Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: Bold, Candid & Outspoken

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What if I told you there was a politician out there who revealed her history of dating bad boys, called out sexist male colleagues for commenting on her looks, posed for Vogue, and, in her spare time, is spearheading a mission to help women rule the world? Meet Kirsten Gillibrand. I first encountered the New York State Senator several years ago, and I remember thinking how incredibly down-to-earth and open she was. Unlike many politicians, she comes across as far more real than rehearsed.

The senator calls her new book, Off the Sidelines, part memoir, part self-help, part call to action. It offers a candid glimpse into her life: on her history of dating the wrong guys before she met her husband, Jonathan, she says: “You really do want to go for the nice guy, not the hot, flashy, or cool one.” Gillibrand shares the moments of self-doubt she has when it comes to raising two young boys, saying, “I fail more than I would like to admit,” and she reveals how she’s handled the insensitive comments about her weight in the public eye. (When she was her heaviest, a male colleague told her she needed “to be beautiful again” to win the election). Her candid personal stories add up to fuel for her goals in the Senate. She is passionate about the issues families, women, and mothers face, including paid-leave, universal pre-Kindergarten, or the appalling number of sexual assaults that occur on college campuses. Ultimately, she hopes to inspire women to be more involved in creating solutions. 

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The Senator on her wedding day.

BB: I am loving your book—it is such a fascinating read and so well-written. It really sounds like you.

KG. I’m so glad! I tried very hard to make it feel like a conversation. I wanted the book to be very accessible and interesting for women to talk about. That was the whole goal.

BB: You are not your average politician; you’re so open. Everybody just wants to be your friend when they meet you. And that’s how your book is written, that’s how you lead. It’s so refreshing. 

KG:I decided that it was really important to me that the book was authentic and straightforward. I wanted to make it a little self-help-y, because I like those kinds of books myself. I am always looking for guidance and life advice every time I read a biography. So it is part self-help, part memoir, part call to action. 

BB: It’s great to lead by example. You share so many life experiences that many women will relate to. I loved the section where you were kneeling on your bathroom floor cleaning up after your boys saying, “God gave me boys for a reason. They keep me humble!” As the mother of three boys, I am constantly checking my bathrooms!

KG: [Laughing] It’s so true!

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President Bill Clinton campaigning for Senator Gillibrand.

BB: You also share your challenges with weight and body image, which I know so many women appreciate. How has it been talking about it in the public eye?

KG: The reason why I shared my story and my challenges with appearance is because all women have those challenges. Every industry has different standards, different requirements, different norms, but I wanted to empower the reader to know that you can decide for yourself what you want to do and what makes you feel good. How you feel about yourself is important! If working out and spending an hour a day just doing something for yourself is what’s going to make the difference, then you should be prioritizing that time. Most moms, in particular, but women in general put themselves last on every list. They never seem to get to themselves. I didn’t realize until my youngest was 2 that I really had not put myself first at all—ever. Making time for myself was a really “aha!” moment in terms of wellness and feeling fulfilled and feeling a little more in control. That meant putting a little gym time in every day, and making sure that I made time to eat properly. It made a huge difference in my life to get control and restore who I wanted to be in terms of health and fitness. That made me feel more confident, and when I feel more confident I tend to be more aggressive in my arguing and debates.

BB: It seems like being pretty, which you are, has been something that you have actually had to overcome.

KG: It’s more that in my industry, any comment on your looks—whether positive or negative, but particularly in the public eye—undermines you. So when I ran my first campaign in 2006, my opponent used both tactics against me. First he said “She’s just a pretty face,” meaning I was too stupid to be a member of Congress. The second time, he decided to send out very unattractive pictures of me and wash them in green so I looked quite witchy. I looked like this crazed woman to whom no one should have given any power. So he used both positive and negative in an attempt to undermine my credibility. People should just know which challenges they’ll face in their particular industry, and how comments about your looks might hurt and harm your career. Women should be aware so that they can have the tools that they need to overcome. That’s really why I shared my story. 

BB: For someone who has dealt with appearance issues, what was it like doing Vogue?

