Women’s rights activist Sandra Fluke ’03, whose political advocacy has drawn a great deal of attention recently in the national media, sat down with The Sun Monday to discuss how her Cornell education shaped her enthusiasm for social justice and why she believes women’s issues should play a prominent role in the upcoming presidential election.
The Sun: One of your majors at Cornell was feminist, gender and sexuality studies. Were there any faculty members or classes at Cornell in particular that spurred you to become an activist?
Sandra Fluke: In my first semester at Cornell, what I found a passion for was social justice work, specifically feminist social justice work … The professor I had for my very first women’s studies class was [Prof.] Kate McCullough, [feminist, gender and sexuality studies], and I got to see her [today] and thank her for the influence that she had for me … There were a lot of experiences and professors at Cornell that shaped me. There was a Women’s Resource Center director who was great while I was here. I remember taking [a] class on race … that was important for me. There were courses on gender and sexual minorities that I learned a lot from. There were a lot of courses that were really transformative.
Sun: Outside of the academic realm, were there any experiences or organizations you were involved with at Cornell that influenced your passion for social justice?
S.F.: I think the [organization] I was most involved with was Students Acting for Gender Equality, or SAGE … We were really active at Cornell when I was here. I’m sad to hear the group was not as active as it was while I was here, but I hope students will be interested in getting it going … One time we counter-protested against a very graphic and anti-choice group that was brought to campus. We had just a whole slew of events.
Sun: Looking forward to the presidential election, especially for college-aged women, how large a role should women’s rights issues play as people cast their votes?
S.F.: There’s something very important on the line this election because we have seen unprecedented levels of legislation attacking women’s affordable access to health care, especially in the last two years, in Congress and state legislatures across the country. That’s not only reproductive health care, but defunding programs that provide breast cancer screenings and cervical cancer screenings and programs that provide affordable access to contraception on campuses, like Cornell’s.
What’s very specific to college victims of sexual assaults is that the Violence Against Women Act, which there was a big fight about in Congress this year, … has still not been reauthorized, even though it had been bipartisan legislation for years and suddenly it’s controversial … [The bill] includes programs that focus on sexual assaults on college campuses specifically, and I know that’s something that Cornell has been struggling with recently. So that’s just one concrete example of a way in which voting for the Republican members of Congress is a vote against the interest of sexual assault victims on this campus and those on this campus who are concerned about this issue.
Sun: How would you respond to people who say that women’s rights are overshadowing issues, such as the economy, that they view as more important?
S.F.: I think it’s offensive to say these issues aren’t real. Women’s health care and issues that women care about should be on the agenda during every election. I would hope it’s not about the way that someone is trying to turn back our rights but instead about advancing and what we are going to do to become a more equitable society … Moreover, they are economic issues. When we talk about the affordability of healthcare, that is an economic issue … Things like fair pay obviously is an economic issue, especially [for] women of color, who are paid even less than white women … Comments like that criticism are just a way to marginalize half the population’s concerns.
Sun: What do you hope to impart to Cornellians during your visit?
S.F.: I know here at Cornell that there are people really engaged on issues of social justice. I think Cornell students have a tendency to think the political process is completely lost, there’s no way to effect change through that process, that we have to work entirely outside of the system … While there may be something to that critique, I really want to encourage students not to abandon that hope and to work for candidates they believe in … I want to encourage young women, women of color, LGBT students … to run for office because the rates of representation in legislatures are shameful … We have to do better, and it’s on this generation to be the group that does better. I hope to do what I can to inspire folks to take that on.