A Conversation With Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

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Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP/Corbis

When Senator Kirsten Gillibrand cares about an issue, she aspires to care about it at such high volume and with such duration that the rest of the country — including her colleagues in Congress — will eventually be convinced to share her concern. It may sound like a tiring way to go about policymaking, but it seems to be working.

It's been more than a year since Gillibrand started talking about sexual assault on college campuses, and in that time, the subject has risen to top of the agenda for both the media and the White House. The senator has made sure that the conversation never died down either, appearing in a much-discussed documentary about sexual assault, The Hunting Ground, and inviting then–Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz to the State of the Union address. Legislative change has been a little harder to foment, but she's working on it. Gillibrand's Campus Accountability and Safety Act is set to get a hearing in the Senate this month. 

The same thing happened with sexual assault in the military — another long-neglected issue for which Gillibrand became a sort of pop-culture whisperer. (It's probably not a coincidence that House of Cards recently focused on the subject.) Paid leave and medical marijuana have also made simultaneous appearances in the national conversation after becoming items on Gillibrand's to-do list. "I’ve learned, in my few short years here,” she says, "that, even if you can’t pass a bill, you can change a debate, and that is so powerful and important." 

New York Magazine sat down with Gillibrand twice in the past month — once in her Capitol Hill office (which features a cooler of made-in–New York Chobani), and once in the bowels of the Marriott Marquis in downtown Washington after a women's conference. She discussed what makes her tick, insidious sexism in the workplace, and her favorite Amy Schumer skits.

Sexual assault on campus has been in the news a lot lately, in part because of your efforts to draw attention to the issue. Probably the most high-profile case involves Emma Sulkowicz, who was your guest at the State of the Union address this year. She just graduated from Columbia University last month. Looking back, what have you learned from watching the case, and what do you think the university community has learned about how to deal with these situations?
I think the whole country is struggling with this issue. Columbia isn’t alone. I think all schools are trying to figure out: How do we deal with the fact that too many young women and men are being raped on college campuses, and that too many people perceive that the system isn’t working for either the survivors or the person who’s accused? I think there’s a recognition more generally that they need to professionalize their system. They need to have better training, they need to have standards, they need to have someone on campus who can help a survivor navigate what his or her choices are. Our bill will provide a lot of that transparency that’s lacking. 

I think having an online survey for all students to fill out and to say whether they feel safe on their campus, where they feel unsafe, whether something has ever happened to them and what was done is highly relevant. So is creating a clearer picture about working with law enforcement, so when a survivor does want to take a case to law enforcement, she already knows why getting a rape kit is important, what her rights will be in that case, what it will look like, how long it will take. That’s exactly the kind of thing someone should know on the first day. All the cases that have really made the headlines, they really point out that no one is satisfied with the current process. The current status quo is failing everyone. I’m optimistic that we’ll pass our bill this year because of all the national conversation about it.

Often the national conversation about sexual assault doesn't revolve around the policy solutions you're talking about, or the statistics you use to back up your arguments. We often end up debating the specific details of individual, high-profile cases instead. I don’t know if you saw this week, there was an article on Slate on The Hunting Ground, which you appeared in
Mm-hmm.

And taking apart one of the stories in that.
Right.

And then Emma Sulkowicz came forward and told her story, which led to a backlash, and then a backlash to the backlash, and questions are still being asked about it. And then you have the Rolling Stone story, which prompted completely appropriate questions of a different sort. And these discussions, regardless of where you land on what they mean or who is right or wrong, take the conversation to a different place than where you are trying to lead it.
Correct. And it can be damaging. Because it can stifle debate, and it can result in survivors withdrawing, and not [being] willing to put themselves out there and tell their story. But I think a lot of survivors have begun to feel empowered by the boldness of their peers. Emma has given courage to many more survivors than those who are now doubting [her story]. I think the perseverance and will to be heard, despite criticism, is meaningful. Despite the noise, and a lot of the negativity is unhelpful, it’s part of the debate, that is normal, it is to be expected, but unfortunately, it will result in some shying away from reporting.

This is an issue that hasn’t been focused on with such an intense gaze until recently. And journalists and advocates both need to figure out the best way to tell victims' stories in a way that doesn’t blur facts. Do you think there have been lessons that you or other people dealing with this issue have learned in the past year?
I would only have an anecdotal response to that. I think it is important to listen and have people tell their stories in whatever way they tell it, and I think it’s really important to have the opportunity to tell your story because the status quo isn’t working. You just see constant failure. And the book Missoula lays them out in a completely heartbreaking way.

