The Feministing Five: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has represented the great state of New York in the US Senate since 2009. Gillibrand entered politics in 2006, running for Congress in upstate New York, and after two terms was appointed to fill Hillary Rodham Clinton’s vacated Senate seat.

Gillibrand is an outspoken supporter of reproductive rights and of LGBT rights. She has campaigned for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the extension of marriage rights to same sex couples, and in March of this year, along with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), she introduced a bill to repeal Defense of Marriage Act.

Recently, Gillibrand launched Off the Sidelines, a project that aims to get more women involved in politics. Gillibrand is dismayed not only by women’s underrepresentation in government  and in other forms of leadership, but by what she perceives as the stalling of the women’s movement in the culture. Off the Sidelines is her attempt to inform women about the impact that political their engagement at all levels of the political process will have on issues like pay equity and affordable healthcare. Gillibrand believes that women respond when they’re told that they’re needed – she looks to the Rosie the Riveter campaign for evidence of this – and with Off the Sidelines, she hopes to tell women, “We need you now. We need you involved and we need you in leadership and we need you to take these risks.”

We took issue with Gillibrand’s assertion earlier this year that women’s voices aren’t being heard because “they don’t want their voices being heard,” – Feministing is just one of many pieces of evidence that that’s simply not true. With that in mind, it was great to be able to down with the Senator to talk more about why young women, especially, aren’t as politically engaged and as fired up about feminism as we might like them to be.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Chloe Angyal: What made you want to launch Off the Sidelines and why you did you decide to launch it now?

Kirsten Gillibrand: For a number of reasons. First, I feel like the Women’s Movement has stalled, and that we are literally fighting the same battles as both our mothers’ and our grandmothers’ generations. And so, I believe that if we get more women involved in public service and making sure that their voices are heard on the issues that they care about, that we can move the action forward as opposed to backward. The other concern is that this is the first year in thirty years that the percentage of women in Congress went backwards. It went from 17% to sixteen point something. We lost a number of women in the House. And 17% itself is not enough women in the House to set the agenda for America, and we need more women’s voices to be engaged to do that more successfully.

The other reason is that we are a very tough economy right now, and women are graduating more than half of the advanced degrees and more than half of the college degrees, and as President Obama said, we want to out-innovate, out-compete and out-educate our opponents in other countries, and to do that we need women leading the way. We need women engaged in the workforce and engaged making decisions in Washington. Because there are a lot of things that affect women, such as equal pay: women still earn 78 cents on the dollar, and a typical woman, if she earns dollar for dollar, would earn thousands of dollars more over her lifetime. Think about what that does for single parent households, the majority of which are headed by women. Women being at the table can start to change our economic landscape and can be part of creating opportunities for small businesses. Women-owned businesses getting access to capital would help our economy grow – because women don’t get the same access to capital, and women-owned businesses is the fastest-growing segment within small businesses.

So there are a few reasons why I want to do this now. Because the reality is that every single day, decisions are being made in Washington. And I believe that if women understood all the decisions being made and that they are being made without their input, they would be highly concerned. So I want to create a call to action, and an ability to inform women so that they know what decisions are being made and that their views and voices would make those decisions better if they were a part of it.

CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

KG: I spent a lot of time thinking about this, and the one that strikes me as the most compelling in recent history is the lead in True Grit. I loved her because, not only was she determined and strong, she was fearless. And she undertook an amazing journey and effort that very few young girls would ever dare to do, and she was great at business, at negotiating – she didn’t back down! She was a real testament to strength and sincerity and true grit. She was such a leader, and for anyone to have such courage at such a young age is amazing.

In real life, it’s my grandmother. My grandmother was the one who inspired me to care about politics in the first place, because she was so active politically, in upstate New York, getting women to participate in campaigns and grassroots organizing. She had such a passion for policy and for making sure that women were engaged, and she really did inform so many of my choices in life.

And my mom was very much a role model for me because she always did things differently. She didn’t do the things her classmates were doing; she always found her own way. She was one of three women in her whole law school class, and she had a career and raised a family, and she did a lot of smart things that made me feel like there was nothing that I couldn’t do. Both my mother and my grandmother always told me there’s nothing you can’t do as long as you put your mind to it, and that was a life lesson that I carry with me even today.

CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?

KG: The recent Wall Street Journal article about the study showing that the economic recovery has been bypassing women. Since I started Off the Sidelines I’ve been very attuned to these issues, so that was extremely frustrating. And when you read through the article, they didn’t know why. They couldn’t actually identify the reason why women weren’t part of this recovery, and all the knee-jerk answers they thought would be true weren’t true. So that was very frustrating for me to read, because we have to solve this problem. Women aren’t at the decision-making table and they aren’t earning dollar-for-dollar and they aren’t able to provide for their kids, and it’s going to affect the next generation.

CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?

KG: Apathy and complacency. Ask a woman in her twenties if we need a women’s movement. Just ask her. Most women in that age group, I think, would say, “Why? Why would we need one?” Because they’ve never experienced discrimination at that age. Education is really uniform. We’re graduating more women from college and from advanced degrees. I didn’t see discrimination until I was well into my career as a lawyer, and then I noticed less women getting promoted and I began to see structural changes. So young women don’t know it, unlike our mothers and grandmothers, who had to fight for everything.

CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

KG: Pizza, water and Gloria Steinem.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted July 23, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    There may always be evidence of Feminism’s generational divide. One of the reasons I enjoy being an informal feminist historian is that I genuinely do want to understand the struggles and attitudes of our mothers (and fathers).

    I will concede with Senator Gillibrand that it is true that the women’s movement has succumbed to some degree of inertia. But I will also counter that in many respects, progress in a multitude of areas has not kept up with the need for additional reform. I think a counter-reformation of a sort is partially to blame, but people aren’t articulating well the issues that lie under the surface.

    I would, however, encourage the Senator to work with the active feminists whose opinions and actions are very much evident today. I wonder what it would take to have wide participation like before. However, I would also cautious against romanticizing the second-wave, as their own disagreements helped to destroy the movement and in some ways are responsible for today’s problems.

  2. Posted July 23, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    Go Senator Gillibrand! I hope she runs for President one day–I would gladly vote for her!

  3. Posted July 23, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    Very happy to have her as my senator. I hope that, in the coming years, she’ll step up and become more vocal in the Senate.

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