The Lenny Interview: Senator Jeanne Shaheen

A conversation with the woman making it easier to secure equal paychecks.

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While bombast and narcissism have the American consciousness in a chokehold this election season, New Hampshire senator Jeanne Shaheen remains ever above the melee, prizing compromise over obstructionism. She is still willing to roll up her sleeves and hammer out bipartisan bills, finding partners in even those Republican senators whose stances on reproductive freedom and the environment make her skin crawl. She has plenty to say about Donald Trump, sure, but she would rather focus on her legislative aims. Because as the race for the White House plods on, Shaheen has more immediate priorities: she has a job to do.

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The only woman to be elected both a governor and a senator, Shaheen has represented New Hampshire in the Senate since 2009. Reelected in 2014 and driven by a deep reverence for our legislative process, Shaheen has continued to use the powers of her office to further substantive feminist goals.

Here, just a few of the bills Shaheen has championed:

She cosponsored the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which has made it easier for women to secure equal paychecks.

She pushed the Shaheen Amendment and saw it passed in 2012; it provides abortion access to women in the military who had been victims of sexual assault.

In 2015, she wrote legislation to support the effort to put a woman on the $20 bill and circulated fake bills on the Senate floor to draw attention to the movement. The stunt made an impression. The Treasury Department announced in April that Harriet Tubman would replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20.

A few weeks ago, she bagged a legislative unicorn: the Senate passed the Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act, which she sponsored, in a unanimous vote. The bill entitles victims to receive the results of any tests done on their rape kits and ensures that those kits be preserved at no cost until that state's statute of limitations has expired. A meeting with 24-year-old Amanda Nguyen, who was raped and currently has to file a request to have her rape kit preserved every six months, motivated Shaheen to spearhead the initiative.

"That needed to be fixed," Shaheen tells me when I reach her on the eve of the vote. She wears her matter-of-factness like a good suit — with evident pride.

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Meanwhile, a conservative blogger once branded her a backer of "a radical abortion agenda" because of her tireless support for Planned Parenthood. A decisive endorsement!

Entrenched as she is in Congress, Shaheen has not forgotten the itch of activism. As we chat, she draws on her involvement in the social movements of the '60s over and over to animate her persistent commitments to women, to families, to fairness. She remembers, laughing now, how she lobbied at school to do away with a curfew that applied only to women and not to men. She won. And so wedded was she to her politics that when her now-husband Bill Shaheen spotted her on the street and wanted her number, she told him to "drop dead." That is a direct quote. They were engaged six weeks later.

Shaheen cannot stand the idea that all the work and care and decades of service have turned her into some congressional insider — a mere "establishment" politician. Nope. Meet a woman who will not be stripped of her bona fides.

Mattie Kahn: Was there a time as a young adult where you really felt you were taking a risk and you weren't sure if it was going to pay off?

Jeanne Shaheen: No — I came of age in the '60s. Like so many people then, I was paying attention to the civil-rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women's-rights movement. For most of us who came of age in that era, it was about trying to right the wrongs that we saw in the world. We didn't think of it as risk-taking. We felt we had to act.

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MK: When did you fall in love with what politics could do?

JS: It was really in university, watching what was happening. I can remember very vividly having a conversation with my favorite political-science professor. We were talking about the war in Vietnam and the protests. At that time, there were thousands of people in the streets demonstrating to end the war. I can remember him saying to me that when enough people get mad about what's happening and do something about it, the policy of the country will change. And that is what happened. I'm a believer that democracy works, which is not to say it always works the way I want it to. But it was seeing that activism ultimately can pay off that got me interested in politics. It forced me to realize that people can make a difference.

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MK: Speaking of the democratic process, you didn't win your first Senate race in 2002. But you went on to beat your opponent in a rematch six years later. Deciding to take him on again — that must have taken a lot of grit. How did you summon the nerve to do it?

JS: I have seven grandchildren. I remember thinking about the future of this country, and I remember wondering how I would respond to my grandchildren if I decided not to try and run for the Senate for a second time. This was 2008 and the end of the George W. Bush administration. We were in Iraq. We didn't know who would take control of the country. As a nation, we were facing all of these challenges. I remember thinking, How will I face my grandchildren if 10 years from now or 20 years from now, they came to me and said, "Why didn't you run for the Senate when you could have made a difference?" That was really the motivation.

MK: Between the Shaheen Amendment and the Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act, which has had tremendous bipartisan support, you've made sure that the voices of victims of sexual violence are heard loud and clear in government. When did you realize just how silenced they'd been?