Do you think there are any campuses that provide a good example of how to deal with these cases?
I wouldn’t be able to tell you that. I know the State University of New York has endorsed the bill and thinks these reforms would make a huge difference. And are trying to improve their systems. They were investigated by the Department of Justice and Department of Education on a couple of Title IX complaints, but through that experience, they have learned where they need to improve their own responses. Any school that is embracing reforms and trying to have transparency and accountability, I commend them. 

Where are you with the bill right now?
We have a hearing that’s going to be scheduled in June, I think, in the Health and Education Committee. I had a very productive meeting with Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray, who are the chair and ranking member on that committee about the bill, along with some of my co-sponsors. Once you have a hearing, you can then mark up the bill. The chairman and the ranking member intend to include our bill in the higher education mark-up, which is exciting. So, we will get a vote on it, and I’m optimistic that the vote will prevail. We have 32 sponsors now; I want to get that number to 50 before it goes to committee.

And you have Republican co-sponsors?
Twelve. From Kelly Ayotte and Joni Ernst and Shelley Moore Capito to Lisa Murkowski and Marco Rubio and Chuck Grassley and Dean Heller. We have a wide range from conservative to more moderate Republicans.

You’ve mentioned before how important bonding with women in the Senate is, regardless of party.
I think it’s really one of the best things about the Senate. Women really do seek each other out to form friendships outside of our working lives. And we appreciate each other as women first, as mothers and daughters, as sisters, as wives, I think it makes a difference in how we react toward each other. We’re always willing to listen, we're always willing to think through an issue for someone, we’re also looking for things to work together on.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand with the rest of the Congressional Women's softball team. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call

And in most of your legislation, you make a concerted effort to get Republican co-sponsors, like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz or the people you mentioned before.
Very much so. You can’t pass a bill unless it’s bipartisan. You have to start with someone who perhaps comes from a different perspective, or some area of agreement, and you can find that common ground to come together and have a conversation.

A lot of the issues you work on are pretty slow-burn.
Right, longer-term. A lot of times, issues come to me because they have no champion. I create the narrative to that debate. That’s largely what happened with sexual assault in the military. It was an issue that the military promised to take care of 25 years ago with a zero tolerance policy, but was still failing abysmally. When the issue came to me, I didn’t understand it, I didn’t realize that the prevalence was so high. But the more I learned, the more I was very concerned, and the more it spurred me to action. It also matters that film producers created The Invisible Warthat you have documentaries telling real stories in a way that you could really understand them. That’s very useful.

And then there are a lot of issues where we see amazingly quick changes in public opinion — especially when they are discussed or are omnipresent in pop culture. Same-sex marriage, for example.
Yeah. It moved a lot faster than people would have thought. When I was trying to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, I was told by gay rights groups, "There is no legislative solution. We just have to get President Obama to stop enforcing it." And I pushed back and said, "We can’t leave this kind of discriminatory policy on the books." That created opportunity for a longer conversation.

I started working with members of the military who are gay to tell their stories, to tell what it’s like when you have to lie to everyone you serve with about who you love. That’s really devastating for families. Once we had that narrative started, people really started to advocate across the board for more equality, whether it was gay marriage or the adoption bill we are working on right now to allow LGBT couples to adopt from foster care from other adoption agencies. Gay rights is moving fast, but it’s moving fast because people are telling their stories.

It’s the same with college campuses. The more young women and men who stand up and tell their story — people, they just can’t believe it’s happening, they can’t believe it’s so prevalent, they can’t believe it’s so horrible. But when you hear hundreds and hundreds of stories, people say, "I guess this really is a problem." But it was far easier to shove under the rug and say, "Oh, it’s just hormones," or, "it’s just hookup culture," or, "it’s just boys being boys."

And with transgender rights, you definitely see a lot of movement on that front, too, with Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox.
And now that you know a real person, and her whole life, and what she went through — that changes your view. And that’s what it takes. Honestly, nothing happens in Washington until real people stand up and demand action. And it takes real stories and people willing to put themselves out there — and real people to care. It takes enormous courage, but if people are willing to do it, they can actually change outcomes.

And then there’s issues like the absence of paid leave, where everyone kind of knows it exists …
I don’t know that they do. Honestly. I think a lot of younger people would assume that they’re going to get maternity leave. I’m actually editing a graduation speech right now where I’m going to ask the class, "Do you think you’re going to get maternity leave when you have a baby? And I’m sure you think the answer is yes, but the answer is there’s only 12 percent of you who are going to get paid leave right now."

