The most inspiring part of New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand's memoir, Off the Sidelines, is when she tells her finance director "Go fuck yourself." She was seven months pregnant at the time. The finance director, a guy named Ross "with a boyish smile and disheveled looks" that let him get out of snafus, had scheduled the senator on a completely packed trip to California. On her first day in Silicon Valley, she had taken seven meetings back-to-back, and asked Ross if she could go to her hotel room to freshen up. When she got up there, she cried for ten straight minutes out of total exhaustion and frustration. When Ross called her and said that she had to come downstairs so that they could go to a cocktail party, Gillibrand told him where he could stick his cocktail party.
I'm inspired by that moment in part because of Gillibrand's bluntness and honesty, but mostly because she's standing up for her whole self. "Women are notoriously bad at putting their own well-being first," Gillibrand writes. That incident made her realize that, as a senator, she had to fight for space for herself and her family, and that making that space would allow her to do her best work. (Spoiler: she did end up going to that cocktail party, but she let Ross know that she was not happy about it.)
Gillibrand learned this straight talk from the womb. She comes from a family of forceful women, starting with her maternal grandmother, Polly Noonan, who was a power broker in New York State government with a notoriously salty manner. Her own mother, Penny, took her criminal-law exam just days before Gillibrand's older brother was born, showing young Kirsten that there was no reason she couldn't be an involved mom with a demanding job. Gillibrand rose quickly in politics, going from New York congresswoman to senator in just three years, as she was appointed to fill the spot Hillary Clinton vacated when she became secretary of State in 2009. Gillibrand was just 42 at the time and had had her son Henry just months before.
In person, Gillibrand has a calm but relentless intensity. Her blue eyes spark when she's talking about an issue she cares about, and she's able to get her policy prescriptions across in complete paragraphs without pauses. I spoke to Gillibrand about family-leave policies that would help all workers carve out space for themselves, her work on campus sexual assault, and her favorite curse word of all.
Jessica Grose: I'm curious what the conversations around your dinner table were like when you were growing up. It sounds like politics were part of your life early on.
Kirsten Gillibrand: I don't think we had a lot of political debates in my family. It was more of watching my grandmother and mother live their lives the way they wanted to, a determination that women should be self-actualized. That women actually should have a say about their destiny.
The men in my family tended to be quieter. The women tended to speak up more, so I always knew that women's voices matter, that their life experience matters, that when they are part of decision-making, outcomes are better. It really wasn't until I was in my late 20s that I began to notice that there were real impediments for women that were structural.
JG: Did you always know that you wanted to go to law school? Was there ever a moment in your late teens or early 20s when you were unsure of what your path was going to be post-college?
KG: I assumed I would go to law school because I liked how confident my mother was. I liked how she never doubted her ability to help people. And I watched how she could take people who were very nervous about something — either adopting a baby or buying their first home or starting a business — that she could take them through a process that's complex and difficult and give them confidence that they can get through.
I wanted to have those skills as well, so I could use them in some beneficial way to help my clients or my constituents, whatever form it would be. But I really liked her confidence, and she was the only professional woman that my friends and I really knew. I had a girlfriend whose mom was a teacher, and then I had another girlfriend whose mom I think worked in a dental office. But my mom was the first woman we knew who really defined herself by what she did outside the home in a way that was different. She was our role model. Five out of six of my best friends became lawyers.
JG: It sounds like you saw a model for how to manage a demanding job and a family from day one. In your memoir you talk a lot about how you eked out time for your family when you became a senator and how that was incredibly important to you. What is a typical day like for you from start to finish when Congress is in session?
KG: I wake up at 7. And between 7 and 8, the first thing I do is make my children breakfast. And I make their lunch.
JG: How old are they now?
KG: Seven and eleven. Around 7:30, after I've done those two things, I go upstairs and get myself ready. And then at 8, I take them to school. Then I go to the office, and I usually go to the gym if I can, at about 8:30. Then I'll work out for an hour and then I shower and go to my first meeting. I'll typically go to a hearing after that. There are a lot of armed-services hearings, so I go to that. And then I take whatever other meetings I'm supposed to take that day. Vote whenever I have to vote. And then somewhere around 5, I leave and I go pick up the kids, and I bring them home and I make them dinner. My husband will appear home usually around 6 or 6:30. And if we can have dinner together, we all have dinner together. Then I have to get the kids to a baseball practice or a soccer practice. And sometimes there's two in one night, so I sort that out. Then if I have to go back to work for votes or back to work for an event, I'll do that, and I'll get a babysitter to replace me at 6:30.
