Kirsten Gillibrand, United States Senator, New York
Kirsten Gillibrand, United States Senator for New York, discusses how she got into politics and public service.
Senator (D-New York)
Kirsten Gillibrand, United States Senator for New York, discusses how she entered politics and public service.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: When you have hearings in Congress about contraception and when the first panel doesn't have a woman on it, women's voices really aren't being heard.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: When I was practicing law, Secretary Clinton gave her famous speech in Beijing. And I remember her standing on that stage and looking out to the world and saying, women's rights are human rights, and human rights are women's rights. And I thought about myself, and I thought, I'm not accomplishing anything here. I'm not making a difference. I'm not helping people, and it really inspired me to try to focus my career more on public service.
And so I was at a speech that Andrew Cuomo was giving for a woman's group I had joined called the Women's Leadership Forum. At the time, I just tried to enter into public service three different ways and failed. And so I went up to him afterwards, and I said, well Mr. Secretary, I loved your speech. I agreed with everything you said, but what I'm finding is public service and politics really is an insider's game. I don't know how to get from here to there.
And so he questioned me, and said, well, what do you do? And I said, I'm a senior associate at a big New York firm, and he said, well, would you consider moving to Washington? And so I called up Secretary Cuomo the next day, took the offer, went down to Washington. And I decided, if I wanted to do public service, I'd probably have to run for office.
And so I came back to New York and started having a long conversation with my then fiance, and I said to Jonathan, you know, I'd really like to run for office. How would you think about raising our family perhaps in upstate New York and maybe running for office from where I grew up? And Jonathan's been a wonderful blessing for me, and he said, yes.
In 2006, a number of senior political figures said to me, Kirsten, this should not be your first race. This is not a good race. Your opponent is known to be a bit of a bully. You really should think twice, and we heard later that his strategy in the campaign was to take my legs out early.
Oftentimes, male opponents won't attack a woman directly. Sometimes, they'll attack all the men around her. So whether it's your husband or father or father-in-law or brother, they will direct attacks there, as if the woman does it merit an attack herself. It really spurred people's interest.
They said, why is he attacking this unknown, young mother who wants to run for Congress? What does she stand for? What does she care about? Let's hear more. And so it actually backfired, because I became relevant. Whereas, if he ignored me, I might not have been relevant.
So we ran the race, and we won. It was such a long shot that even the New York Times called me a dragon slayer, because we'd been able to win in very Republican districts. I really spent the next two years focused on trying to be the best representative I could be. When Secretary Clinton was elevated from Senator to Secretary of State, there were a lot of news articles about who might be considered, and I was often listed at the bottom of these articles.
And when I interviewed with the governor, I focused on two things that I thought mattered. I represented upstate New York. I knew a lot about what does it take to make a rural economy grow, But I'd also lived in New York City for a dozen years, and I knew a lot about financial regulatory reform, because I had been a securities lawyer.
I think it was really important that he appointed a woman. I think he liked the balance of having somebody who was from a different part of the state, which had been so rare in our representation of the state. And so I worked very hard, getting to every corner of the state, traveled in all the 62 counties, spent time there, listened to people, created a very strong legislative agenda. Helping to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell and helping to get the health care that our 9/11 heroes deserved. And I was able to win my first election with 63%.
As part of my goal to get more women in Congress and more women's voices being heard, I've created a campaign called Off the Sidelines, and I'm asking women who are on the sidelines to come off. If we're going to change the rules of the road, we have to be stronger advocates. I want women's voices to be heard, because if they're voting, if they're holding their elected leaders accountable, if they're being heard in these national debates, we can change the landscape. We can change the rules of the road.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: A lot of studies show that young women, girls, and minorities often aren't going into science, technology, engineering, and math. And it starts at quite a young age. So it's a natural gravitation, oftentimes, where boys want to go into engineering, math, and science, where girls are more focused on social studies, how to help people, different areas of interest.
And all that I think it takes is inspiring that young girl to understand that math, science, engineering or computers can be the vehicle to helping people. And every time I meet a young woman who has gone into the engineering field or become a mathematician or a scientist, she has a personal story like that. There was someone in her life, a teacher, or a parent, who encouraged her to go into those subjects because she could make a difference in those subjects.
And so I think that's all it will take is that encouragement at a young age and more hands on learning. When you're teaching a fifth grader to build a robot and teaching a third grader to build a rocket, they're going to be so much more excited about science because they can create things. I think that will be true for getting more women and minorities interested in those subjects and making sure they're being promoted into those subjects. So if we're going to give a real opportunity to women and minorities, it's going to be focused on giving them those opportunities in science and technology and engineering and math, promoting them early when they're young.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: As part of my goal to get more women in Congress and more women's voices being heard and setting the national agenda, I've created a campaign called Off the Sidelines. And I'm asking women who are on the sidelines to come off. A lot of women are already off the sidelines working amazingly on issues every day. We have some great women's advocacy groups. But we need to do more because if we only have 17% women in Congress, it's not enough. And so off the sidelines is a call to action.
