By now, just about everyone knows about Rush Limbaugh’s vile rant against the third-year Georgetown Law student who had the temerity to speak her mind before Congress. This post isn’t about the subject matter of her testimony. Whether and which employers should provide health insurance plans that include contraception as a preventive care benefit for their employees will remain controversial, even after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

This post isn’t about Rush Limbaugh, either. He is what he is. To some people, he speaks truth in a straightforward, albeit colorful manner. To others, he’s a carnival barker whose hypocritical aim is to rile up 99-percenters in ways that feed his ego and divert attention from his own stunning wealth.

Climate of incivility

Rather, it’s about a climate of incivility that reserves a special rhetorical vitriol for women, especially those like Sandra Fluke. She is smart, articulate, and on the cusp of entering the legal profession from a top law school. Whatever else she learned at Georgetown, it probably didn’t include dealing with public descriptions of her that included words such as “slut” or “prostitute.” Or what to do when someone with a national radio following suggests posting internet videos of her intimate moments “so taxpayers can get their money’s worth.”

Even if he was telling a prolonged off-color joke, Limbaugh’s language was crude. But that’s because it expressed equally crude thoughts. The larger problem is that Limbaugh may have said what many other people — mostly men — were thinking. Any doubters need look no further than Gary McCoy’s cartoon in the March 7 issue of the New York Daily News or other comments throughout the blogosphere echoing support for Limbaugh’s sentiments.

More disturbing is the fact that such attitudes aren’t limited to criticizing women who speak in favor of contraception for health plans. Even conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, who was one of President Reagan’s speechwriters, spoke about the broader issue on the March 11, 2012 episode of “Meet The Press”:

“One of the big problems with discourse in America is the way — forget left and right for a second — it’s the way women are being spoken of. Women in public life. Women in politics. Women and policy questions…Somebody has to stop and notice that this sounds like a horrible, misogynistic war on women. We have got to stop it. I feel like the grown ups have to step in…Left, right and center, it’s getting horrible for women now. Let’s stop it.”

A joke is one thing, but…

Noonan’s complaint goes to the language of marginalization. Relegating another human being to a distasteful subcategory of the species makes evaluating that person on the merits unnecessary. At a minimum, it infects the assessment. As the number of powerful females grows, words of marginalization become interpersonal weapons of mass destruction. Such words are also like cockroaches — for every one that crawls into the public light, a hundred more thrive in darkness.

What’s the relevance to the legal profession? None, some might argue. After all women have risen from a quarter of all law students in 1975 to almost half today. Yet something is amiss. Just look at the dismal representation of women at the top of big law: they comprise only 16 percent of equity partners in firms responding to the latest NALP survey. (Half of all firms refused to respond at all. Draw your own inferences.)

Most of the men running large firms aren’t Limbaughs. In fact, there are many benign reasons for the absence of equity partner gender parity in large firms. But I don’t think those benign reasons are a complete explanation. Drilling down into the growing top-to-bottom compensation gap within equity partnerships would probably reveal another dramatic manifestation of the problem. Whether public or private, the thought is the father to the deed; words of marginalization can bridge the two.

The gender-specific aspect to all of this is both vicious and hypocritical. Would Limbaugh have used such reprehensible language to describe another man? What if, during an interlude between one of his four marriages, he had taken Viagra or Cialis and had a prescription drug benefit that paid for it? What would that make him or any other similarly situated male?

Whatever the answers, I have no desire to watch any of Limbaugh’s videos.


  1. I’m glad to see you tackle the “war on women.” Dramatic words, but that’s exactly how it feels to most people with two XX chromosomes.

    This is a bigger problem in law firms than you suspect. You note the failure of female associates to be proportionally represented in the ranks of equity partners. That also means that they are also not well represented on management/excecutive committees that set law firm policy.

    The more pernicious problem is knowing sexism among law firm managers. Here’s an example. After hiring a consultant to study its review procedures, a BigLaw firm decided not to act on the consultant’s report that the procedures disadvantaged women because “people were breaking their backs to work there.”

    Worse, sexual harassment is still a widespread problem inside large law firms. Although procedures are in place to address misconduct, the net result is often the complaining woman (a) trying to cool the aggressor but putting up with it, (b) reporting it and being known as a “rat” (therefore alienating at least one powerful man and perhaps damaging future work opportunities with other men) or (c) leaving the firm.

    These issues are explored at more depth in my essay in Role/Reboot: “Women Battle Law Firm Bias.”

  2. Thank you, Professor Harper,

    Beautifully expressed and much appreciated by women who have too often been demeaned with vitriolic words when having the courage to speak out –a good example being Anita Hill when she testified against Judge Clarence Thomas before the Senate Judiciary.

    As for Rush Limbaugh, he epitomizes today’s decline in moral values that have become, unfortunately, contagious among some sectors of our society.

  3. From today’s Best of the Web Today (last item), which is a propos (available at

    She Sleeps With the Fishes
    Yesterday we noted that Stanley Fish had justified liberal double standards–trying to destroy Rush Limbaugh for his “misogynistic remarks,” while tolerating worse from Bill Maher–on the ground that liberals are “good guys” and conservatives are “bad guys.” This prompted reader July Linett to write us with an interesting thought experiment:

    “Although you point out some of the problems with his argument, I think there is more to it. For example, there are two men with guns. Both kill an innocent child accidentally. One of the men is an anti-Semite known for torturing animals. The other is a guy we like. Is it fair then to give the guy we like a pass and instead only put the anti-Semite in jail for the crime of shooting the kid?
    “Admittedly, calling someone names is a far cry from the above, but as I read Fish, that’s just about what he’s saying.”

    To put the question more broadly, what if the left applied lower standards to its friends not just when it came to the etiquette of political debate but to all forms of wrongful behavior?

    There was someone with whom we wanted to discuss this matter, but Mary Jo Kopechne could not be reached for comment.

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