Sandra Fluke ‘03 has made some difficult decisions. Her message to Cornellians: Don’t be afraid to follow a similar path; get out there and engage the opposition.
Fluke became something of a symbol after she was denied permission to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s discussion of religious exceptions to health care plans with contraception mandates. The witness list included no women. She was attacked by conservative commentators, one of whom called her a “slut.” She eventually spoke to a group of House Democrats and addressed the 2012 Democratic National Convention in September.
At her evening appearance at Cornell Oct. 15, with an audience of mostly students about half-filling the main floor of Statler Auditorium, Fluke said she had been asked to explain her decision to accept the role of a public figure, given all the problems this could cause for herself and friends and family. The main reason, she said, was to send a message to young women that it’s OK to speak up. “I did not want any elementary school girl not raising her hand because of me,” she said.
Beyond that, she said, it was an opportunity to have a conversation in society to move toward “less sexist discourse.”
The next decision: “I was going to remain nonpartisan,” Fluke said. But, she said, some leadership in Congress had become so extreme that “the only thing I could do was kick them out of office.” She now campaigns for President Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates at the state and national levels. It’s not just about women’s issues, she said. She will vote for Obama, she said, for his positions on a wide range of issues.
You don’t need to be a public figure to speak up, she said. Research shows that people form their attitudes based on what they hear from their friends, she noted, so everyone should engage with those around them who hold opposing views. The way to do this, Fluke advised, is to begin by listening to the other person. Their views may be based on misinformation, so be prepared with your own information to correct the problem. The media, she noted, tends to bypass fact checking and simply report what people said, so the best way to arm yourself is to go online to “non-news” sources.
Questions from the audience showed that Fluke’s message was getting through, as many speakers asked for specific suggestions on how to approach such issues as abortion, contraception and LGBT discrimination. Again, Fluke responded, present information and broaden the opponent’s view of the context of the question.
Fluke has one more big decision coming up: Should she run for public office?
“Maybe,” she said, noting that Congress is now made up of only 17 percent women.
After graduating from Cornell, Fluke went on to graduate from Georgetown University Law School, where she became an activist on women’s issues, particularly domestic violence. Earlier in the day, she spoke to roughly 140 students, most from the College of Human Ecology, about her experiences advocating for social justice at Cornell and Georgetown and her views on reproductive rights. She offered specific advice on planning advocacy campaigns and researching legislative issues.
Fluke, who grew up in a rural, conservative section of Pennsylvania, recalled her “eye-opening” adjustment to Cornell’s active political climate. As a freshman, she joined rallies to oppose defunding the Cornell Women’s Resource Center (CWRC) — an early lesson on the power of social activism. “I still have my ‘I stand with CWRC’ sign,” Fluke added.
She credited Cornell’s Department of Policy Analysis and Management and the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program with providing her with “a set of skills … to understand the impact of policy upon lives … and to apply to issues I care passionately about.”