Kirsten Gillibrand, Democratic Senator from New York, is only the sixth—the sixth—woman in history to give birth while serving in Congress. Which could help explain some of the anti-contraception nonsense that has gone on in our esteemed halls of power. Gillibrand once changed her baby’s diaper on then-New York Governor David Paterson’s conference-room table, and over the years she has quietly been the target of insensitive comments about her weight from her male colleagues. In other words, though she has unfortunately few peers, Gillibrand understands the challenges facing modern women. And that’s precisely the takeaway from her new book. Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World is a call to arms urging women to get involved in politics to change the outcome on issues important to them.
Gillibrand, now forty-seven, was a corporate lawyer desperate to become more involved in public service when she contributed not once but several times to Hillary Clinton’s 2000 U.S. Senate campaign. She ultimately met the candidate at a fundraiser—really, the whole point of writing those checks—and then organized her own successful event for Clinton, which launched a friendship between the two women that continues to this day.
Though Gillibrand wanted to shed her unfulfilling job and work in public service, she was running into walls everywhere she turned. Finally, at a Women’s Leadership Forum event, she met Andrew Cuomo, then the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. She told him her goals, and he invited her to Washington for an interview, at which point he offered her a job on the spot as special counsel. “I didn’t miss corporate law for a second,” Gillibrand writes of her move to Washington, D.C. “I got an apartment just two Metro stops from my office and stayed until 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. each night, never leaving before Andrew did. I loved the work. I was helping labor leaders form job incentive programs for single mothers living in housing authorities. I was also working on financing for basic improvements in inner cities.”
Of course, that particular job ended with Bush v. Gore. But Gillibrand comes from tough stock, and a little setback like a Republican president wasn’t going to stop her. Gillibrand’s grandmother was a maverick who welcomed pregnant girls into her home and who carried on an unconventional—some might say scandalous—relationship with Albany’s longtime Mayor Erastus Corning. Gillibrand’s mother was a lawyer who could bake cookies and talk to clients at the same time, thanks to a kitchen phone with a long cord. “My mother, who was named Polly after my grandmother’s nickname, learned to be exactly herself from her mother, and in turn I learned from her,” Gillibrand writes. “She didn’t set out to take her law school exams fresh out of the labor-and-delivery ward. The timing just played out that way, and she powered ahead, undeterred.”
In 2006, Gillibrand launched her own political career full-bore, taking on Congressman John Sweeney in a district that had been in Republican hands for all but four years since 1913. Both Hillary and Bill Clinton campaigned for her, and she won with fifty-three percent of the vote. Two years in, she was still wet behind the ears when Barack Obama tapped Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, leaving an empty New York Senate seat. Gillibrand told Governor David Paterson she wanted the job, and he appointed her. Running in a special 2010 election for the seat, she won with sixty-three percent of the vote. She was re-elected in 2012 with seventy-two percent of the vote, a record-high victory margin for any statewide candidate in New York.
Gillibrand gave birth to her second son while she was still serving in the House. As she writes with refreshing honesty and humor, she wore dress sizes ranging from six to sixteen during her first years in politics. In the process, though she was engaged in substantive efforts—working to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for gay men and women in the military and fighting for health care for 9/11 first responders—she has endured all manner of insulting banter from her male colleagues. When the women’s congressional gym was closed for renovations during her pregnancy, she worked out with the men. “Many of my older male colleagues didn’t know what to say but still felt compelled to offer advice, such as this gem: ‘Good thing you’re working out, because you wouldn’t want to get porky!’” she writes. “Thanks, asshole.”
Another told her, “You know, Kirsten, you’re even pretty when you’re fat.” She believes, she writes, that his “intentions were sweet, even if he was being an idiot.” But perhaps the worst comment came from a labor leader who told her, “When I first met you in 2006, you were beautiful, a breath of fresh air. To win this election, you need to be beautiful again.” She wanted “to tell the guy to go screw himself.”
Gillibrand, God bless her, even lobs a few F-bombs in the book, writing with an unvarnished candor that is too often missing from ambitious political figures. And that frankness is matched by a reputation for dogged determination. Trying to push through reforms on the issue of sexual assault in the military, Gillibrand was so persistent that Tennessee Senator Bob Corker told her, “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, Kirsten, but you’re what my family would call a honey badger.” She writes: “I went back to my office and watched the hilarious YouTube clip about this crazed creature that will stop at nothing to get its prey. I decided to take it as a compliment.”
Part of what makes Gillibrand’s story so resonant are the details of her own struggle with work-life balance, a never-ending dilemma for so many woman. Funny, surprisingly interesting, and searingly honest, Off the Sidelines is the perfect antidote to cynicism, an everywoman story from a remarkable achiever.