It's a lot like, in my view, what the Rosie the Riveter campaign was during World War II. If you remember Rosie the Riveter, it was a picture of a woman. Her sleeves rolled up. The slogan was, "We can do it." and the purpose of that campaign was to ask women to enter the workforce for the first time to help the war industries because a lot of men were fighting the war and they needed riveters, women to help build the guns that were fighting the war. And it worked. By the end of World War II, 6 million women had entered the workforce, forever changing the US economy and women's roles in it.
So what I would like is 6 million more women voting tomorrow who aren't voting today. I would like 6 million more women advocates who are setting the national agenda that are not setting it today. That's what has to change in our country. And I want that to happen for one simple reason. Outcomes will be better. The decisions that will be made will be stronger. America will be stronger. Our economy will be stronger.
If you look at studies, they show that when women are on corporate boards, those companies perform better, better returns on investment, better returns on equity. In my own experience, when I've seen women on committees in Congress or helping pass legislation, they get more done. They see problems differently. They find solutions. They have a different lens on what the problem is.
When I was first elected in 2006, Speaker Pelosi did something that was very wise. She added five women to the Armed Services Committee. And because five women were added to that committee, a lot of the discussion changed. So we were having hearings about military readiness.
And I remember Gabby Giffords, who sat just a couple seats down from me, focusing her questions on how the well-being of the personel was affecting military readiness. And so we focused the debate on well, why is the divorce rate, the suicide rate and the domestic violence rate higher than it's ever been? Are we doing not enough to protect the families and these men and women when they're serving deployment after deployment? And perhaps, we need to do more.
Now, a lot of our colleagues focused their questioning on how many guns, how many ships, how many aircraft, a lot on the equipment. And it's not that those questions are wrong. They're very good questions. But it's the complimentary nature of the two sets of questions that makes the outcome better.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: The largest person in my life was my grandmother. She was a woman who came from very modest means the south end of Albany. And she never went to college, and she worked her whole life. She was a secretary.
And as a young woman-- I think she was about 20-- she was secretary in the state legislature. And for whatever reason, 75 years ago, it occurred to her that she wanted to have a voice in politics. And so she got involved in the local democratic elections, and she was so inspired.
She got other women involved. She created Women's Democratic Club, and those women became such a force for Albany politics over the next several decades. You really couldn't get elected if you didn't have the blessing of my grandmother and her friends, because they were the ones who really did all the work. They did all the grassroots door to door knocking, phone banking, grassroots advocacy.
And so she taught me a lot of life lessons as a young girl-- how important women's voices are, how important grassroots advocacy is, and that you can really make a difference. And so I always admired my grandmother, because she really taught me that you could do anything you want to do as long as you put your mind to it. And her life really exemplified that to me. Because for a woman of her generation to have such a voice and to have such an impact on who was running, what their platforms were, what they fought for really left a mark on me.
The other role model I had growing up was my mother, and she was also quite a trailblazer. She went to law school. There was only three women in her law school when she first started.
And a woman who was never afraid to do things differently, and that's really the lesson she taught me-- that it's OK to find your own path. You can take a different course. You can do things differently than your friends and your peers, and that really was an important life lesson for me.
One of the things I remembered most was when I was growing up, she became interested in karate. Now, very few women are interested in karate, particularly my mother's generation, but she really enjoyed it. And I remember her coming home with bruises all down her arms and saying, mom, why are you doing this? This does not fun.
But she loved it. She loved the sport of it. She loved learning a new discipline. By the time she was my age, I think she was a second degree black belt. So she really did do things differently.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: I think you can define what's feminine in any way you want. And I think to me what's feminine is strength. It's the ability to fight and protect others. It's the ability to stand strong. That is what defines being feminine to me. The character and integrity to help others and to put others first. Those are all feminine qualities as far as I'm concerned.
So I'm a feminist. And I think women's rights are so important. And I think it's important for every American family because if you look at an issue like equal pay, who does that hurt? It hurts our children more than anything. Most of single parent households are women headed households. So that means if women aren't getting a dollar for the dollar, that's hurting their kids. It also hurts the economy. If women were paid a dollar for a dollar for the same work that men do, you could raise the United States GDP by up to 9%. That is a huge number. So we really are the solution.
I like the way Geraldine Ferraro said it in her speech at the Democratic Convention when she said, it's not what America can do for women. It's what women can do for America. And I really feel that that's the truth of the matter, that it's women that can be the unbelievable force of change in this country for better, whether it's focusing women on building a better economy by getting their small businesses funded, by getting equal pay, by getting on those corporate boards, or whether it's women trying to change policy, focusing on health care for everyone, making sure we can have a better education system, a national security plan that's longer term and more effective. Those are the kinds of things that women's views will impact, that they will make a difference if they're being heard.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: I think I didn't really begin to realize it until I was well into my legal career and I saw women not getting promoted when they should be. And it really clarified the issue for me that maybe it's not as easy as I thought and maybe there are challenges.
