IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

An excerpt and discussion of Sen. Gillibrand's new book

An excerpt and discussion of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's news book, Off The Sidelines.


If I had a daughter, I would tell her certain things. I would tell her that it ’s great to be smart, really smart—that being smart makes you strong. I would tell her that emotions are powerful, so don’t be afraid to show them. I would tell her that some people may judge you on how you look or what you wear—that ’s just how it is—but you should keep your focus on what you say and do. I would tell her that she may see the world differently from boys, and that difference is essential and good.

These are not the lessons I feel I need to give my sons. They al- ready believe that they are innately strong and powerful and that others will respect their worldview. This hit me when my younger boy, Henry, was two and a half years old, and my husband, Jona- than, took him and Theo, his older brother, then age seven, to The- odore Roosevelt Island to explore. Roosevelt Island is fantastic: right in the middle of the Potomac River and filled with woodpeck- ers, frogs, marshes, trails, and a seventeen-foot statue of Roosevelt himself, in shining bronze and larger than life. Along one of the paths, the kids came to a hill. Jonathan, sensing a slowdown and not wanting to carry Henry, said enthusiastically, “Come on, boys!”

Henry didn’t miss a beat. He just nodded his little chin in agree- ment and said, “We can do it because we ’re men!”

Now, I love my sons, and I love Henry’s confidence. I want him to think that the world is his. But how the hell did he come to believe, at the tender age of two, that he could do anything because he is a (very little) man? I did not teach him this. In our family, capability has nothing to do with gender. I’m one of only twenty female senators, so I have about as atypical a job as you can find for a woman in the United States. More to the point, how many girls in his preschool class, when faced with some hill to climb, would say brightly, “We can do it because we ’re women!”?

I can tell you how many: zero. Well, maybe one, Irina—more on her later. That ’s why I’m writing this book. I want women and girls to believe in themselves just as much as men and boys do. I want them to trust their own power and values and say, “We can do it because we ’re women!”—not just for their own sense of self, but for all of us. Girls’ voices matter. Women’s voices matter. From Congress to board meetings to PTAs, our country needs more women to share their thoughts and take a place at the decision- making table.

This is not a new idea. During World War II, Rosie the Riveter called on women to enter the workforce and fill the jobs vacated by enlisted men. The Rosie the Riveter advertising campaign had a simple slogan: We can do it! And she told women two things: One, we need you, and, two, you can make the difference. My great- grandmother Mimi and my grandmother’s sister, my great-aunt Betty, both saw Rosie on posters, pulled off their aprons, and headed to work at an arsenal in Watervliet, New York, assembling ammunition for large weapons. Throughout my childhood, lamps made out of shell casings from that arsenal lit my great-grandmother’s living room. Rosie the Riveter was direct, unconventional, and extremely effective. By the end of the war, six million women, including my great-grandmother and her daughters, worked outside the home. Their generation forever changed the American economy and women’s role in it.

We need a Rosie the Riveter for this generation—not to draw women into professional life, because they are already there, but to elevate women’s voices in the public sphere and bring women more fully into making the decisions that shape our country.

I first realized this as an eager twenty-eight-year-old who looked up from her law firm work long enough to notice that First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was speaking to the world from a stage in Beijing. She was at the United Nations World Conference on Women, and she was delivering to the whole planet a very simple, powerful message: Women’s rights and human rights are one and the same. I was floored. I’d majored in Asian studies at Dartmouth and studied Mandarin in Beijing. I couldn’t believe Hillary was so bold as to make that speech from China, where the women’s rights movement was decades behind the one in the United States. I kicked myself for not being there, for not even knowing about the conference. That woke me up to the fact that there was an important global conversation taking place. I cared deeply about it, and I wasn’t participating.

What was I waiting for? An invitation? Thanks to my grand- mother Polly, who was involved in Albany politics, I grew up steeped in political stories—it was simply background noise in our family. When I was young, maybe six or seven years old, I sat around with my little sister, Erin, and my cousin Mary Anne, and while they announced that they wanted to be an actress and a flight attendant when they grew up, I said I wanted to be a senator (not that I knew what a senator did, exactly, but I knew it sounded accomplished and important). Yet by high school I’d lost my girlhood bravado. I knew by then that my goal sounded presumptuous for a girl, so I switched to saying I wanted to be a lawyer. But when I heard about Hillary’s address in Beijing, my unfiltered childhood sense of self came rushing back. I wanted so badly to have been there in Beijing—and that meant I needed to become more involved in politics. I needed to embrace the part of me that I’d been pushing away.

