A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for a discussion about her book Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that she was such a pleasure to talk to--she was elected for a reason--but the Senator talked candidly and intimately about issues that are important to her and to her many of her constituents, especially women. The Senator is a strong advocate for the issues she cares about, and her book is part-memoir, part encouragement to people (especially women) to let their voice be heard. Here's a transcript of our conversation:
Chris Schluep: Why did you write the book?
Senator Gillibrand: I wanted to have an intimate conversation among women about issues that we care deeply about--our shared challenges--and to really create a call to action for women's voices to be heard on the issues that they care about. It's part memoir, part self help, but really about the broader goal of women being heard, because their life experience is so different, the perspective is different, and when women's views are heard, you'll have a broader base of ideas and a broader base of solutions.
CS: What do you read, and what effect has that had on the book you've written?
Senator Gillibrand: I tend to read a lot of feminist literature, and I think it's really important, and I enjoy it. But I also tend to read biographies, and when I'm reading a biography of a woman, particularly a woman leader, I'm always looking for how she got from A to B. I'm always looking for that little bit of advice, which is why when I decided to write this book I did tell personal stories. I really did reveal very personal details of my life, because I want the reader to know, number one, that her story is not necessarily disimilar from mine, that some of these challenges are shared, some of the struggles are common, and number two, I want her to be able to see herself and know in some of the tougher stories that, she is not alone, that these kinds of things happen to everyone, and that through my own failures and lack of confidence and decision making, she can see how she can not only embrace her ambitions but aspire to do whatever she wants to do. So, I wanted to make it personal, but I also wanted to share how I got from A to B so that they could see themselves and help answer some of those tough questions they're facing themselves in their own lives.
CS: How are ambitious women treated differently than men?
Senator Gillibrand: I talk about one study in the book where if you show a picture of an ambitious man to a group of people they'll so, Oh, he's a leader, hard-charging... good things. And if you show a picture of a woman and say she's an ambitious woman, they'll say she's cold, calculating, self-centered. So just that word, for whatever reason, has a very negative impact on us as a society. But if you asked anybody, "do you believe that girls should have hopes and dreams, that they should have high hopes for themselves, and do you think they should work hard toward them?" everyone's going to say yes. So it's not the meaning that we reject, it's just the word. So... use a different word, but we should embrace this goal that "ambition" is not a dirty word, that in fact we want all of our daughters and women to aspire and then work hard toward those aspirations.
CS: Would talk about work-life balance, because you say in the book that you don't like the phrase "having it all"?
Senator Gillibrand: I don't like the frame, first of all, because "having" is an odd choice of words. It sounds like we're having a second slice of pie, or having a vacation, and the "all" really pits women against each other, because it's saying women who stayed home with their kids are having a less-than-full life, and it pits women against men in a very unhelpful way--so I'd rather the conversation focus on how we can do it all, because a lot of women are balancing work and family because they have to. In 4 out of 10 families, moms are primary or sole wage earners and 8 out of 10 families moms are working, so the traditional framework where mom stays at home and dad goes to work is part of a Madmen era that is just not reflected today.
CS: You write "Don't be afraid to show emotion." Could you talk about that?
Senator Gillibrand: It not only shows how much you care, but it's something that's relatable. so if you're really angry, or you're really upset, or you're really passionate, or you're really concerned, when you share that feeling, not only are people going to understand where you're coming from, but they'll understand the depth of your concern and the depth of urgency, and so without showing emotion it's very hard to convince someone that your advocacy is important. It's a powerful tool and we should embrace it as women. Because our ability to empathise, our ability to feel someone's suffering, or want to fight against some injustice is something that makes us powerful advocates and we shouldn't lose sight of the power behind the passion.
CS: And that was reflected in you're experiences with the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy?
Senator Gillibrand: A perfect example of it. Because men and women were sharing these very
heartbreaking stories of how all they wanted was to serve our country and even die for our country, and they were being told "no" based on who they love. And when I first met with Lt. Dan Choi his personal story was so upsetting to me because he talked about why he joined the military--that it was the integrity and the character of the military and their goals and values that he loved. But then when he fell in love and couldn't share that with anyone he served with, he felt like he didn't have any integrity. He felt like he was denied that basic honor because he was
forced to lie, and I thought that is a really horrible injustice and we're losing some of our best and brightest because of it.
CS: What does it feel like to have inherited the former Senatorial seat of Hilary Clinton?
Senator Gillibrand: Secretary Clinton has always been a role model for me. She's somebody who really got me off the sidelines when she first said at an event I was at "decisions are being made every day in Washington. If you're not part of those decisions and you don't like what they decide, you have no one to blame but yourself." That really woke me up, and I realized that there were conversations happening around the country and globally that I wasn't part of. And I wanted to be. I really wanted to be a public servant and be part of these debates, and so throughout my career I not only helped her in her Senate race, but we formed a relationship and she's been a mentor and given me advice every step of the way, and so I'm really grateful to her personally for not only being the role model but also being the mentor that I certainly needed in my career.
CS: What's the best lesson you've taken from being in the Senate?
Senator Gillibrand: That if you listen to others and you work toward a common goal, you can build consensus. You can find common ground. And even in a place as broken as the U.S. government and Congress, you can find people who want to achieve good things. And so with something like sexual assault in the military, we were able to garner the support of the most liberal senators, like Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders, and the most conservative senators, like Ted Cruz and Chuck Grassley and Rand Paul. And so, if you can just look at issues from a place of common sense and not dismiss people at the outset but actually engage them you can accomplish a lot. And so I really work toward those kinds of issues where there is commonality and we can build from there.
CS: What kind of advice were you given when you started putting everything online?
Senator Gillibrand: My Sunlight Report--I was really made fun of, and I got a lot of negative reaction from my colleagues, because I put on my meetings, I put on my financial disclosures, and I put on my earmark requests. And some of my colleagues made fun of me in saying, you know, "We're talking right now, is this a meeting? Are you putting this on your web site?" And I said no, this isn't a meeting. The whole purpose was to give my district, my constituents, more information--to say, listen, if I'm meeting with this activist group or this advocacy group, and you have the other position, you have a right to know so that you can ask for a meeting, so that you can be heard, too. And so I felt like we needed that level of transparency, and I was told that was stupid by many people and that you're just giving information to opposition researchers. But I felt very strongly that if it's something that I'm embarrassed about or would be ashamed of, then I shouldn't be having that meeting. If it's not worthy of public review, then it's not worth having. And granted, I was a newcomer. I was doing it differently. But I was sort of raised in the computer era, so I really feel like transparency in government is a great approach, because I always believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant.
CS: You state in the book that it's important for women to be smart; but you also say that they should not be afraid to be themselves.
Senator Gillibrand: Be exactly yourself. No matter what it is. And that's what my mother taught me. By the time she was my age, she was a second degree black belt. So, she had a very different approach to living life than most moms of her generation. I felt very lucky.