And then you begin to think, well, why wasn't this woman promoted or that woman promoted? Maybe she didn't have a mentor, maybe she wasn't given the big opportunities to be on the right case, maybe it's something else. But you begin to question those things. And you know, when you start looking at disparities in salary and who's getting paid for what, you begin to advocate for yourself a little stronger. And then you begin to help your friends advocate for themselves a little better.
Even in my own career, I have tried to mentor a lot of young women. And one example, and this is so typical. I had this young woman work for me for a couple of years. A very smart woman, very advanced in policy, public policy. And she was trying to get this job that she liked at a very well-known not for profit.
And she was telling me about the position she was going to apply for. And I said to her, I said well, who would you be working for? And she said, well, that job's open too. I was like well, you may not agree with the person you have to work for. They may tell you to do things that you don't think are wise or ill advised. Why would you not want to apply for the top job?
And she of course, said well, I don't think I'm quite qualified. I said, I can assure you, you are qualified. Apply for the top job. Let them say no to you. But at least apply for it. And she did and she got the job.
And so a lot of times we are our own self doubters. And having someone look out for you, a man or a woman who looks at your career and tries to sponsor you or mentors you along the way, can often be that little bit of support, that little bit of encouragement that lets you go that next step. And so I think that's why mentoring's so important.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: I'm very concerned that if we only have 17% of women in Congress, and only 17 women in the US Senate that women's voices really aren't being heard. And so I'm concerned that we need to enliven women all across America, and ask them to be heard on a greater level. So whether it's voting if they're not voting, or whether it's becoming advocates if they've never been an advocate before, I feel that women's voices must be heard in setting the national agenda.
And hopefully, through that we can get more women who are interested in running to run. Because when women do run, they win. They have all the skills they need to run successful campaigns. We just need to ask them to run. We need to engage them, and try to find more women who want to be in public life.
But when you look at modern-day campaigning, a lot of women say, I'm not interested. It's too messy, it's too dirty, it's too aggressive. I don't want to put my family or my children through that.
And so we have to give them more tools to handle that stress, and also maybe change the landscape. Over time, I think if we could pass publicly funded elections and campaign finance reform, a lot of that money that really dictates these negative attack ads will be off the air. So I hope that we can have a whole new generation of women who are interested in being heard, and whether they're running for office or just voting, it makes a difference.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: In this country we already have educational parity. More than 50% of our college graduates are women, more than 50% of our advanced degrees are women. So women have the education. So the question is, what's next? How do you get to political parity? How do you get to economic parity? And one of the challenges that I'm looking at right now is how do we get from A to B? How do we give more women an opportunity for economic success?
What are the structural impediments? I can focus on those. I can focus on equal pay, I can focus on access to affordable childcare, I can focus on early childhood education for all children, those are things I can focus on. But there's a larger question-- what does it mean when Mackenzie does a study and it shows that only 16% of women entering the workforce today think it's worth it to aspire to the corner office?
So they may look at that trajectory from starting position to the corner office, I don't want to make those sacrifices, I don't want to work 24/7. I want balance in my life, I want to be able to take care of my children, I want a certain lifestyle. But what it means is there are less women that are aspiring to that leadership place. And if less women are aspiring to be in leadership, how do we change the rules if no one's in charge? So that's our challenge.
And I think there are a percentage of women who do want to be the decision maker. There's a percentage of women who will play by the rules that are being offered. And then there's a lot of women that will try to change the rules in other ways, which is great.
One of our biggest opportunities for women in this economy is small businesses. That they start their own businesses, they create their own work rules, they make sure it's a place that they can thrive, and they help grow our economy. I think women are finding their way in politics too. They're finding what their balance is and how they can do it.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Most parents do work, and most parents do have to juggle. But we all love our children, and we all want to be the best parents we can be. And you can be a good parent and do your job at the same time. You just often have to find a schedule or a balance that works for you.
And I feel really lucky. I can set my schedule. The lady who cleans this office at night does not set her schedule. A woman who's working two shifts in an emergency room doesn't often get to set her schedule. And so I feel lucky, because I can make it work.
So for example, this morning, my son had a presentation of a lot of-- all the students wrote books, and they were going to read from their books and give a presentation to the parents. I was able to be there at 8:30 and stay till 9:30, because I can make sure I didn't have any early morning meetings.
That's a luxury, and that's something that I'm very blessed to be able to do. But for most women and most working parents, you just figure it out. There's always a way.
For example, my mother-- she was always the last one to pick us up from school. Our dinner was always rushed, but it was a good dinner. I was happy to get it. And I was so glad that I had such a vibrant, loving mother who always put us first but also was able to have a career that she loved and taught me great life lessons because of those experiences.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: You can do anything you set your mind to as long as you work hard and stay focused. One of the best pieces of advice my mother gave me was when someone is saying something mean to you to just ignore it. That's worked since my brother teased me at age six till today. It really does help you to just put things aside, not take them personally.
And I think my grandmother often gave me the lesson of never giving up-- that you just have to keep fighting and that sometimes even if you're not successful you do great good in that fight by just fighting for what you believe in and trying to make a difference.