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“You Have To Show Courage”: Part 2 of Kirsten Gillibrand Interview

More from the senator about religion, gender politics at work, how to be a good boss, and why she loves Veep.

“You Have To Show Courage”: Part 2 of Kirsten Gillibrand Interview
[Photo: Flickr user Senate Democrats]

Here is the second half of Fast Company‘s talk with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, following the publication of her book Off the Sidelines. (You can read the first part here.) In this installment, the senator talks about religion, child-rearing, and what she thinks of all those Washington-based political shows.

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One of the touchstones you write about in the book is your faith.

I was raised in a Catholic family. I went to an all-girls Catholic school kindergarten through 8th grade. When I was a young single girl in New York City, I really struggled on so many different levels. One of the places I turned to was a religious community I felt I could learn from. I was very focused on studying the Bible. I focused on doing lots of charitable work and being on charitable boards. It gave me a certain perspective of who I am and what I care about. When I found myself struggling when I was first appointed to the senate, I really had a lot to learn. I had to introduce myself to 20 million people–most of whom had zero faith in my ability to do the job or to be able to handle the responsibilities in the Senate because they didn’t know me. They didn’t know how hard I was going to work or that I really could fight for them on the issues they cared most about. And so one of the realizations I made was that I could connect with a lot of people based on shared faith.

One chapter is entitled “A Time Such as This,” which comes from the story of Esther in the Bible. Can you talk about why that story matters to you?

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Esther is picked from all the land to marry the king, who has a wife he’s estranged from. Esther is Jewish, and he doesn’t know that she’s Jewish. Her uncle informs her that the king has a very evil advisor, whose goal is to kill all the Jews, and she needs to intervene. He says: You may have been placed where you are, at this time, for a time such as this, and if you don’t act, the Jews will be saved but not by you and your family will die and you will die. You have to show courage. For her to ask for an audience with the king could be a death sentence. But she crafts a way to get her husband to pay attention to what the adviser is doing. She saves the Jews and shows great courage at a time of enormous stress.

All of us are placed at a time and place “such as this,” to do something we are being asked to do. It could be being that one homeroom mom who takes care of everything for their child’s class. You could be the person who has endured a horrible life event and your passion to make sure that doesn’t happen to someone else is so strong that you do something about it. Carolyn McCarthy, for example, didn’t intend to run for Congress, but when her husband was killed by a stray bullet on the Long Island Railroad, she said, “I have to do something about gun violence in this country.” She used that moment, that time, to do something so meaningful. All of us can be called to do that one thing–and it could be any one thing.

Let’s go back to the story in your book about being a young law-firm associate and hearing a partner spend 30 seconds praising your work and 90 seconds praising your looks.

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And my haircut! I felt betrayed. I can’t tell you how upsetting it was. I was young. I didn’t have the tools I have now to disregard it or let it roll off me. I felt that I wasn’t valued. You can’t tell someone else what to do in that circumstance because they may not be a place where they can just turn to someone and say, “You’re a total jerk.” They may not be in a place where they can berate their boss for ridiculous language or outrageous statements. They might not have the confidence, or they might just want to crawl under the table, which is what I wanted to do. And so I shared this story so that they know–these things happen all the time. You can definitely overcome it. You can definitely make partner and set the rules yourself.

What advice do you have for bosses?

Stop being idiots! Don’t say stupid things! We all make mistakes. I’ve said things I regret. But be careful, especially when you’re talking to a young person who works for you or maybe idolizes you or looks up to you. If you minimize them based on something so superficial, it’s hurtful. We need to be better. All of this goes back to whether we are valuing our women and our girls.

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What do you think of all the shows on television now about Washington and politics, some of which are depicting women in more powerful roles? Do you watch them?

The documentary Miss Representation tells a really sad story about how few women get leadership roles in modern-day media and modern-day Hollywood. Women aren’t portrayed very often–much less than men–and when they are, they’re often just appendages or T&A, not as role models and leaders. So I’m delighted when they create dramas with women in leadership roles, women with convictions who fight hard for them. I do watch Veep. I think it’s hysterical. I get great pleasure out of that show. House of Cards is dark–much darker than real life–but I was glad that they took the narrative of sexual assault in the military. I thought it raised awareness. I really wanted to see the first episode of Madam Secretary, but I happened to be in Dallas that night and the Dallas game went over. So it got canceled. But I will watch it! I think it’s important.

You write about parenting a lot–and about cleaning the bathroom–

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The one chore I dislike the most!

You write, “God gave me boys for a reason–they keep me humble.”

Yes, that’s a fact!

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So that’s what you’ve been taught by them, but what are you teaching Henry and Theo about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman?

So far what I’ve taught them is to be kind. One of the most important lessons that a parent can give a child is to be empathetic and to care about others. Every few months, we go through their bedroom to find the books they’re not reading, the clothes they’re not wearing, the toys they’re not playing with, so that we can give them to others. I want them to understand that they have enormous opportunities and privileges, but so many children don’t. Kindness and empathy are the things most lacking in society today. If we can raise our children to have those two attributes, we will go a long way to making our country and the world better.

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