I don’t think young people know that there are a lot of workplace rules that aren’t family-friendly. That create barriers, especially for women, to excel, to continue to move up the ladder. There’s a reason that only 3 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. So they need to know!

Amy Schumer has done a lot of sketches on the issues you’ve been talking about …
She’s great! Oh my goodness, I love her!

She did the bit on the military video-game ... 
It was amazing! 

And the Friday Night Lights riff ... 
It was amazing!

Do you think things like this are going to help you?
Yes, I think it will help. It's the ripple effect. It's the constant, different narrative that is being placed somewhere in the ether that someone can hear. Amy Schumer can reach a whole class of young men and women who can now understand the issue better now that she's delivered it so effectively with humor. Jon Stewart often does that, John Oliver does it — he just did that awesome piece on paid leave. It helps. That's a whole audience of people who never pay attention to what's going on in Washington. It helps that shows like House of Cards take on the sexual assault in the military issue. It makes a difference.

You've reached out to a lot of women's magazines. But unfortunately, lots of these still magazines get derided as, Oh, that's a women's magazine, that doesn't matter. An example of that recently was the Chelsea Manning interview, which was in Cosmopolitan. Several people on Twitter expressed shock that the interview appeared there. No one would say that if it had appeared in GQ
Or Playboy, even.

Right. So how important is it that people still have those biases?
It doesn't matter to me. Honestly, the women are reading these magazines. I want to be in the magazines they are reading. Women's magazines have done an amazing job covering these issues. And the women reading these magazines regularly, they may not be political women, which is key. We need these conversations happening at every kitchen table. Because if you're going to reach a senator from a Southern Republican state who may not know a lot about an issue, well, his constituents are reading that article on the beach during their summer vacation, and it will eventually make its way to decision-makers or the wives of decision-makers or the daughters of decision-makers.

 It’s been 20 years since Hillary Clinton — whom you replaced in the Senate — spoke in Beijing. You credit that with spurring your political career.
Yeah.

And throughout your career, she’s been someone who has popped up frequently and helped you push forward. Looking at 2016, what are you thinking about her presidential bid?
I think she’s going to win. I think it’s going to be a tough race. I think people, as shown by the last election, are disillusioned, and a lot of people stayed home, so she’s going to have to inspire a whole lot of people. I’m fully supportive of her because I feel she is the most qualified candidate among all of them to lead and to be our president.

Photo: New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images

A lot of the issues she has been talking about sound very much like a Gillibrand platform.
I hope she runs on paid leave, because I think it’s really important. If a presidential candidate is running nationally on paid leave, it will pressure Republican candidates to think very long and hard about it. I want it to be debated in the debates. I’m hoping every candidate is asked, "Do you support paid leave, and if not, why not?" Because I would love to hear why not. Why do you think we should continue to be the only industrialized country that doesn’t support families? Why?

And looking how Hillary is being covered or how other politicians are talking about her in the race, do you think she is being treated fairly as a woman candidate?
I haven’t been following it too closely yet. I just notice when I am watching a debate and every commenter talks about the color of her jacket instead of what she just said, it made my head explode during the last presidential election. But we’ll wait and see. I’m optimistic.

And for you, too, earlier in your Senate career, you’d get the jacket questions, or people would note things in articles about you that seemed superfluous — the same thing that has happened to other women in Congress. Do you think that happens less now?
It’s hard to say. I haven’t assessed it as to whether it’s improved or not. I think I get very fair coverage, so I feel very blessed.

More broadly, people are obviously very dissatisfied with Congress. 
I would agree that Congress is broken. You need to have it represent the actual population, so we need to have more women in Congress — we need more consensus-builders, we need people who will listen more, who are less ego-driven and partisan. I really believe if you had 51 percent women in Congress, the whole dynamic would change.

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

There are more women in Congress now than ever, and they still only make up about 20 percent of it. And then you look at the farm teams for Congress, state executives and state legislatures and mayors, and women make up less than 20 percent of those. Ambition in young women isn't the problem. But then they leave school, and then they lose it.
They think being likable is more important. There are a lot of reasons why women lose their ambition. I talk in my book about how I lost my girlhood bravado. I literally said I wanted to be a senator when I was 6 or 7. I didn't admit it again for like 30 years! Probably because I thought that was rude or self-centered or conceited or some negative attribute, which is true, because people view ambitious women negatively, so I suppressed it. I didn't even have the courage to admit I wanted to run for office someday until I was well into my career.