If I get to stay home and don't have to work, I pretty much go to bed after the kids do, so I'm in bed by 9, 9:30. Maybe I'll read a book for half an hour then fall asleep. But that's my day. I try to get a lot of sleep.
JG: What do you think about Paul Ryan asking for extra family time as Speaker of the House? His voting record is not what I would call pro-family.
KG: Not at all. I think it's great that he wants to spend time with his family. I think all parents want to spend time with their family. But for low-wage workers, that's not always possible. They don't get to set their hours, they don't get to say when they're working and when they're not working. So things like sick days really matter. Things like paid leave really matter. Equal pay for equal work really matters. Raising the minimum wage matters. Paul Ryan has a huge salary, and he has more than enough resources. So I would hope that his instinct and desire to spend time with his family could be replicated in family policies across the board that allow all workers to have some family time, not just the most affluent, and not just the lucky few who happen to be the next Speaker of the House.
Paul Ryan has a huge salary, and he has more than enough resources. So I would hope that his instinct and desire to spend time with his family could be replicated in family policies across the board that allow all workers to have some family time, not just the most affluent, and not just the lucky few who happen to be the next Speaker of the House.
JG: Speaking of paid leave, tell me more about the FAMILY Act, which provides paid family leave on a federal level. I'm a mother, and I am dismayed that I don't see paid leave as a political reality happening in the near term. How do you keep coming back with the bill and fighting for it without getting discouraged?
KG: Don't get discouraged. Two years ago, our goal was to make it a national debate. To make sure it was debated on the national stage during presidential campaigns. It is being debated right now, in the Democratic debates, and even Marco Rubio has his own version of paid leave. His is a smaller version; it's just a tax deduction for businesses that provide it. But still, he felt the need to have a paid-leave policy, which means we've really moved the ball forward.
My goal over the next year is to find some Republican co-sponsors in the House or the Senate so it can become a bipartisan national bill. A lot of businesses are making the case for us by putting in their own paid-leave policies. Businesses that want to retain female workers, businesses that want to be seen as family friendly. As for small businesses, they need a national policy because they can't necessarily compete with the Googles and the Facebooks of the world with highly generous policies. But if you had a policy where everybody put aside amounts of their wages — the cost of a cup of coffee a week for both the employer and employee — it would make a difference. They'd be able to create an earned benefit that would be there for every employee whenever they needed it. And it's an answer for the gig economy. Because whether you work for a small business or a big business, part time or full time, it's there for you. It travels with you as an earned benefit.
JG: One thing that I haven't heard a ton about in terms of family leave is using a strategy like that of gay marriage, which you do state-by-state. I know there's only a funding mechanism for paid leave in place in a few states at this point, but is there any hope of doing it state-by-state rather than having a federal policy?
KG: Yes, and we should work on it both state-by-state and federally, because they build upon each other. With gay marriage, state-by-state advocacy moved public opinion forward, so that by the time it got to the Supreme Court, public opinion had already moved. So the Supreme Court could say, this is already a national viewpoint, this is not some radical idea. You have to work on paid leave on all these fronts. State, local, federal at the same time. Business by business by business. And get more community leaders to say, "This was the best thing we could have done for our businesses."
Paid leave in California has worked. Ninety percent of businesses say it had no negative effect on their bottom line and, if anything, it had an overwhelmingly positive effect on morale and retention. So we've got proof in the pudding, and that policy's not even as generous as the one we've written.
JG: Another issue where there seems like there's momentum is campus sexual assault. Could you talk a little bit about the details of your legislation?
KG: The [Campus Accountability & Safety Act] does four basic things. It requires an online survey every two years for all college kids to have access to, to fill out. And that will be published by the Department of Education, so you actually know which schools are safe, which ones don't deal with these problems effectively, and you'll know about where the challenges are at each school.
