Let me tell you the words I wish someone had said to me 20 years ago: You should run for office. Actually, I should tell you that we need you to run for office—I couldn’t be more serious about it. For 15 years, I worked as a corporate lawyer, denying even to myself what was in my heart—that I wanted to run for office someday. It took me years to finally summon up the courage to admit my own ambition out loud, to anyone. Like so many women, I didn’t think I had enough experience, or the right experience. Surely, I wasn’t qualified to run for Congress! Wrong.
The truth is, I didn’t need to wait all those years—and here is why you shouldn’t, either: There are not enough women serving in government. That’s true at all levels, from city councils and county legislatures all the way up to Congress. Right now, there are only 21 women serving in the United States Senate. It’s no better in the rest of our government: Fewer than 20 percent of members of the House of Representatives are women, and just six governors are female.
These numbers are shamefully low, and they can have damning consequences for women. The cruel health-care bill being debated in Congress is just one example; there are many other issues Congress may vote on over the next few years that disproportionately affect women: affordable child care, paid family leave, equal pay for equal work, and minimum wage, just to name a few. When those votes come up, will you trust Congress to do the right thing?
Think about it: If half of all city council members, mayors, and governors were women, would we still be fighting for access to affordable maternity care and contraception? If half of the U.S. House of Representatives were female, would the U.S. still be the only industrialized country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee some form of paid leave? If half of the Senate were women, like me, do you think we would still be debating the gender pay gap? I don’t think so.
So I urge you to at least think about running. What do you care about more than anything else? Whatever it is, if you don’t run for office, here’s who probably will: someone who doesn’t care about that issue nearly as much as you do. That means they might not fight for it as hard as you would, or even at all. They might not understand your perspective—worse, they might not even care to hear it. Your story and your experiences are unique; your perspective is a strength, and your voice matters. Go for it! If you don’t want to run, you can still make a difference by supporting female candidates who do. Please check out my organization, which is dedicated to helping women run for office.
Kirsten Gillibrand is the U.S. Senator for New York (D-NY). This article is part of our "Women Running for Office" series, which originally appeared in Marie Claire's November 2017 issue, on newsstands October 17. To view the full package, click here.