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July 13, 2011

Why Kirsten Gillibrand Wants You to Run for Office

The number of women in Congress has declined for the first time in decades. The junior senator from New York wants to change that.


New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

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It's 7 p.m. on a Wednesday, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand hurries into a noisy Mediterranean restaurant in Manhattan. After a quick bite, she'll head to a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, where she'll introduce President Obama. Already today, she has discussed the price of milk in one upstate town and infrastructure for sewers in another. She has been awake since 3:30 in the morning, when one of her two young sons asked if he could watch The Berenstain Bears. (Answer: no.) At 4 a.m., she got up and did laundry. At 6 a.m., she went for a four-mile run. She looks like she's ready for another run right now. She's amped up — she's riled about an "all-out assault on women's rights," she says, in reference to the recent Republican push to try to cut off federal funds to Planned Parenthood. She drops her fork on the floor, and her aide searches for a waiter. "Don't worry about it," Gillibrand says. "I'll just wipe it off."

Gillibrand, 44, has been compared to Tracy Flick, the maniacally ambitious class-president candidate played by Reese Witherspoon in Election. Sure, Gillibrand is driven — and petite and blonde, with a blazing blue-eyed gaze — but she is also hardworking and no-nonsense. Since switching careers from law to politics, she has been instrumental in key measures such as passing the 9/11 health bill for rescue workers and repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." We asked how she made it all happen.

You're one of only 89 women in Congress versus 446 men — and this year, the number of women in Congress declined for the first time in 30 years. What gives?
I think it's due to a number of reasons. One of the concerns that I have right now is that I believe too many women are sitting on the sidelines and aren't engaged in the issues that affect them. I'm particularly concerned about younger women — women 40 and under who are not engaged at all. Some of it has to do with the fact that women are busy; they're focused on their careers; they're focused on raising children. But a lot of women also believe that their voice doesn't matter, that their views are not important, and that their vote doesn't make a difference. And that's really what I want to challenge with American women.

Right now, less than 1 percent of women in Congress are under 40. I want to really work over the next few years to bring more women off the sidelines and get them engaged. To care about the policies and decisions that are being made because I don't want them waking up a year from now, two years from now, 10 years from now, and realizing that they don't agree with the laws that are being written and the agenda of this country because they didn't participate.

Speaking of agendas, what was with the recent Republican push to try to cut off federal funds to Planned Parenthood?
They want to make the debate about abortion. But it has been the law of the land for the past 30 years that federal money does not pay for abortion services — it pays for prenatal care, breast exams, cervical exams. This vote to cut off funds to Planned Parenthood was a radical anti-women agenda that women need to understand and be able to do something about. It's part of a misinformation campaign.

When do you think this issue is going to come up again?

I think it will be a continual theme for the Republican leadership in the House.

Are women reluctant to get into politics because it's so brutal?

A lot of women choose not to run for office because they don't like the landscape. They don't want to be part of a culture they perceive to be rough or aggressive or dirty or corrupt. And it's a very, very combative industry. But the reality is that women make a difference. For example, I serve on the Armed Services Committee: When we're debating an issue of military readiness, the men and women on the same committee may look at that issue very differently, but both view points are relevant. So while my male colleagues might be focused on how many aircraft we're building in a certain year or how many ships we're building, often the women are focused on how are the men and women who are serving doing? Are they getting enough mental-health support? What's happening with their families? Are they mentally and physically able and ready to go back into combat over and over again?


You weren't afraid to roll up your sleeves and run.

Well I had some very good role models. The first role model in my life was my grandmother—she ran a Women's Democratic Club, and they used politics as a vehicle to be heard. My grandmother received bad press and she didn't care. And so I never was afraid; I was never worried about whether it would be too difficult or too aggressive because I watched her do it so gracefully and with such great joy. Also I'm a realist; I understand the playing field. It's not an easy game — politics can be very muddy. But if you work hard and have a vision for what you want to do for the people you represent, and if you explain how you will accomplish that vision, people will listen.

Hillary Clinton was also an inspiration to me. I was very inspired when she gave her speech in China where she was defining women's rights as human rights. I was impressed when she went to Beijing because that was a very transformational speech, and I had been an Asian-studies major at Dartmouth; I had learned Mandarin, and I had been to Beijing. I was so moved by what she did and what she said, it really challenged me to think about what I was doing with my life and whether I was making a difference.

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