"It's Kirsten": The D.C. Powerhouse Every Young Woman Must Know
The U.S. senator is not our newest feminist leader: She’s the one who has been here, waiting in the wings, for years.
It’s 2017, and yet women are still fighting for equality. Data suggests it will take until 2152 to close the gender wage gap, but it shouldn’t take a century to get what we want. We want more, and Refinery29 is here to help — because 135 years is too long to wait for what we deserve today.
The morning of January 21 was bizarrely warm, as if the weather knew America was going through something weird and decided to play along. A fuzz of condensation hung in gray skies, which made the sea of pink signs and pink scarves and pink knitted pussyhats pop against the backdrop of the U.S. Capitol. Onstage, Kirsten Gillibrand had committed to the sartorial spirit. Her typically muted wardrobe was replaced by a bubblegum button-up sweater. The color rose in the junior senator from New York's cheeks, as she unleashed a spirited assault on the institutional sexism that keeps American women down every day.
“If we had 51% of women in Congress, do you think we’d be debating access to contraception?” she demanded. “Do you think we would be debating whether to have paid leave?” Her voice kept getting louder, angrier, as the speech went on. “Do you think it would be so hard to end sexual assault on college campuses?” Gillibrand banged on the podium, pounding her point home. The crowd, which numbered in the many thousands, roared and lifted their signs higher.
By the time Gillibrand was done speaking, it was official: She had solidified her place among the new leaders of the Democratic Party, validating years of work she has put into building a pro-woman platform in the shadows of better-knowns, like Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. Since joining the Senate in 2009, she’s been advocating for equal pay, paid family leave, and tougher sexual assault policies on campuses and in the military. And when it comes to getting more women into politics, she’s put her money where her mouth is. Her Off the Sidelines PAC has raised millions of dollars for women running for office in recent years.
And so, to the world, Gillibrand’s speech at the Women’s March might have looked like her coming out event, a culminating moment in the spotlight. But the truth is that she’s been giving some version of this speech for quite some time. She’s not our newest feminist leader: She’s the one who has been here, waiting in the wings, for years.
It’s day 61 of Trump’s America, and Gillibrand is seated in her office at the Russell Senate Building, back in standard issue black dress and blazer (a look she's said in the past is by design). Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination hearing is entering its second day. The GOP plan to “repeal and replace” Obamacare is on the verge of imploding. Then there is Russia: The day before, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that there was indeed an FBI investigation into Trump’s allies. “It’s a very intense time,” Gillibrand says, perhaps sharing the understatement of the new century. “There are so many issues that demand immediate action. President Trump has really undermined basic institutions of our Democracy, and each one is as important as the next.” She ticks through the targets of Trump’s myriad attacks: the independent judiciary, the free press, reproductive rights, refugees. "Each of these issues is important," she says.
If Gillibrand has fire in her belly, it’s burning low today. She's garnered a reputation for being friendly and full of energy (in her office there is a framed political cartoon of a woman meeting with a lobbyist and a political bigwig. “Who invited Little Miss Sunshine?” reads the caption). But that side doesn't always shine through — in this interview, at least. The issues we're discussing today are ones she's been hammering for years. She knows her message and delivers it rote, with unwavering discipline. Her answers can feel heavy on platitudes and policy, though it’s clear she cares about what she's preaching.
In fact, her office is a high-ceilinged shrine to women in politics (indeed it was once Hillary’s). All around us are framed mementos: a formal portrait of the women of the Senate, a framed picture of her taking a selfie with a group that includes Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. The pink-and-white jersey she sported as a captain of the Congressional Women’s Softball Team (No. 8) hangs on a wall behind her. Her bookshelf is stacked with titles by and about women, too — Clinton’s Hard Choices, Cokie Roberts’ Ladies of Liberty. There’s even a a pink-bound volume by the name of Slut: A Play and Guidebook for Combating Sexism and Sexual Violence.
It’s hard to imagine seeing a book called Slut on the shelf of one of her many old, white male colleagues. But it speaks to the issues that are most important to Gillibrand. And what is lost in rhetorical energy, she makes up for in the passion that is expressed in relentlessness and grit. Gillibrand is known for being dogged and persuasive, especially when it comes to recruiting colleagues for her causes (a strategy that has, at times, ruffled feathers in the decorum-steeped Senate.)
