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JOANNA WEISS

The accidental women’s voice

If Rush Limbaugh thought that bullying would bury Sandra Fluke, then, hmmm, that plan kind of backfired.

Back in February, Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” after she spoke before members of Congress, arguing that insurers (not taxpayers!) should fully cover birth control. A day later, Limbaugh said that, in exchange for contraception, Fluke should post videos of herself having sex online “so we can all watch.”

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He eventually apologized, but not before he had turned Fluke into an accidental superstar. This fall, she has become a Democratic mascot; her full-time job has been to travel the country, campaigning for President Obama and a range of congressional candidates. Last Tuesday, she was stumping for Elizabeth Warren.

Fluke’s speech at Warren’s Somerville campaign headquarters was brief, but her presence was what mattered. She is a walking embodiment of a certain right-wing attitude — a view that’s enhanced, fairly or not, when certain people make references to “binders full of women.” And she’s a symbol of the unusual chance the Democrats have to win the women’s vote, and even to change the conversation on abortion.

It’s mind-boggling how much Republicans have harmed themselves by over-shooting on reproductive health. For a while, anti-abortion forces seemed to be winning the public debate; they chipped away at abortion from the edges, making gains on parental notification, focusing on rare late-term procedures, tapping into people’s understandable reservations. Meanwhile, on the abortion-rights side, a sense of urgency had faded.

Then came Fluke and Limbaugh, efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, and state legislatures that took up “personhood” amendments and voted to mandate ultrasounds, and suddenly, the argument became less about abortion and more about that old-school feminist argument that control over women’s bodies equals control over their lives.

If your TV hasn’t exploded yet, you know that the Warren and Brown campaigns are waging a feverish battle for women’s support. Warren’s campaign has honed in on a few Brown votes, which isn’t entirely fair. Brown has made pro-choice votes over the years. He has a long record, in the Senate and the State House, of promoting women in combat and protecting female victims of violence.

More to the point, there’s a difference between a position and a bill. When he voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act in 2010, Brown didn’t deny that a pay gap is a problem. He argued that this wasn’t the right solution.

But Brown is still accountable for his vote, last winter, in favor of the Blunt Amendment, which would have allowed employers to refuse to cover any mandated health service, for almost any reason. Brown says he wanted to protect religion freedom. But if he’s basing his decisions on the specifics of a bill — as he says he did with Paycheck Fairness — then this would have been a great place to draw the line.

Fluke’s most compelling argument for Warren, though, involves the prospect of Republican control of the Senate, and what it could mean for women’s health. Brown makes a good case for the virtues of bipartisanship, but Fluke points out that the Senate has been a backstop against some of the most retrograde measures from the House. In February, Fluke almost didn’t address Congress at all, because House Republicans blocked her from speaking at a hearing on religion and birth control. (She spoke, instead, at an unofficial hearing called by Democrats.)

When I talked to Fluke on Tuesday, she told me she was motivated by that congressional snub, more than the need to fight back against the Limbaughs of the world. “That, for me, really illustrates how powerful party control is,” she said. “By having control of that committee, they were able to shut out women’s voices.”

Still it works out rather well that, thanks to Rush Limbaugh, her argument is being heard, loud and clear.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter
@JoannaWeiss
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