JS: You have to remember that I grew up at a time before Roe v. Wade. No matter the circumstances, women could not make their own choices about their reproductive futures and about access to health care. I saw what an impact that had on women. I've been committed to elevating women's voices since that time — and on issues of [reproductive freedom and sexual assault], especially.

MK: Does it feel like more of your peers have started to get involved in this work over time, now that it's becoming a more talked-about issue?

JS: I do feel like it's become a more visible issue, which has been very important to addressing the challenges. A lot of men over the years have worked on these issues, but it's very often women who have carried the ball and made the breakthroughs that have really been important. As more women have gotten elected to office, there have been more allies to address the particular challenges that women face. 

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MK: That makes sense. I've seen a few stories over the past few weeks about how many women are running for Senate who have a real shot at winning, which is exciting. What advice do you have for your maybe future comrades — particularly in an environment that isn't always the simplest to navigate as a woman?

JS: I used to get asked a lot after I got elected governor of New Hampshire what it's like to be the first woman governor. My standard answer was, "Gee, I don't know, because I've never been a man governor." When I have run for office, I have not talked about my gender because there's not been a need to. It's obvious — you know when you look at me.

What I have tried to do is talk about issues and policies that I think have an impact on families and therefore on everybody. Access to reproductive health care, issues of child care and paid family medical leave — those issues don't just affect women. They affect families. They affect the ability of middle-class and working families to have opportunities and make a good living. For me, that's what's important. And that's what I've tried to focus on.

MK: Absolutely. Still, I bet that at some point during your tenure in office, someone has probably tried to dismiss your legislative interests as "women's issues." How do you respond to that?

JS: I think it's important to remind people that if half the population doesn't have the same access to opportunities, everybody is worse for that. And that goes for national policy and for foreign policy as well. It's been really important to me to make sure we have this conversation when we're talking about what's going on around the world. We need to emphasize women's empowerment everywhere because it does make such a huge difference — not just how women do, but how their families do, how their communities do, and, ultimately, how their countries do.

MK: Yes, but sometimes we do really need to elevate women for no one's sake but our own. I'm thinking of the movement to put a woman on the $20 bill, which is finally happening — in many ways because of the work you did to support it. Why are national icons so significant? Why did it matter to you to see this fixed?

JS: I need to give credit for the grassroots Women on 20s movement, because that's how I got interested in it. I saw what they were doing and how people across the country had engaged on this issue. So we filed legislation to support it. As soon as we did that, we saw again the kind of interest and support we had. It just captured people's imagination.

Symbols are important. The fact that we have not had women on our currency is a statement. The figures who are on our currency are people who have been important in American history. Women have been really important in American history, and yet they haven't been recognized in the same way that many historic men have been, that Andrew Jackson has been. I think it's quite poetic justice that Harriet Tubman is going to replace him.

MK: So you have this full, multifaceted legislative agenda — tons of issues you want to act on, see improved. Every day, you — and, in a perfect world, all of our representatives — get up and try to make this country a better place. How do you prioritize what needs to be done and what can wait until next session or next term?

JS: It's based a lot on what I hear from my constituents and what I believe about the future of the United States in the world. And it's based a lot on my priorities — economic opportunity and national security. As I have traveled, in particular to hot spots like Afghanistan and to countries in the Middle East, it's become very clear that without those two things — without the ability to feel secure and safe, without the ability to see economic opportunity — it's very hard for people to feel secure in their lives. So those have become my guiding principles, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to accomplish those things.

MK: When was the last time a voter brought an issue to your attention that made you think, Yes, I need to take care of this now?

JS: Amanda Nguyen, who introduced me to the Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act. Amanda is from California and is a Harvard grad. She was raped and was looking for somebody in Washington who could help what she saw as a travesty. It was a travesty what happened to her and what happens to so many survivors of sexual assault who have to battle in a system stacked against them. She contacted a number of Senate offices, and when we heard from her, we said, "She's absolutely right. We need to try and do something about that." So we did. For me, that's what makes this job rewarding. It's the ability to see that what we're doing is making a difference for people. If I didn't feel like I could make a difference anymore and that people's lives could be changed for the better, I wouldn't be here.

MK: Looking ahead, Hillary Clinton, whom you've supported for months, has said that there will be women on her short list for vice president. Since then, certain enterprising news outlets have thrown out some prospects, and many have mentioned you as a potential candidate. Would you consider it?

JS: That's something that Hillary Clinton has to decide. I'm very honored to be on those lists that people are putting forward. But I think that's Hillary Clinton's decision. I know she'll make a good one.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Mattie Kahn is a writer at elle.com. She has never run a race — in politics or on pavement. But she likes the idea of brave women who do.

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