment that I am focusing on the legislative advocacy and the public policy advocacy and less on the litigation for this particular time, but I imagine that my career will probably include all of the above strategies.

Maya: If you think back to how Roe v. Wade happened forty years ago, many think that things have regressed since then. What is the ideal situation forty years from now?

Sandra: I would love to see economic positioning mattering less in our ability to access reproductive healthcare, but all types of healthcare. I would like to stop seeing racial disparities that are frequently connected to the economic circumstances across these lines. Certainly, we need to find a cure for breast cancer and for some many other reproductively related diseases. On a global scale there are specific policies that must be changed to be able to offer better life outcomes to our sisters around the world. But the most significant thing would be to find a unity around supporting women's health and to make it and all of our health a priority.  To get to that point would be forty years well spent because we have to fight the political battles. We have to fight the restrictions on our healthcare that can’t go unnoted, but having women’s health become a divisive issue, an issue that is used for political gain rather than one that we can make progress on in our legislatures, is not a sacrifice that we can make. It’s a balance that we have to have between fighting to protect each other and to protect each other’s health, but also making sure that women’s health doesn’t become so divisive and polarized that we’re paralyzed and can’t make further progress.

Maya: What would you tell young women who refuse to call themselves “feminists” or who say that they might agree with feminism, but don’t want to call themselves “feminists” or those who are not involved in any way and think everything’s fine? What would you say to them?

Sandra: On the thinking everything’s fine and not being involved questions, I’ve found frequently over my campaigning efforts and work that the fastest way to demonstrate to someone how not fine a situation is is to get into the details. Show them the number of bills. Show them the chart that says these are the anti-women’s health laws that we’ve seen over the last few decades and this is 2013. And show them what’s really happening from a quantitative point of view to describe what the impact of these bills would be. To talk about bills that would criminalize aspects of in-vitro fertilization and make certain forms of birth control illegal. I know Supreme Court precedent is not readily accessible to everyone, but to say look at the votes, look at the count, this [Roe v. Wade] was five to four. This is hanging by a thread. This is real. And to get into those details so that people really understand this isn’t rhetoric and hype for electoral outcomes or any other purpose—this is something that’s really happening and that we have to be aware of and active on, informed and engaged and involved. So I think that’s one step.

I would certainly defend the label and define the label for anyone, but the label’s not the point. The struggles are the point. The values underscoring it are the point and that’s a much more important fight. You don’t want to lose the label. I’ll talk to them about that for a few minutes, but then let’s talk about the work we can do together because that’s more important.

Maya: Are you in dialogue at all with the people who were attacking you in public media, like Rush Limbaugh?

Sandra: We’ve never had contact other than what you’ve seen in the media and that’s okay with me. I don’t desire personal contact with those figures. My biggest concern in that area is just the rampant misinformation that’s put out guised as news and that’s a big concern for our democracy overall. My reputation aside, when there are absolute lies about what policies we’re talking about and what their consequences are, it’s difficult for people to make informed choices when they’re being potentially misled. So that’s my biggest concern in that area.

Maya: How did you deal with it on a personal level?

Sandra: On a personal level I made it not so personal. I said you know what, I’m being individually attacked, but it’s important for me to recognize that these people know little to nothing about me and so this isn’t really about me. In fact, this is about all women. This is about women who speak out on reproductive healthcare. This is about any community that stands up and demands its human rights, its access to healthcare and challenges and entrenched power structure, and this is about silencing those types of voices in our civil conversation and in our political conversation. So this is much less about me being personally insulted, but about closing the door to that community and those conversations and that is far more dangerous.  That’s what I wanted to focus on fighting.

I thank Sandra Fluke, Serena Josel, Dr. Arthur Fleisher, Michele Kort, and Reina Martinez for their years and dedication to advocacy for reproductive justice, women’s rights, and equality. You can watch last week’s incredibly informative panel by clicking here.

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