You grew up around very strong women who showed you that you could be whatever you wanted when you grew up. I'm wondering if there was a certain moment you realized sexism existed. 
I didn't realize it until I was a lawyer in a law firm. Because we have educational parity, so you aren't really going to see sexism in a college environment or a law school environment. 

As a mid-level associate, I watched a bunch of men start making partner, and women not making partner. And I'm wondering, What's going on here? These women are awesome, why aren't they making partner? And I realized there was a lot more at play than I fully understood. So I really started to think about the structural challenges for women, and why do women start their businesses with eight times less capital. Well, it's because all the levers of financing are male-dominated. So whether it's banks — male-run — or venture capital — male-dominated — or angel investors. We see success in ourselves, so when that venture-capital company is talking to a young woman about her business idea, he might think, Hmm, yeah, I just don't see it. If a woman was listening to the same pitch, she might say, "Oh yeah, I would use that service. That's a great idea." We just have a different perception of each other. 

You had an advantageous beginning to your political career in that you started out by fund-raising for other candidates and causes — an important thing for politicians at the beginning of their career to learn how to do, especially given how expensive campaigns are nowadays. If there are going to be more women in Congress, being able to raise money at the beginning of a campaign is a crucial part of that. 
Women can be just as good as men at fund-raising — and they’ve shown that. You just need to encourage them to run. Once you get them in the door, you can teach them how to raise money. 

Sometimes, those first few months of raising money, you’re embarrassed because you don’t want to ask your friends for money, and you ask yourself, Why should I get money? You have to realize, I’m not asking for myself, I’m asking for the things I’m going to fight for. I’m asking for raising the minimum wage, I’m asking for paid leave, I’m asking for ending sexual violence. These are causes I have that I’m going to fight very hard for.

Once a woman realizes that’s what fund-raising is for, it’s empowering. It’s like a light switch that goes off. So I help all young, new candidates to go through that. I role-play with them, I will take them through it so they know that it’s not hard. I had confidence when I first ran because I did three campaign training classes. I did the women’s school at Yale, I did the Eleanor Roosevelt legacy training, and I did the Women’s Campaign Fund training. So I knew all the bits and pieces of a campaign. And I had already been raising money for other candidates for nearly ten years. So there was never any question about all the pieces of a campaign and whether I could do any of them. I could do what it takes to win. So I had more confidence than a typical candidate, 'cause I just did a lot of training. I just tried to be really well prepared. 

You grew up around Albany politics — your grandmother was an important figure in local politics. But D.C. is a very different place.
Totally. 

So I’m wondering what shocked you when you came down here.
Well, there are a lot of things that shocked me. The one thing that didn’t shock me is the nature of politics. That was the part my grandmother had fully informed me of. I knew, just by watching her, and watching her whole life, that politics were rough and tumble. I knew it was a blood sport. I knew people aren’t going to be nice to you.

When I ran my first congressional race, people said, "Oh, Kirsten, this should not be your first race, it’s going to be really tough, it’s a tough district, your opponents may well be mean." They were very worried for me personally that I would not survive — but I wasn’t afraid at all.

What I was surprised about when I got here, particularly in the Senate, was how much of a difference you can make. I was fairly cynical about politics coming into it. But I’ve learned, in my few short years here, that, even if you can’t pass a bill, you can change a debate, and that is so powerful and important. Even though I didn’t pass my sexual assault in the military bill, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to pass it next year or the year after. But it also doesn’t mean I haven’t moved the ball forward. Because of that advocacy, we’ve put in a ton of reforms that would have never been done otherwise by the Department of Defense. It’s not ideological, they are just issues that need champions.

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

You’ve mentioned previously that the “Why Women Still Can't Have It All” debate frustrates you. Do you feel the same way about Lean In?
My whole analysis of “having it all” is a frustration with the frame, that women should somehow be judged, that they want something they are not supposed to be having, first of all, or that they are having something as opposed to doing something. Because we do “do it all.” We provide for our children, we go to work every day, we are loving mothers, we do all of that because it is part of who we are, and for a lot of us, we must do that. Forty percent of moms are primary or sole wage-earners, and eight out of ten moms are working right now. It shouldn’t be framed that way. It’s a privilege to be able to stay at home, it’s something that very few American women can afford to do today. And they should be able to make that choice without being judged negatively or positively.

But for most of us, we are working because it’s who we are, because we want to make a difference on something we’re working on, or because we are feeding our children. It’s a degrading frame. Sheryl Sandberg has a very real perspective that applies to a lot of women who are in the upper echelons of corporate America, who are trying to make decisions about their lives. All of us should be able to offer our experience, offer advice, and try to learn from one another.

This interview has been edited and condensed