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“What It Says Is That We Don’t Value Women”: Interview With Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

Part 1 of a 2-part talk. Gillibrand discusses feminist role models, football–and why she revealed sexist remarks from colleagues.

Sometimes she’s earnest. Often, she’s passionate. But whether she’s talking about sexual assault on college campuses or watching football, her mother as a role model, or “women’s issues,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is always candid. Recently, following the recent publication of Off the Sidelines, her memoir/political manifesto, she sat down with for an evening with Fast Company–in the first Kering Talk, a series of conversations with some of today’s most influential people–to discuss her inspirations and innovations.

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Here are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.

On inciting a furor by revealing sexist Congressional comments:

You must have known that the parlor game was coming–that when you wrote about senators and congressmen commenting on your weight, people would wonder who said what.

Actually, I did not expect the parlor game. But I did expect that this would be the chapter that a lot of women’s magazines would want to talk about. The reason I purposely included anecdotes and illustrations is because I wanted to elevate the debate to talk about real challenges that women face in the workplace. The ridiculous comments a colleague might make to me when I’m eight months pregnant didn’t affect me: I’m well on in my career. It didn’t undermine me. It didn’t make me feel badly. I recognized that the guy wasn’t really right to make such a comment. But the comments that hurt most were when I was younger, when I had a boss who, after I worked months and months on a long, hard case, giving up weekends and vacations. To have a celebratory dinner where my boss said, “Thanks, Kirsten, for working so hard, but don’t you just love her new haircut? She looks so great.” As a young associate that was devastating. I expected I would be rewarded for my hard work and respected for my sacrifices.

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But what do you think it says about us as a society that many people seem more interested in who said what to you rather than what they said–and the underlying issue here?

It’s never about the one comment or the one outrageous statement. If you go down that rabbit hole of who said what, it’s just about the individual, it’s about the stupid remark, and it’s just about the insulting comment and how outrageous that individual is. But when we’re talking about whether we value women and the challenge women are actually facing in the workplace, it’s really important to have this elevated debate.

We’re debating right now how the NFL is treating women and the fact that they mishandled such a crisis–all facts were known and still the athlete is given a slap on the wrist. It’s an example of an institution that closes its ranks around the favored. What it says is that we don’t value women.

On Football

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Are you a football fan?

Go Bills! I support my New York teams.

Has all this changed your view of the NFL? Has it changed what games you’re watching?

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I was never watching games. And what I can tell you is, it’s not acceptable. That institution is given favored tax treatment. The CEO is paid millions of dollars. And these are our role models. Our players, in all major sports, many young kids, boys and girls, look up to these players as their role models, and there must be a zero-tolerance policy. If we don’t have a zero-tolerance policy or accountability, we’re not doing our jobs. We as citizens need to demand greater transparency.

On Feminist Role Models

One advantage you’ve had since you were young: role models, for instance, your mom.

My mom taught me a couple life lessons that really mattered to me. She was a trailblazer–one of only three women in her law-school class. She found time to provide for her kids. When we were young, she made all our clothes. She also carved out time for herself. By the time she was my age, she was a second-degree black belt. That was unusual in upstate New York! My most vibrant memory of my mother is her on the kitchen phone–filing details of an adoption case while cooking dinner while sweeping the floor. I remember her just being this very ever-present hands-on mom who really cared about her life outside the home and her life as a person. Which is why she made time for things like karate and shooting the Thanksgiving turkey.

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And your grandmother?

She was the political role model. She was born in the south end of Albany, to very little means. She never went to college. She was in charge of the secretarial pool, and she found out over time she could influence things. Door-to-door work, envelope stuffing, phone banking–my grandmother and her friends were doing this. You couldn’t get elected in Albany if you didn’t have the blessing of my grandmother and her lady friends, because they did all the work. I learned at her knee that women’s voices really do make a difference. I learned from her to be fearless.

On “Women’s Issues”

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A lot of the book is directed at women. What’s the message here for men?

A lot of these issues of structural unfairness, we need men advocating for them too. Many men would love the flexibility of having paid leave when their mother is dying or when their child is hit by a car and in a wheelchair or when they have a baby or adopt a child. Everyone needs that kind of flexibility. If men will advocate alongside women and take that leave, it will become the norm, not just something that women need and women want.

Isn’t one of the structural problems that many people see some of these issues as “women’s issues”?

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Most people do see all family-care issues as women’s issues, and that’s a structural challenge that we have. But affordable day care is relevant for all families with kids. Unfortunately in four out of 10 families, the woman is the primary or sole wage earner. If women are being asked to manage all things for their family in four out of 10 families, they have a special burden. Eight out of 10 families, the moms are working, and unfortunately, the workplace rules are stuck in the Mad Men era, when they assumed dads were going to work and women were staying home. That’s just not the case anymore.

You’ve mentioned you’re inspired by the example of Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student who is doing a performance–art piece for her senior thesis, carrying a mattress around campus representing the mattress she was raped on–so she can show the weight of the burden she carries because justice hasn’t been done.

Emma is a brave young woman. She came to a press conference on sexual assault on college campuses, and I watched her, in awe, look straight into the camera and tell her story to unknown audiences. She had such courage to not only speak truth to power but to share the most intimate, horrible moment of her life and demand justice. Women like her, they’ve started a movement. These young women, in their 20s, are so persuasive, so passionate, that there’s now a piece of legislation I’ve drafted with my colleagues to flip the incentives on these college campuses so that they can get it right. And my book is really about talking to all women about their stories, their priorities. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Democrat or Republican, independent or uninvolved. They have a viewpoint to share, and it’s not being heard. The women that do stand up can truly make a difference.

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