Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand watches a New York Fashion Week show alongside Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
When Kirsten Gillibrand first ran for office, her opponent called her “just a pretty face.” Today, she serves in a Senate that she says is making a “concentrated effort to undermine women’s reproductive freedom.” Despite that, Gillibrand tells us she’s confident about the future of women in politics and power, and will be one of the first asking Hillary Clinton to run in the 2016 election. She also discussed what it’s like to be a woman in the Senate and how gender-based verbal attacks are “meaningless.”
What’s it like being a woman in Senate right now?
I have a really good relationship with all the women senators and I really enjoy the relationship with my Republican colleagues and my Democratic colleagues. We have a quarterly dinner where we get together and talk about our personal lives and what we’re working on and I’ve really been able to build friendships…I can always reach across the aisle and work with a Republican woman — often times, quite successfully. I’ve had a great experience working with Republican women to move legislation forward on a bipartisan basis.
Why do Democrats spend so much time these days talking about the “War on Women”?
I believe there has been a concentrated effort by the Republican leadership in the House to undermine women’s reproductive freedom and also to defund a lot of healthcare safety nets for women. That’s been very troubling, because they’ve largely targeted the most-at-risk women and children in the efforts. HR-3, the third bill offered, was to defund all of Title 10, which is largely for women at risk for basic healthcare including prenatal care and pre-cancer screenings. They also tried to defund nutrition for women and infants. So I feel like it’s been a very aggressive attempt to take away safety nets that largely support women and children and those particularly at risk.
What advice would to younger women trying to make it in politics?
My best advice for all women, and particularly younger women, is to make sure that they’re heard on the issues they care most about. So whether it’s reproductive rights, or the environment, or cyber security, or high tech issues, they should make sure that whatever they feel most passionate about is being reflected in the national agenda. That means voting, that means becoming advocates and it means finding a way to be heard on issues that are important to them.
Your past and your family are a big part of your story. In terms of inspiration, who and what inspired you most to get into politics?
My grandmother was definitely my first role model in politics because she was so passionate about getting women in political life. She worked with a number of women in founding a women’s Democratic club in Albany about 75 years ago and they created a grassroots network to engage women on campaigns. So I was working on campaigns with her and through it all I learned not only how passionate she felt but also how she believed she was making an impact on the agenda and who represented her…I took a very strong life lesson from that, that our voices matter, and what we do with our time matters and that grassroots advocacy can be effective.
What other role models have you had?
Well, Hillary Clinton was very inspirational to me personally. When she was the First Lady, she went to China and she made her famous speech about women’s rights where she said women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights. That was in Beijing, China and it was to an audience for whom that was something quite new to hear, and so I thought she was transformational as a leader in our country and for women’s rights worldwide. And it really inspired me to get more active in Democratic politics because I thought, I had been an Asian studies major and I had traveled to Beijing, and I thought, if I had wanted to ever be on that stage with her, I’d have to get involved in politics. So that’s what encouraged me to focus my efforts as a young lawyer in New York City on getting more active in politics in New York state.
Do you think we’re on the road to electing a female president in the somewhat near future?
I certainly hope so. I’m going to be one of the first to ask Hillary to run in 2016. I think she would be incredibly well-poised to be our next Democratic president. I think she’s extremely well prepared. Her experience as Secretary of State has not only elevated her stature and experience, but she’s proven she’s someone who can get things done and I think she’d be an outstanding candidate.
Do you think she’ll run?
I hope so.
Do you see yourself being involved in her campaign or administration, or have you talked to her about working together in 2016?
Not at all, but I hope to be serving New York State and the people of New York State in the Senate.
Will you stay in the Senate for the long haul?
Yes, I think I can make a difference there. It’s an important opportunity for public service to really have an impact on the lives of regular people, and I feel very privileged that I have the chance to be part of these debates and to move an agenda for to help real New Yorkers.
How can we get more women in Senate?
I have an online campaign called Off The Sidelines, to get more women engaged in politics and get more women becoming advocates. And I’ve actively promoted a number of candidates who are running for Senate this cycle and for the House of Representatives. I’ve been helping them get their message out, meet more supporters, and encourage them in their campaigns.
Wendy Long, who is running against you as a Conservative Party candidate, said this week she’s not running for “hottest Senator. She was talking about you. How do you feel about the fact that when we discuss women in power, people are still talking about looks, people are still using words like “hotness.” What’s your take on that?
Well, I am focused on doing my job. And I’m focused on working for New York State, trying to help the economy grow. Wendy Long has a three-way primary, so we’ll see who my opponent is in due course. But I’m really just focused on being the best that I can be and really trying to help our small businesses grow and working to create more jobs.
How would you say that being a woman has affected your career, for better or worse?
One of the reasons why I want more women in government service and more women defining their place in our economy is that when women are part of decision making, the outcomes are better. When women are on corporate boards, studies show that those companies have better returns on investment and better returns on equity. When women are in Congress, they find bipartisan solutions. They’re often focused more on consensus building.
Were you ever put down or told “no” because you’re a woman?
I think there’s a lot of gender politics. In my first campaign in 2006, my opponent called me “just a pretty face.” He said I didn’t know how to do anything except buy pocketbooks in New York City. It was a very gender-based attack, that was obviously meaningless. But those kind of attacks can very easily be overcome.
What’s your advice for overcoming them?
Ignore them, and talk about what you want to accomplish, and what you want to do.
You mentioned women on boards, which is obviously a big issue. In Europe, there’s been talk of quotas to get more women on corporate boards. Do you think the U.S. government should consider taking that kind of action?
I think the better approach is to focus on what women bring to the table. For example, I love the way Geraldine Ferraro said in her convention speech, it’s not what America can do for women, it’s what women can do for America. The focus should be much more on what talents and strengths women have, and to make the case for why returns are higher for companies that put women on their corporate boards, why women tend to be more productive in Congress and can reach consensus easier… The combination of male and female voices will make a better outcome. It’s not that women are better than men, it’s that they have a different perspective and they have a different set of experiences. The combination of those two separate experiences of men and women will result in better outcomes.
How can we actually go about achieving that?
It needs to be a call to action. That’s why I’ve started the Off The Sidelines campaign. I liken it to the Rosie the Riveter campaign from World War II. Rosie the Riveter was an advertising campaign, an iconic image of a woman with her sleeves rolled up, and the slogan was “We Can Do It.” The goal of the campaign was to ask women to join the workforce. So it said two things – it said “we need you” and “we can do it.” It resulted in six million women entering the workforce by the end of World War II. I would like the same call to action – I would like to see six million more women voting tomorrow that aren’t voting today. And six million more women being engaged in the issues they care about and trying to influence legislation and our economy and at least be heard on those issues. So I think the best thing we can do is to invite women to participate if they’re not participating, to be heard if they’re not being heard. Frankly, they’re needed to help strengthen our economy and to help set a better agenda for America.