By now you’ve probably heard more than enough of Slutgate. Or have you? There’s so much to love about this newest episode of “Sex and Politics.” The creepy lasciviousness of Rush Limbaugh’s imaginings of Sandra Fluke’s sex life. The melodramatic theatrics of Obama’s phone call to Fluke for the sake of his daughters. The faux outrage of Limbaugh advertisers who had no idea that they were sponsoring a trash-talking bad boy. The fact that Rush’s insult of the previously unknown Fluke will probably turn out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to her. Gloria Allred’s campaign — in the name of feminism! — to have Rush prosecuted under a 19th-century Florida law protecting women against false charges of non-chastity. Tom Wolfe: we need you. Now.
To my mind, the most entertaining part of the entire circus has been watching it dawn on people that there has always been a double standard depending on whether the target woman is liberal or conservative. Call Sarah Palin a c–t and everyone yawns. Call Sandra Fluke a prostitute and the president is on the line. After a good swing at Rush on The Daily Beast, Kirsten Powers did a masterful job of cataloguing “the army of swine on the left” who have enjoyed verbal powerball against women on the right without seeing their sponsors flinch, including Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann, David Letterman, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, Chris Matthews, and the Sultan of Twat, Bill Maher.
Actually, these men had good reason to think they were on safe ground. They had been given implicit permission for their poor taste by feminists who themselves had been raising questions about the chromosomal makeup of conservative women ever since second-wave feminism crashed onto American shores. I’m old enough to remember when Gloria Steinem called Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison a “female impersonator” and when other feminists proposed that Margaret Thatcher was actually a man in drag. When Sarah Palin came along, the theme swelled to operatic heights. At The New York Times website, Judith Warner called her nomination “an insult to women,” Cintra Wilson at Salon wrote that “Sarah Palin may be a lady, but she ain’t no woman,” and on a Washington Post blog Wendy Doniger joined in by noting that “[Palin’s] greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman.” (Doniger’s byline described her as “a Hindu specialist at the University of Chicago Divinity School”; I’m no expert on Hinduism or divinity, but it sounds like Doniger has chosen a career for which she may not be well suited.)
Slutgate has revived the theme of conservative women as a third sex. Just last week, “progressive talk show personality” Randi Rhodes launched into a tirade on the subject that made Bill Maher look like Pee-wee Herman. “You know, these women, somebody really needs to go repossess their ovaries,” she said of conservative women. “Really, truly, they have no right to them. They are fabulous, little organs and they have absolutely no right to be estrogen-bearing beings. Okay? Just cut ’em off, let ’em go through the hot flashes, let ’em just sit there and complain about hormone therapy, okay? Just take the ovaries and get it over with. Because they don’t deserve to have estrogen. They really don’t. It’s a privilege.”
Stop and wonder for a moment at Rhodes’ lunatic hatred, but let’s not ignore the deeper point here. Second- and third-wave feminists have insisted that they speak for women. They know what constitutes “women’s issues.” They define how to achieve women’s progress — more government services, regulations, and laws, legalized abortion, not just equality but parity. The issue here is not whether you think these policies are good or bad; I might agree with some of them myself. It’s why liberal feminists have convinced the media and themselves that they are the ones who know and speak for women. What do we then make of creatures with ovaries who don’t agree with them? Ed Schultz and Bill Maher: take it away.
Slutgate raises a lot of other serious questions about the nature of our political discourse, especially in relation to women. Women’s presence in the political sphere is growing at the same time that the Internet is ridding the public conversation of many of the familiar formal and informal censors. Surely men don’t need to pull their punches when disagreeing with a woman, but are any words taboo? When are comments about physical appearance, of men or women, okay? What is hate speech, anyway? Does calling a woman a slut mean that you hate women? Then is calling George Bush a “prick” evidence that you hate men? Where is the line between entertainer and talk show pundit?
My guess is that even conservative women will have some opinions about these questions — assuming they can stand the blowback from Bill Maher.
Kay Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She is the author most recently of Manning Up, which is now available in paperback.