KG: At first I was very insecure about doing a women’s magazine, particularly as one as high-end and fancy as Vogue. But I realized that if I was willing to tell my story in a magazine like Vogue, I could reach many more readers who may not be involved in politics, who may not know who I am. One of my long-term goals is to engage more women in advocacy, to make sure that more women are heard on the issues that they care about, to get more women to vote, and to hold elected leaders accountable for their decisions and their failure to make women’s issues a priority. So when I thought about it in that frame, I thought it was worth it. While I did think it was a risk to wear beautiful clothes that could be distracting, I thought it was worth that risk in order for my message to reach a much broader audience.

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The Senator with her sons.

BB: One thing that I thought was surprising is that you have a lot of flexibility with your job. I wouldn’t have expected that. How can you be such an amazing mom and do what you do?

KG: My job, unlike most women’s, is quite flexible. So I have it a lot easier than the women working double shifts in the emergency room, or the women cleaning my office at night. Those women are given hours and they have to work those hours. I don’t have to take a meeting before 9 a.m. most days. I can do the normal morning routine most working parents do: making breakfast, making school lunches, finding soccer uniforms, and getting myself into some semblance of professionalism to try and start my day. When I have a child who’s sick, I can go pick him up and bring him to my office. I can cancel a meeting at the last minute to pick up a child who needs to be rushed to the emergency room. Those things are possible for me because I get to set my schedule. Some things I don’t get to adjust, like vote times. That can be a funny scenario, because I’m putting my kids into a very strange setting where children are rarely seen. Bringing Theo and Henry to sit in Senator Harry Reid’s office while I duck my head into vote every two minutes is somewhat comical. But those are the stories I share because I want women to know that they are not alone and if we can fight for flexibility for all women, we will be in a place where we all can do our jobs and meet our family’s needs at the same time. 

BB: I launched my own company, nursing an infant while talking on the phone with editors and trying to keep it all together—while not having it all together. So can women do it all? Yes, if they let go of things. Do you agree?

KG: Yes, and to understand that most women must work. It’s not even a choice. For 4 out of 10 households women are the primary or sole breadwinners, and for 8 out of 10 households, women are working alongside their partners or spouses. The thing that concerns me the most is that our workplace policies are really stuck in the Mad Men era, where they just assume wives are staying home and husbands are going to work, which just isn’t reality for most families in America. We should be trying to change those rules to make it easier for all parents to both work and provide for their kids. Something as simple as universal pre-Kindergarten or affordable daycare would go a long way to helping younger families stay in the workplace. Something as important as paid leave. (We are the only industrial country that doesn’t have it.) basically forces women to meet family emergencies and needs by slowing down or taking a break from their careers, working less hours—and certainly not getting promoted. That holds the economy back. I think that we should all concern ourselves with how to help more parents and women, in particular, do it all, because that is what they have to be doing. We shouldn’t be penalizing women or pitting them against each other by having a false debate. 

BB: It’s unfair that women are mostly responsible for all of it. The men need to be involved too. Is your husband helpful?

KG: He is super helpful. But even with all of the helpful husbands, studies still show that women are doing 70% of all of the housework and family care. So despite some amazing guys who are helping out, it is still on average that we are doing more than our spouses and partners.

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The Senator with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

BB: You open the book with thoughts on what you would tell a daughter if you had one. What are some of the things you want young girls to know?

KG: I think it is important to tell a young girl to be exactly herself. To embrace who she is and to really embrace her childhood dreams. She should not worry that ambition isn’t feminine or that boys won’t like her. She should not try to be someone else. I want every girl to think, “My voice matters. My dreams matter.” 

BB: What’s next for you? Are you eyeing the Oval Office? Could you run with Hillary Clinton?

KG: I think she would be an extraordinary president! I’m not, however, eligible to be her vice president because according to the Constitution, you can’t have two people from the same state. I love my position in the Senate. It is an amazing platform for all these national debates, and I can continue to make a difference. I feel very lucky. 

BB: We feel lucky to have you on Yahoo Beauty.

KG: Thank you so much Bobbi. It was great talking to you.