Senator Kirsten Gillibrand isn’t just a political superstar and rumored one-day presidential candidate—she’s your career counselor! Glamour‘s Cindi Leive gets her success secrets here.
Senator Gillibrand, right, in her congressional office with Leive. Note the artwork by her kids on the wall.
I love the art in Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office. There are stick-figure families by her kids—”I love Mom” scrawled across them—and, just inches away, a John James Audubon painting of a falcon in “attack pose.” But being both fierce and family-oriented is Sen. Gillibrand’s thing. In the five years since the 47-year-old Democrat took Hillary Clinton’s seat representing New York in the U.S. Senate, she’s championed laws supporting women and children, gaining rabid fans and ruffling feathers.(She also helped end the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.) So what can women of all political persuasions learn about confidence—and work-life balance—from her? I went to the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., to find out.
Cindi Leive: So here we are in your office. Every profile of you mentions your sons, Henry and Theo [ages five and 10, respectively], waiting in here while you cast a vote.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: Henry’s typically here between 3:00 and 5:00 P.M. Yesterday he didn’t want to go to his tae kwon do class; he asked to come here!
CL: You arranged to cast your vote from the Senate chamber doorway so you could hold Henry’s hand [while he waited outside]. Was that hard to get the OK for?
KG: It took months. But it was necessary. [Laughs.] Henry’s only five, so he gets into trouble if he’s not supervised.
CL: Have other senators taken advantage?
KG: No. Most of them have wives who take care of the children. I do not have a wife. I have a wonderful husband, but he works in New York City during the week.
CL: I wanted to ask about that! For decades men in leadership jobs have had somebody at home waiting for them, to rub their feet and ask them how their day was. Is there ever a part of you that’s like,”OK, honey, you have to move to D.C.”?
KG: My husband [Jonathan Gillibrand, a finance manager] lives in D.C. on weekends; his job the last two years has been in New York City. But I have more flexibility than most working moms trying to raise a family. Unfortunately, our [country's] workplace rules are stuck in the seventies, when, out of a block of 10 houses, in more than half of them the husband went to work and the wife stayed home. Now on that same block almost eight of the wives work. That’s one reason why I want equal pay for equal work, and why affordable day care, early childhood education, and universal pre-K are so important to me.
CL: You know, April 8 is Equal Pay Day, on which women’s wages finally catch up to what men earned the previous year.
KG: It’s disgraceful. Women’s voices aren’t heard often enough. Congress should reflect the population, but with only 20 percent women in the Senate and 18 percent in the House, it just doesn’t.
CL: You believe organizations with more women leaders are fairer and more efficient. Have you seen that in the Senate?
KG: Women are good at collaborating and finding common ground.Corporate boards with even one woman are 40 percent less likely to have to restate their earnings!
CL:I know there’s a regular dinner that the 20 female senators have, right?
KG: Yes. President Obama even hosted us once! It gives us a chance to get to know each other as regular people. So when I’m trying to pass something, I can ask Susan Collins [R-Maine], “How do I do this in a way that the Republicans will vote for it?”
CL: What happens at the dinners?
KG: A lot of them are celebratory! I baked pies for Barbara Mikulski’s [D-Md.] birthday.
CL: Let’s talk about the Military Justice Improvement Act, a bill you introduced that would help survivors of sexual assault in the military. What would you like to see happen next?
KG: We still need a vote on the bill. But it contains the one reform victims asked for: that the decision of whether to proceed to trial not be made by a superior in their chain of command. So many victims said their commanders told them that if they reported their rapes, their careers would end.
CL: I saw someone ask you at a party once how you kept the issue in the headlines. You said, “I just kept talking about it.” You didn’t wait for it to be a hot topic.
KG: No. When a woman has the opportunity to speak truth to power, it’s important that she does, even if it’s just trying to get a crosswalk in her neighborhood. That’s how social change happens!
CL: Early in your tenure your detractors criticized your stance on the NRA, and the press was extremely focused on your appearance. You told New York magazine that your response was, “Give me six months.” How did you know?
KG: I had an amazing advantage: a grandmother [Polly Noonan, an influential confidante of the mayor of Albany] who loved politics. She taught me not to listen to negative press or people. I grew up knowing politics was rough-and-tumble.