Women’s voices really aren’t represented [in Congress] on the same level they are in society. And so if we don’t amplify our voices, we won't be heard and the issues we care about won’t even make the top 10 list
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
Jon Reinish, a former aide who now works as a senior vice president at SKDKnickerbocker, describes Gillibrand as a “master of the carrot and the stick” and “the queen of 'find a way.'”
“She will buttonhole anybody. She will talk to anybody,” he said, recalling her insisting on meeting with Republicans like David Vitter and Rand Paul on even the most progressive proposals. “If she is behind something, she throws her entire weight behind it.”
Since Trump’s election, the former moderate “Blue Dog” Democrat — who used to have an A rating from the National Rifle Association — has thrown herself into her new role as a progressive leader of the anti-Trump resistance. She voted against all but two of his cabinet-level and administration appointees. For those not keeping track, that’s 17 no votes — more than any other senator. She’s been a strong and constant critic of the administration. When a Trump email blast labeled Gillibrand a “radical liberal” for opposing his immigration ban and subsequently misspelled her name, she retorted on Twitter: “It’s Kirsten.” Behind the scenes, her campaign team used the welcomed notoriety to raise funds.
Today, she downplays her role in the broader political movement, returning again and again to the power of grassroots. “Most of the resistance is from people standing up demanding action, demanding change, so I’m just part of something that’s larger than myself,” she says.
We “amplify each other’s voices,” “keep fighting for what we believe in,” and “use our time and talents wisely,” she adds. “If someone’s a writer, they should write. If someone’s good at creating memes, create a meme. Create something that’s going to go viral."
Soon after, a video of remarks at a Planned Parenthood event will be posted to her Twitter feed. She’ll repeat that last bit about all the ways you can resist — through writing, social media, and her personal favorite mode, comedy — almost verbatim. When it comes to her message, she never wavers.
At 50, Gillibrand is relatively young compared to the aging Democratic establishment and its fringier firebrands. Bernie Sanders is 75, and Elizabeth Warren is 67; when Gillibrand first joined the Senate she was its youngest female member, at 42. She's also the mother of two young sons — “Theo and Henry’s mom” is the first line of her Twitter bio — so she has intimate knowledge of the struggles working parents face. When she was pregnant with her first, she literally wrote the maternity leave policy at her private law firm.
Her feminist worldview was shaped from an early age. Kirsten Gillibrand was born Kirsten Rutnik and raised in upstate New York by parents who worked as lobbyists and lawyers. She often says her interest in politics was sparked by her grandmother, Dorothea "Polly" Noonan, a legislative secretary and powerful Democratic organizer who recruited fellow women to stuff envelopes, knock on doors, and attend political events.
When Kirsten was still in grammar school, she set her sights on being a senator, she wrote in Off the Sidelines, her 2014 best-selling memoir. But decades passed before she actually ran. First there was an Ivy league education, law school on the West Coast, partner track at a corporate law firm (where her clients included tobacco giant Philip Morris), and a stint in Washington, working at the Housing and Urban Development agency under the Clinton administration.
She credits Hillary Clinton’s now-iconic “women’s rights are human rights” speech at the Women’s Conference in Beijing back in 1995 for reigniting her political ambitions. Gillibrand was 28 at the time.
“With her words, Hillary put me back in touch with my childhood dream,” she wrote in her book. “I needed to alter the course of my life to get involved in politics.”
Kirsten really took these issues of family and workplace for women and lifted them up in such a way that they are now the centerpiece of so many conversations in Washington
Stephanie Schriock, President of Emily's List
When Clinton decided to run for U.S. Senate in 2000, Gillibrand donated her money and time. The work was the foundation for what would become an influential mentorship — and Gillibrand’s own entry into politics. She enrolled in not one but three candidate bootcamps, where she learned how to ask for money and talk to reporters. By the early 2000s, she was ready to run. She moved upstate and identified a Republican-held district surrounding her hometown of Albany. She raised millions for the race — a preview of the fundraising prowess that would help raise her profile later on. The New York Times called her aggressive, disciplined, and tough. In a midterm election that brought Democrats back to power in the House of Representatives, she ousted the three-term Republican incumbent with 53% of the vote.
