Senator Kirsten Gillibrand On Family Leave, Sexual Assault & Women In Politics


Many of us are familiar with New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. She is well-known among millennial women as the legislator who has been fighting against campus sexual assault, as well as sexual assault in the military. Together with some Republican representatives, she proposed a bill that would enable victims of military sexual assault to take their cases to a civilian court as many felt the military were not dealing with this issue adequately. Although the bill eventually did not pass in the Senate, her continual fight has shown evidence of change, such as the bill which passed earlier this year passed by NY Governor Andrew Cuomo which helps prosecute, define and protect college students from sexual assault and rape. New York has now officially become only the 2nd state to implement a law like this, California being the first.

If you haven’t yet read Senator Gillibrand’s book ‘Off The Sidelines’, we cannot stress enough how awesome it is as it gives you a glimpse into the life of a modern woman in US politics and how she as an ordinary woman rose to a seat of power and is making a difference in the world.

She is the granddaughter of Polly Noonan, a woman who many years ago worked as a secretary for the Governor and became the driving force behind mobilizing women in her community to vote for and influence policies that were being passed in the state. Kirsten’s mother Penny was heavily pregnant with her older brother when she was taking the bar exam, which was a great example to Kirsten of what balancing family and career looks like.

Kirsten practiced law for many years before becoming involved in politics, and first ran for a Congressional seat. She defeated a Conservative incumbent who had the seat for many years and spread many nasty lies and slander material about Senator Gillibrand in the hope she would lose. After serving in Congress, she then ran for the US Senate and ended up taking over Hillary Clinton’s old seat when she took up the position of Secretary of State for the Obama Administration’s first term.

Today as a Senator she is continuing to fight for issues that affect many people’s lives, including paid family leave and sexual assault. In an interview with Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s Lenny Letter, she shared her thoughts on new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s stance on family leave and why she believes the more we raise our voices and start conversations the needle will slowly move in our favor.


Kirsten believes it is great to see a Politician like Paul Ryan openly speak about how important his family is to him, but that he also needs to recognize how different many other families capabilities are.

“I think all parents want to spend time with their family. But for low-wage workers, that’s not always possible. They don’t get to set their hours, they don’t get to say when they’re working and when they’re not working. So things like sick days really matter. Things like paid leave really matter. Equal pay for equal work really matters. Raising the minimum wage matters,” she said.

Paid family leave has become a huge issue in the current Presidential Campaign as the US is one of only a few countries in the world that does not have government mandated family leave. Many studies argue that with paid family leave, employers will actually save money, and both men and women feel supported enough to return to work as well as know they have the ability to spend time with their children when they need to. But Kirsten Gillibrand says people like Paul Ryan need to remember his privileged position where he CAN demand family time doesn’t always happen for others, which is why family leave would help immensely.

“Paul Ryan has a huge salary, and he has more than enough resources. So I would hope that his instinct and desire to spend time with his family could be replicated in family policies across the board that allow all workers to have some family time, not just the most affluent, and not just the lucky few who happen to be the next Speaker of the House,” she said.

Although it kinda seems embarrassing that the US, as supposedly the most powerful country in the world, has yet to implement a basic law that would protect the rights of families and jobs, it also can be discouraging to see the amount of politicians who are so adamant this type of law is not needed. Senator Gillibrand has a different perspective, however.


“Don’t get discouraged. Two years ago, our goal was to make it a national debate. To make sure it was debated on the national stage during presidential campaigns. It is being debated right now, in the Democratic debates, and even Marco Rubio has his own version of paid leave. His is a smaller version; it’s just a tax deduction for businesses that provide it. But still, he felt the need to have a paid-leave policy, which means we’ve really moved the ball forward,” she said, harking back to her stance on why raising our voices is a powerful thing to do.

She says there are many businesses who are implementing their own family leave policies in order to retain their female workers and better support families, but not everyone can work for tech companies like Google and Facebook so she is working on a national bill that will hopefully gather bi-partisan support from both Democrats and Republicans in order to pass and protect workers whose companies don’t offer a leave package.

