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This Senator's Story Shows Sexism Is Still Strong On Capitol Hill

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Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire’s first woman attorney general, has spent the past six years as a Republican member of the U.S. Senate. Passionate about empowering women, Ayotte has used her background as a prosecutor to lead bipartisan efforts to stop domestic violence and sexual assault and afford better protection to victims through the renewed Violence Against Women Act, and on college campuses, through the Campus Safety and Accountability Act.

She’s a born-and-bred military brat and is married to an Iraq War veteran, so it’s no surprise that she is a strong military supporter — Foreign Policy magazine named her as one of the top 50 Republicans on international affairs.

Refinery29 sat down with Ayotte to discuss the issues she’s most passionate about right now (prescription-drug abuse and the mental-health system), the best advice she’s ever received, and about how hard it is to be taken seriously — even in the nation's capital.

What inspired you to run for office? Was it a specific problem, or an injustice you wanted to address?
"I previously served as New Hampshire’s first female attorney general, a position I was first appointed to by a Republican governor and then reappointed by a Democratic governor. Through that experience, I realized my passion is helping people and solving problems to improve their lives.

"That’s what got me interested in public service — I wanted to make a difference for people in New Hampshire and tackle some of the challenges facing our state and our country."

What was the conversation you had with yourself in the moment you decided to run for office?
"My children were 2 and 5, so it wasn’t an easy decision given the challenges of being a mom and running for office. It meant that we would go from two paychecks to one during the campaign, and that I’d have to spend time away from my family. It was also a big risk — I had never run for any elected office before. But my husband Joe and I decided that the best way for me to make a difference for the people of my state was to run for U.S. Senate."

Give us the top three issues in your race that you want people to know about.
"I am running for reelection because I want to keep fighting for the people of New Hampshire. That includes working across the aisle to address the heroin and prescription-opioid abuse epidemic we’re facing, getting our fiscal house in order, making it easier for families and students to afford college, protecting women’s access to annual mammograms, and keeping our nation safe."

Despite the progress women have made, sometimes people still don’t see us in leadership roles — and that’s still true in the Senate.

Kelly Ayotte, U.S. Senator (R-NH)
More women than men turn up at the polls — what should every political candidate be doing to connect with women voters?
"The best ideas I get come from New Hampshire. I’ve made a commitment to hear directly from voters, whether it’s through the nearly 50 town hall meetings I’ve held since taking office, or at visits and meetings with people across our state. I’ll keep listening to and learning from the people of New Hampshire about how we can make sure our children and grandchildren have even better opportunities than we’ve had."

Worst-case scenario: You lose this election. What would it take for you to run again?
"Right now, I am solely focused on serving the people of New Hampshire in the Senate."

It always seems suspect when strong women say gender hasn't impacted them at all. Can you tell us about a moment when you've encountered sexism?
"Despite the progress women have made, sometimes people still don’t see us in leadership roles — and that’s still true in the Senate. When I was first elected, I went down to the Senate Chamber to sit at my desk for the first time before a vote. A Senate doorkeeper actually came up to me and informed me that the desks were for senators only. He didn’t realize I was, in fact, a senator.

"Many women have experienced challenges in the workplace simply because they’re women. When I became New Hampshire’s first female attorney general, I was six months pregnant with my first child. It’s one of the reasons why I’m working hard to ensure that pregnant women and new mothers are treated fairly in the workplace. Along with a bipartisan group of colleagues, I helped introduce the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act last year, a bill that would protect pregnant workers from discrimination in the workplace."

As a woman, particularly one in the spotlight, how do you combat the pressure to be all-around perfect?
"I think people — especially women — appreciate when we keep it real. I go to the grocery store on weekends in a baseball cap and sweats like other moms. As a working mom, I also know how hard it is to try to balance a full-time job while raising a family. I commute from New Hampshire to Washington every week when the Senate’s in session, so it’s hard being away from my family. And I’m not alone — a lot of families face similar challenges. Joe and I are blessed to have a supportive network of family and friends who live close by, and they help us make it work. We’re very thankful for that."

What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?
"'God gave us two ears so we would listen more than talk.' Women are good listeners and it makes us effective leaders."

Worst piece of advice you've ever received?
"'You can’t do it.' 'It’s not your time.'”

What advice do you wish someone had given you, but never did?
"'Expect the unexpected — and be prepared for your dreams and goals to change.' If you’d told me when I graduated from law school that I’d go on to serve in the U.S. Senate, I’d have thought you were crazy. I couldn’t have imagined how many twists and turns my path would take — or that when I came to places where the path got steep or rocky, they weren’t obstacles — they were actually opportunities. It’s how you react to those bends in the road that will make the biggest difference in your life."
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