The Early Setbacks of Kirstin Gillibrand

“What was the daring moment in your early career that catapulted you into a position held by only twenty American women?” I asked Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. She had just finished an unusually personal talk about the issues she addresses frankly in her new book, <em>Off the Sidelines, </em>at a breakfast given by Women of Washington and <em>The</em> <em>Atlantic. </em>

“It wasn’t a daring moment – it took a daring decade!”

And off she dashed, in a short-skirted black silk suit, to a hearing on the Hill.  To my mind,  Kirstin Gillibrand is the most daring woman’s voice in the U.S. Senate. But you would not have predicted that if you knew her as a buttoned-up 28-year-old lawyer,  hell bent on becoming a comfortably rich partner in a safe white-shoe law firm. When it came to politics, she wore blinders. It was only because she happened to look up from her desk at Davis Polk &amp; Wardwell in 1995 when a TV showed First Lady Hillary Clinton, live,  daring to address the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing. With thousands of other women from around the world barred from entering the conference and beating on the gates,  Hillary beamed an incendiary message around the globe: women’s rights and human rights are one in the same.

Gillibrand kicked herself. Why wasn’t she invited to this conference? Why didn’t she even know about it? She, who had studied Mandarin in China. She, who before she lost her girlhood bravado, used to say she wanted to be a senator.

The aHa! moment came a few weeks after she had seen the historic UN speech. The First Lady was speaking at the River Club in New York. Gillibrand stood in the back of the room, as she describes it in her book. She was nervous, the youngest woman there, “exhausted from the treadmill of my life.”

Again, Hillary Clinton threw out a provocative statement, one that would shake the foundations of the safe secure life the young lawyer was making: “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 yourself.”

“Ohmigod, she’s talking to <em>me!” </em>Gillibrand recalled her reaction. <em> </em>

She took the dare.  She decided to wean herself away from a law career and plunge into politics. But nobody would have her. She wrote to every foundation.  No response.  She couldn’t even get a Democratic candidate to take her on as a campaign volunteer.  No need for a lawyer. She tried to break into public service. One NGO after another turned her down.

This is one of the fundamental lessons of daring: Persevere.  Gillibrand ran into two years of closed doors, but she refused to give up.

It took several more years of perseverance before she talked her way onto Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senatorial campaign.  Clinton mentored the younger aspirant, and Gillibrand in many ways molded herself in Clinton’s image.  Her reward came in 2010, when, after a special election, she settled into Hillary’s vacated shoes as New York’s junior senator.

In the four years since, she has distinguished herself as a fire-brand fighter for equal pay, paid family leave, support for caregivers. She dared to start the first conversation about unreported sexual assault in the military.  Researching the issue  as had never happened  before, she used the media to report that women and men in uniform don’t dare report rampant rape cases for fear of reprisal. She called for Senate hearings.

Last year, Gillibrand fearlessly faced down a wall of be-medaled generals at a hearing on sexual assault in the military.  “I don’t know how you can say having 19,000 sexual assault cases a year is ‘discipline and order,’ “ she shot back at the Pentagon’s chief counsel. “It is the exact opposite of discipline and order.”

At the breakfast yesterday, Gillibrand told her audience that a Defense Department survey shows  that 62 percent of victims who reported their sexual assault have suffered retaliation.  All last year she had made a passionate case for giving the authority to investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases to independent prosecutors.  The greatest disappointment of her career was when her bill, the Military Justice Improvement Act, went down last March  – five votes shy of passage.

This and other retrenchments on women’s rights have left her angry and depressed, fearing that the women’s movement is dead, or, at best, on life support. Looking out at a passive audience of powerful Washington women, her frustration boiled over.  She shook her finger at the women: “Do you think if we had more women in Congress, it would be tied up for months debating whether or not women should have full access to contraception? Are you kidding me?”  She pointed out that 98 percent of American women use birth control at some point in their lifetime.

But as she has demonstrated, giving up is not in Gillibrand’s playbook.