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What Rush Has Wrought
And why it's good news for feminism.
On February 29, Rush Limbaugh said something sexist, and feminists were outraged. This time, unlike the last few thousand times this has happened, he actually paid a price for it.
Limbaugh's comments about Sandra Fluke have been endlessly cycled and recycled throughout the Internet: He called her a "slut" and a "prostitute," alleged that she was "having so much sex she can't afford her own birth control pills," said he wanted to see videos of her having sex, and etc. This garnered copious Internet outrage, has been covered everywhere from the New York Times to TMZ, and has cost him 32 sponsorships.
But offensive comments like those are exactly what Rush Limbaugh gets paid for. He got his first talk show in 1985, and has been saying offensive things about women --and gay people, and people of color, and non-Republican presidents, and occasionally small children--ever since. This is the guy who bemoaned the presence of "lard-ass women in politics," argued that women who protest sexual harassment do so because "[it's] what they actually wish would happen to them sometimes," practically trademarked the term "feminazi,'" and once shared his belief that women are basically cats who can talk.
And it's not just that this sort of misogyny is historically safe for Limbaugh; it was safe four months ago, when he called Herman Cain accuser Sharon Bialik a prostitute. Rush made merry sport with the pronunciation of her name: "It's Bi-a-lik. As in"--insert blow job noises here--"buy a lick."
The reason that one comment sparked a riot, and the other garnered a shrug, seemingly has very little to do with Limbaugh himself. (Or with the presence of blow job noises, which for my money make the Bialik clip far more unpleasant. If you want an abstinence-only program that works, just play that noise to high-school students for an hour.) He just happened to cross the tracks when a train was coming through: Making patently offensive comments about birth control, at a moment when many Americans were already patently offended by the attack on birth control. And in this, he is not unlike many Republicans, who seem intent on pushing the most overtly regressive, misogynist agenda possible, at a time when Americans are least prepared to entertain it.
"In modern memory, we've never seen a party so fully dedicated to representing such a tiny minority (specifically: wealthy, powerful white men)," says Jamil Smith, a producer and blog editor for MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry. "But up until now, Republicans have buoyed that by using socio-cultural issues to encourage lower- and middle-class voters to vote against their interests."
This has lost traction, Smith says, because "Republicans are going after such basic rights, overreaching to an extent that defies political common sense, and that is waking up a lot of folks who wouldn't otherwise speak up."
It's true: Republicans seem locked in a cycle of clueless and poorly received misogyny, ever since early 2011, when congressional Republicans followed up on their jobs-focused campaign promises with a wave of distinctly abortion-focused legislation. Rather than simply attacking abortion rights, the right has chosen to attack Planned Parenthood, one of the more well-organized and beloved health services outlets in America. Rather than simply attacking abortion rights, they've attempted to attack birth control access -- in a country in which 99 percent of women will use birth control. Rather than crowning the offensive-yet-bland Mitt Romney as its presidential candidate, the Republican party has torn itself in half with love of Rick Santorum -- a man who thinks birth control is a sin against God, who recently argued that single mothers breed criminal babies, whose homophobia is so notorious and blatant that Dan Savage made his name a synonym for feces-tainted lubricant, and who could seemingly only win a national election if voters were too busy laughing hysterically at the idea of a Santorum presidency to vote.
"Republicans are treating politics like they changed it forever," Smith says, "while ignoring the world around them, which is actually changing more -- due especially to social media, and its ability to mobilize political grievances like never before. We're seeing how it's working for feminists and others working to protect reproductive rights and modern, independent concepts of womanhood. Republicans haven't been able to adjust to a changing America, either culturally or digitally."
So, Republicans keep digging very large holes with women voters--which the Obama administration, it must be said, has been ably capitalizing on; women were a major factor in Obama's 2008 victory, and Republicans seem to be doing everything in their power to make sure no woman in America will vote against him this time around -- and women voters keep responding, getting louder each time.
Which is to say: In the wake of all this remarkably blatant misogyny, something delightful and unexpected has happened. American women have embraced feminist activism in a startlingly loud and public way. The much-publicized Twitter outrage over the Susan G. Komen's betrayal of Planned Parenthood, or the Limbaugh controversy: These simply wouldn't create change, or become major news stories, if only long-time feminist activists (or feminist journalists) were involved. None of this happened the last few thousand times feminists were outraged by a sexist statement from Rush Limbaugh. These stories became major headlines because, and only because, people outside of specialized feminist discourse are getting angry.
Gloria Feldt, author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, cautions that a moment like this has to be used wisely.
"This is a pregnant moment, ripe with possibilities for a culture shift," Feldt says. "But that shift will come to fruition only if women see their moment and fully embrace their power to seize it... moments pass and memories fade just as fast as they are created unless young women build sustainable movements to keep the progress moving forward."
It would be tempting to think, now that feminist outrage is finally powerful enough to do something about Rush Limbaugh, that feminism has finally become a stable, permanent and respectable part of American political discourse. But it's dangerous to define ourselves around Republican incompetence. If they get less offensive, we can't get less angry. All we can do is to hold onto the principles this moment has reminded us of, and push them forward, as hard as we can.
Sady Doyle is an In These Times Staff Writer. She's also an award-winning social media activist and the founder of the anti-sexist blog Tiger Beatdown (tigerbeatdown.com).