In 2009, when Clinton left the Senate to become Secretary of State, then-Governor David Paterson tapped Gillibrand to fill the spot, a move that didn't go uncriticized. “Kirsten Has Big Goals — But Little Experience,” The New York Post blared. But by 2012, when she was up for reelection for a full term, Gillibrand won in a landslide. At the time, it was touted as the largest margin of victory for Senate in state history.
From the get-go, Senator Gillibrand demonstrated her signature drive — but she was also decidedly more liberal than she was in the House (that "A" grade from the NRA soon plummeted to an "F"). She tackled the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell as well as legislation to increase health benefits for survivors of the September 11 attacks. Things were bumpy at times; her aggressive tactics rubbed some colleagues the wrong way, and she encountered her fair share of sexism. In Off The Sidelines, she recounted male colleagues commenting on her looks and weight. "Good thing you're working out because you wouldn't want to get porky," one told her. (In the book, she offers a retort: “Thanks, Asshole.” When we spoke, she said she sees sexism as not a challenge, but simply a “reality” in any male-dominated industry.)
Soon, Gillibrand was embracing issues that would become the core of her legislative agenda moving forward: equal pay, sexual assault in the military — and paid parental leave. Her advocacy didn't go unnoticed. When Stephanie Schriock joined Emily's List in 2010, no one was talking about those issues in "any significant way." Gillibrand changed that.
“Kirsten really took these issues of family and workplace for women and lifted them up in such a way that they are now the centerpiece of so many conversations in Washington,” Schriock, the president of the PAC supporting pro-choice Democratic women, says. “She deserves a lot of credit for really taking these issues...and putting a big spotlight on them, and saying this is the time, we have to get serious about this. This is not some side issue. This is actually the cornerstone of economic opportunity for American families.”
She’s won people over by being a hard worker and a team player and a savvy connecter.
Ellen Bravo, co-executive director of Family Values @ Work
Back in 2013, Gillibrand introduced her legislation to create a national paid leave program for the first time. She had a single House representative by her side at the press conference. Six senators — out of 100 — signed on as cosponsors.
In March of this year, she held a press conference to reintroduce the FAMILY Act for the third time. And she was flanked by a who’s who of Senate power players. There’s Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Tammy Duckworth, Patty Murray. Even Heidi Heitkamp, a moderate Democrat whose state Trump carried with more than 60% of the vote, was by her side. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer gave the opening remarks, challenging Trump’s administration to support Gillibrand's bill. Within weeks of its introduction, more than a quarter of the Senate was on board.
By many measures, it might seem this is the moment for paid family leave, a benefit just 14% of workers in the U.S. have currently. An overwhelming majority of voters, including Republicans, support the concept (though it’s less clear what they want done to fix it). It’s gaining traction in the states and in the corporate world. Hillary Clinton embraced paid leave as part of her platform last year; now, Ivanka Trump is touting her own take on addressing the issue from the West Wing.
But the political tide for paid leave has yet to rise in Washington. Gillibrand’s bill, modeled after programs already on the books in places like California and New Jersey, has never gotten a committee hearing in the Senate, despite the growing attention in the public and press. And that was before there was a Republican in the White House. “On its best day, Congress can be 20 or 30 years behind the rest of the country,” Gillibrand bemoans.
Her bill’s prospects aren’t much more promising this time around. “She knows she’s not going to win this year, but she’s in it for the long run,” says Ellen Bravo, co-executive director of the pro-paid leave coalition Family Values @ Work. “She’s won people over by being a hard worker and a team player and a savvy connecter.”
Success, even in the long run, will likely require overcoming one major roadblock: She doesn’t have a GOP cosponsor. And it's not because she hasn't asked.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, I’ll look at the bill,’ but then they don’t follow through,” Gillibrand says. “It’s very disappointing. But I haven’t lost hope.” She’s got a few GOP colleagues in mind and is actively courting them. But broad support on that side won't be an easy sell.
“I believe it would be hard to get it passed,” Sen. Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, said soon after introducing her own legislation to give tax credits to businesses offering two weeks of paid leave. “We’re looking at things we can get done. Get at the results and come back with facts and show that it really can make the difference.”