At the time, I was living in a small apartment with my actress younger sister on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, working far too many fifteen-hour days. Outside work, I was volunteering with a few local charities, trying to make a small difference. But politics was something I hadn’t touched since I was a kid, helping my grand- mother and her friends elect local candidates. So I called a friend ’s mother, who had worked for Vice President Gore doing children and family policy, for advice about getting involved. I trusted and respected her, so when she recommended joining the newly formed Women’s  Leadership Forum, a political fundraising group for women who cared about presidential politics, I did.

A few weeks later, I left my law office early one evening and headed over to the River Club, a few blocks from the Queensboro Bridge, to hear the first lady speak. Nervous and excited, in my best blue suit, I stood in the back of the room. I was exhausted from the treadmill of my life, I was by far the youngest of the hundred women in the room, and I didn’t know a soul. But Hillary Clinton said something that changed me: “Decisions are being made every day in Washington, and if you are not part of those decisions, you might not like what they decide, and you’ll have no one to blame but your- self.”

She didn’t know me any better than a potted plant. She wasn’t even looking in my direction. But inside I felt singled out. I cleared my throat and started sweating, knowing right then that I needed to alter my life. I was on track to make partner at a big corporate law firm, which would mean a healthy paycheck, more than enough to raise a family someday. But there, in that room, for the first time, I was forced to confront that this wasn’t what I wanted for myself. I wanted to do work that mattered to me. I wanted to help shape deci- sions that impacted people in positive ways. I wanted a life in public service. The idea of running  for office terrified me, but deep down I knew I had to. The first lady was right: If women in all stages of life don’t get involved and fight for what we want, plans will be made that we may not like, and it ’ll be our own damned fault. I think about this every day. It ’s true at every level, from the Capitol to your city’s town hall to your neighborhood school. We need to par- ticipate, and we need to be heard. Our lives, our communities, and our world will be better for it.

It ’s almost twenty years later, and I’m still fighting for women to be heard. The landscape for women in politics right now is not pretty. As Gloria Steinem said, brilliantly, “The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.” So here ’s my blunt truth: I’m angry and I’m depressed, and I’m scared that the women’s move- ment is dead, or at least on life support. Women talk a lot these days about shattering the glass ceiling, but we also need to focus on clean- ing the so-called sticky floor, making sure all women have a chance to rise.

Americans need to demand change. Ours is the only nation in the developed world with no paid maternity leave. We have no paid family sick leave. We don’t ensure affordable daycare, or provide universal pre-K, or mandate equal pay for equal work. And what do we do when our representatives fail to fight for these things? Nothing. No axes drop. No booms come down. We do not hold our representatives accountable. When politicians fail to serve constituents on Second Amendment rights or farm subsidies, do you think those voters remain quiet? Not a chance. They respond like wrecking balls, the consequences swift, hard, and unforgiving. We have great women’s advocacy groups, with great leaders, but we, as women, don’t  hold politicians  accountable.  We don’t  have a functional women’s movement. We need to change that, consolidate our power and shape the national debate. We need to be forceful. We need to be heard.

So this is my Rosie the Riveter moment, a plea to you and all women to get more involved. If women were fully represented in national politics, do you think we ’d be wasting so much time debating contraception? Of course not. We ’d be fixing the economy, ad- dressing national security issues, and improving education. If women were fully represented in politics, sexual assault in the military and on college campuses would happen less and be prosecuted more—we ’d have insisted on transparency and accountability long ago. Caregivers would get the support and respect they deserve. Af- fordable daycare, universal pre-K, paid family medical leave, equal pay, and raising the federal minimum wage would be foregone conclusions. If women were fully represented in politics, our national priorities would expand and solutions would be smarter and more diverse, and we ’d have a stronger economy and nation.

So in hopes of pulling some of you off the sidelines and into the action, I’m sharing here my story from the front lines of public service, as well as stories of brave, outspoken women who have in- spired me. I’ll also share a few lessons I’ve learned along the way about inner strength, overcoming obstacles, sharing a bathroom with two boys and a husband, and how to find joy and meaning in life. And I’m going to tell you the most important lesson right here: Your voice matters—to all of us. Together, we can create the country we want and deserve. And we can do it because we ’re women.