“If you had a policy where everybody put aside amounts of their wages — the cost of a cup of coffee a week for both the employer and employee — it would make a difference. They’d be able to create an earned benefit that would be there for every employee whenever they needed it. And it’s an answer for the gig economy. Because whether you work for a small business or a big business, part time or full time, it’s there for you. It travels with you as an earned benefit,” she explains about her proposal.

Interviewer Jessica Grose puts forward the idea of paid family leave following the pattern of gay marriage, which gathered strength and support state by state, eventually landing in the Supreme Court which passed a national law allowing gay marriage across all 50 states in June this year.

“We should work on it both state-by-state and federally, because they build upon each other. With gay marriage, state-by-state advocacy moved public opinion forward, so that by the time it got to the Supreme Court, public opinion had already moved. So the Supreme Court could say, this is already a national viewpoint, this is not some radical idea. You have to work on paid leave on all these fronts. State, local, federal at the same time. Business by business by business. And get more community leaders to say, “This was the best thing we could have done for our businesses,” said Senator Gillibrand agreeing that it is a good tactic.


Moving on to the issue of campus sexual assault and the legislation she helped push through the house, the Senator says it does 4 key things to tackle the issue:

1. “It requires an online survey every two years for all college kids to have access to, to fill out. And that will be published by the Department of Education, so you actually know which schools are safe, which ones don’t deal with these problems effectively, and you’ll know about where the challenges are at each school.”

2. “We will also create better training and a standard for each school. We’re going to have a confidential adviser at every school that will know all the options for someone who’s been raped, both on campus and with local criminal authorities. And basic standard training for all the people who adjudicate these cases.”

3. “We’re going to have tougher penalties and fines if a school doesn’t meet their obligations to flip the incentives, so it’ll be worth their while to get it right.”

4. “We’re going to communicate and work with local law enforcement so there’s a set of procedures in place already if someone does want to go the criminal-justice route. A lot of times when students have gone to the police department, they’ve laughed them out of the department. So there needs to be a protocol and a plan so that if someone does want to report, they can effectively.”

As for the argument that the process should be handled by law enforcement first, instead of allowing the University to handle it, the Senator said that in their research for the bill, they found women and men were more likely to report and feel supported with school intervention first, because law enforcement can be intimidating, and their judicial and criminal process is a lot slower than what schools can do.


And finally on the topic of women in politics and how she would encourage the younger generation to raise their voice, the Senator says often times women fear raising their voices because they believe they won’t be heard, which is not true. There are plenty of issues that are very specific and unique to women that can often go unheard if no one chooses to speak up.

“They should trust their instincts that these are important issues, that these are vital issues, that these issues will make a difference. I’d urge them to be heard because if they don’t try to change something, nobody will. If they are willing to fight for that issue on a local level or on a national level, it could be the difference between making that change and not making it,” she said.

“Most women are pretty fearless when you say, ‘Would you do it if you could end global climate change, could you do it if this planet could survive for your granddaughter and your granddaughter’s granddaughter?’ They’d say, ‘I’d do it.’ Because they are tough and they are fearless, especially if they’re fighting for somebody else,” she said.

Going back to the influence of her mom and grandmother, Kirsten’s passion for women’s voices in public life come from a place where women are seen as powerful and equal and just as important as men’s voices.

“[I saw] grandmother and mother live their lives the way they wanted to, a determination that women should be self-actualized. That women actually should have a say about their destiny. I always knew that women’s voices matter, that their life experience matters, that when they are part of decision-making, outcomes are better. My mom was [a] woman…who really defined herself by what she did outside the home in a way that was different. She was our role model,” she said.

And Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is certainly one of our role models, showing a generation of women what is possible, no matter your background or your status. For us, the most important aspect we took from her interview is that raising your voice and continuing the conversation about an issue we are passionate about with our communities, families and spheres of influence is going to be the difference between making change or maintaining the status quo. We know which one we want to take part in!


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