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?