She will buttonhole anybody. She will talk to anybody. If she is behind something, she throws her entire weight behind it.”
Jon Reinish, former Gillibrand aide
The Republican-controlled Congress is one hurdle; the White House is another. And there is no bigger wild card out there than Trump. Gillibrand says she’s open to working with the administration. When we met, she and her staff were in the process of scheduling a meeting with Ivanka, whose proposal she called not only “not adequate,” but “very harmful to women.”
“You can’t limit it to just moms and just for a few weeks — it’s not enough,” Gillibrand says. “It needs to be broader. It needs to be gender neutral.” She's criticized the original Trump proposal for its lack of clear funding mechanism and for excluding same-sex couples, dads, and workers who need time off to care for an ailing parent, sibling, spouse, or even themselves. A plan that only covers women, she argues, will only open the door to more gender-based discrimination in the workplace. (Recent reports have suggested the administration is considering expanding its plan. Gillibrand's bill, meanwhile, relies on a "self-sustaining" fund to cover two-thirds of a worker's salary for 12 weeks in all of those cases. Her office says it would cost most workers the equivalent of a cup of coffee a week).
When asked what she thought of Ivanka’s role in the White House, which at the time of this interview was still undefined, Gillibrand shrugged, her face a mask: “I don’t know what her role would be.” When pressed on the speculation that Ivanka could get her father to embrace women-friendly policies, Gillibrand deflected. She suggested I ask them.
At its core, Gillibrand believes the fight over family leave (and equal pay, and sexual assault in the military, for that matter) boils down to a basic problem: There aren’t enough women in politics.
“Women’s voices really aren’t represented [in Congress] on the same level they are in society,” she says. “And so if we don’t amplify our voices, we won't be heard, and the issues we care about won’t even make the top 10 list.” To that end, she’s poured time and resources into helping other Democratic women run. Her Off the Sidelines PAC has raised more than $6 million for other female candidates since it launched. Last cycle, she used it to write five-figure checks to the campaigns of dozens of women running for Congress.
That work is only going to intensify heading into the 2018 midterms. Gillibrand is one of 10 female Democratic senators up for re-election. Some of those colleagues are facing tough races. She plans to be there on the ground alongside them. “We need to hold all those seats,” Gillibrand says emphatically.
There is urgency behind those actions, not least because of the culture wars that played out during the presidential race. “I think it was harder to take because it felt like it was more than an election,” she says. “It was a statement of a rejection of values, a rejection of priorities, a rejection of worldview shared by all those women.” She herself went into a “deep depression” after the election. She found her sadness reflected back at her one day while visiting her son's classroom, just days after Clinton's defeat. A mob of sobbing 8-year-old girls surrounded her.
“They were all so sad, and their mommies had been crying,” she remembers. “I had to be consoler-in-chief for all those kids. ‘Mrs. Gillibrand! We’re so sorry Hillary lost!’ It was tears, tears, tears.”
Gillibrand lifted herself out of that post-election grief by doing lots of yoga and Pilates and bingeing on comedy skits that put “everything in perspective.” Her face lights up as she lists her go-to mood lifters: Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler (with whom she shared a screen moment on Parks & Rec). She loves “the brilliant” Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live: “The Spicer stuff? Unbelievable.” And then there’s Veep, which Gillibrand describes as “so close to truth that you just can’t stop laughing, because you can imagine everyone doing exactly what those actors do.”
It's Gillibrand's own next role that's the subject of much speculation these days. Her name appears on many shortlists of future White House hopefuls, as it has for years. Her answer to that is predictably political: “I’m really focused entirely on 2018 and, I hope, being re-elected in my state,” she says, perfectly on script.
Whatever’s next, you can be sure that there's a long game at play, whether that means succeeding at the legislative level or looking to a more ambitious goal beyond. And she won't stop until she's met that goal — or exhausted every possible option.
“It is not going to be easy. It is not going to be quick," as she says of the resistance. “People [must] continue to speak out and not grow tired and not grow weary, and know that this battle is worth fighting for.
“And know,” she adds, “that if we don’t give up, we will prevail.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said Gillibrand's office is in the Dirksen building. It is in Russell.