Meanwhile, feminists were being credited — by their detractors, no less — with having robust erotic lives. Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke did not say much about sex in her congressional testimony in support of mandated birth control coverage, but her views nonetheless prompted Limbaugh to imagine her carnal activity in florid detail and to suggest that she — and all the other women for whom Limbaugh assumed her to be speaking — were having “so much sex” that they couldn’t pay for it.
Limbaugh made a tone-deaf misstep in his choice of the word “slut,” an epithet around which young feminists have been rallying for more than a year in “Slutwalk” protests against victim-blaming. There was no insult that young women were better equipped to both brush off and to battle, making Limbaugh’s rant not an instance of simply trading one smear (unattractive) for another (loose), but rather a moment that revealed the limits of name-calling. The world had changed; pathologizing female sexuality didn’t do the trick. Limbaugh lost more than 140 advertisers, and Time magazine — not exactly an obscure feminist blog — labeled him a “sad loud man in a small room.”
The 30-year-old Fluke’s eagerness to speak about gender equality — not just in her testimony, but since — further belied the retro view of feminism as the purview of older women. Young women, we’ve repeatedly been told, don’t care about the freedoms won for them by their mothers and grandmothers. But while Republican bankroller Friess’s comment, “Back in my day, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives; the gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly” made conservative men sound like great-grandpas, young feminist women were getting themselves noticed by the media.
Images of ultrasound wands and all-male congressional hearings and social-media campaigns goosed boycotts, donations to Planned Parenthood and state-house demonstrations nationwide. Youthful engagement zinged through mainstream popular culture; on “The View” in May, 20-year-old actress Eden Sher recommended Jessica Valenti’s “Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters,” raving that the book “makes it absolutely impossible for anyone, but specifically young females, to not want to take action.” Women’s rights activism enlivened even small towns such as Dunkerton, Iowa, where residents protested an appearance by Bradlee Dean, a conservative Christian preacher whose band had recently told a group of high school girls that they would “have mud on their wedding dresses if they weren’t virgins”; demonstrators included female students with signs that read: “This is what a feminist looks like.”
This is what feminism looks like, despite generations of having been told something different. While Republicans have been scrubbing their Facebook pages of jokes and decrying the rich sex lives of liberal women, actual feminists — and not just conservative puppeteers — seem at last to have devised a way to wrest control of feminism’s image.
The hairy harridan of yore isn’t totally vanquished. She’s too useful for the right. Without her, it becomes clear that Republicans are fighting not some made-up monster but women themselves. Contemporary activists who have recently replaced the yellowing cartoon of feminism with a living, breathing, nuanced version of what women’s liberation means in 2012 must keep fighting with humor and zeal if they ever want to finish off the old bat.
Perhaps someday they’ll even avenge her by hoisting a banner of their foes as fogeyish, woman-hating, humorless prudes and carrying it into future battles.
Rebecca Traister is the author of “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women” and a forthcoming book on unmarried women. She is on Twitter at @rtraister.