We will also create better training and a standard for each school. We're going to have a confidential adviser at every school that will know all the options for someone who's been raped, both on campus and with local criminal authorities. And basic standard training for all the people who adjudicate these cases.
We're going to have tougher penalties and fines if a school doesn't meet their obligations to flip the incentives, so it'll be worth their while to get it right.
And last, we're going to communicate and work with local law enforcement so there's a set of procedures in place already if someone does want to go the criminal-justice route. A lot of times when students have gone to the police department, they've laughed them out of the department. So there needs to be a protocol and a plan so that if someone does want to report, they can effectively.
JG: What do you think about the argument that sexual-assault adjudication should just be taken out of the university entirely? That it should just be a law-enforcement issue and there shouldn't be this miniature court system within the university?
KG: What we know from every study done is that it will reduce the number of people who report. And that is going exactly in the wrong direction. A lot of survivors are intimidated by law enforcement. If they had to report to law enforcement, they would never report. And schools, frankly, need to be able to get a rapist off campus sooner than a regular criminal-litigation system would. Because if you have to wait until a criminal case goes to fruition, that might be two years, maybe three years. You can't have a rapist on campus for three years. So you need a quicker, more streamlined process that can accommodate, that can actually expel a student if there's enough evidence or, if there's no evidence, to make sure a student can have a different class schedule so she doesn't have to be in the same dorm or in the same science class as her assailant. Only a school can give those accommodations. The criminal-justice system can't make those accommodations.
If you actually put in place our process, more cases would go to the criminal-justice system. Because if you tell someone their options on the first day, meaning: if you ever want to go to criminal justice, you should get your rape kit done, you should preserve the evidence, you should make sure you meet with these people right away. All the things that a survivor doesn't know if she never reports to anybody, and, two years later, all that evidence is gone. It's hard to prosecute that case. But if you tell her all her options and tell her what she needs to preserve to be able to bring a case at some point in time, she's more likely to bring that case forward in the future than she would be otherwise.
JG: I know it's a huge thing for you to get more women involved in the political process. What would you tell young women to inspire them to get involved when the process can seem so ugly and discouraging?
KG: Well, the first thing I'd assure them is that their perspective on issues and their life experience is very different. And if they're not heard on an issue they care about, perhaps their viewpoint's not going to be heard at all, and that no one else is going to necessarily raise their issues or advocate for them. And that they should trust their instincts. They should trust their instincts that these are important issues, that these are vital issues, that these issues will make a difference. I'd urge them to be heard because if they don't try to change something, nobody will.
And then through that, you know, for those who are willing, to encourage them to run. That, in fact, if they are willing to fight for that issue on a local level or on a national level, it could be the difference between making that change and not making it.
JG: You've been subject to a lot of sexist comments and treatment in the media. I think that that is part of what discourages women from running. What would you tell someone who is rightfully …
JG: Freaked out.
KG: Yeah. Well, I'd say yes, it might be rough. It might be a negative climate, but that they can not only endure it, but it's worth it. If you are going to end gun violence in this country, it's worth it to be called somebody who is trying to meddle in the hunter's ways or whatever the negative attack ad is going to be. It's worth it to take that negative statement, or that negative campaign ad, because what you're going to accomplish is so important to the lives of so many people.
Most women are pretty fearless when you say, "Would you do it if you could end global climate change, could you do it if this planet could survive for your granddaughter and your granddaughter's granddaughter?" They'd say, "I'd do it." Because they are tough and they are fearless, especially if they're fighting for somebody else.
JG: The last question I have is a little funny. I loved your memoir, and it definitely had way more expletives than any political memoir I've ever read.
KG: And I took a lot out. I deleted about eight other places in the book.
JG: [Laughs.] But I want to know what your favorite curse word is. We asked this of Gloria Steinem too, so you have a good precedent.
KG: You want my favorite or the one I use the most?
KG: "Go fuck yourself" is probably the most often used. And probably "Fuck me" is my favorite. [Laughs.]
JG: [Laughs.] Fantastic, thank you.
KG: Those are dirty words, though, so make sure you have an X-rated, "Don't read this if you're under 18."
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Jessica Grose is Lenny's editor in chief.