Senators Booker & Gillibrand in Conversation

Text & Photos by K. Cecchini  @tonightatdawn

Garden State Senator Cory Booker visited Montclair yesterday for a conversation with fellow Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to discuss her memoir, Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the WorldHosted by the locally owned Watchung Booksellers and the town’s Board of Education, it was a treat for the politically engaged suburb of NYC.

Senators Gillibrand and Booker
Senators Gillibrand and Booker

Off the Sidelines chronicles the New York Senator’s journey to Congress on the heels of the most recognized female voices in politics. In fact, it was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s own words that propelled the young lawyer to insert herself and her vision into the political landscape,

“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.” -Hillary Rodham Clinton

The young lawyer took Ms. Clinton’s words to heart, “Oh my god, she’s speaking to me.” Now Hillary Clinton is not only Senator Gillibrand’s model and predecessor, but she is also her mentor and has again lent her words to her in writing the forward to Off the Sidelines.

Before crossing paths with Clinton, politics were not unfamiliar to Kirsten Gillibrand; her mother was a lawyer and her enterprising grandmother harnessed women’s voices in grassroots campaigns in Albany. Still her story is certainly worth telling and, as Arianna Huffington noted, it serves as a “handbook for the next generation of women to redefine their role in our world.”

It’s a “handbook for the next generation of women to redefine their role in our world.” -Arianna Huffington

Huffington’s synopsis is apropos because Off the Sidelines is also the name of Gillibrand’s organization whose mission reflects the book’s theme; they are both a “…call to action to encourage every woman and girl to make their voice heard on the issues they care about.” According to its site, the campaign’s goal is to embolden women to seek change through many different outlets, “whether it’s in the classroom, the boardroom, Congress or at home…”

“Mommy, we can do this because we’re women.”

After a hike with their sons, Jonathan Gillibrand told his wife that when he had encouraged the younger one to make it up the hill, the toddler took on his challenge with these words, “Daddy, we can do it because we are men.”

“Who taught him that?” reflected the female senator. Her son’s innocent words prompted Gillibrand to wonder how many girls in her son’s preschool class would say, ‘Mommy, we can do this because we’re women.”

Even the data shows that women lack confidence in their own abilities and voices. Gillibrand wants to change that and empower women to come “Off the Sidelines”.

Womanhood as Liability 

Unfortunately, womanhood is a liability in our society.

Gillibrand counts herself as fortunate because her circumstances enable her to persevere in her career, but laments all of the women who are never promoted or lose their jobs because they took time off to give birth or tend to sick children. Women are usually victims of what she refers to as the ‘sticky floor;’ they are skipped over for promotions and often return to the workforce on a lower level.

Furthermore, Booker contends that the floor is already sticky from girlhood; we say that we want girls to achieve big things but the messages that our culture sends -or does not send – to girls (and minorities) undermines our ambitions throughout their lives.

One unfortunate message is that ambitious women are “cold, calculating and self-centered” and ambitious men are regaled as “leaders”. While this sentiment is pervasive, calls for girls to enter into the science, technology and engineering fields are almost nonexistent.

In addition, there is an institutional bias throughout the public and private spheres that devalues women and their voices. From the seemingly innocuous buzz about appearance that undermines female intelligence and power to the outright dangerous when a favored athlete or soldier is protected at the expense of a female victim, womanhood is a liability in our society.

“I fear the women’s movement is dead. And if not dead, then on life support.” – Senator Gillibrand

Both of the young senators believe that feminism has lost ground. Booker urges the United States needs to regain its status as a leader in female empowerment, which he equates to a nation’s “empowerment”.

In order to do this, we need to affirm “fundamental” women’s issues that were thought to be settled in previous generations (e.g. reproductive rights) and move beyond them to legislate supports for women who are ‘doing it all’ without safety nets.

Some of the ways we can alleviate undue burdens for women and their families is by establishing universal Pre-K and equal pay for equal work. Another is to get on par with the rest of our industrialized peers and Pakistan and Afghanistan, by ensuring paid leave for all workers.

“As a women senator, I feel very strong.”

Of course, women give voice to familial issues, but the power to make changes throughout our nation lies in every senator’s “enormous opportunity to start a debate, stop a debate, change a debate.” Gillibrand strongly believes that women round out the debates in Congress.

In the first place, women are more apt to reach across the aisle. She credits collaboration with female Republicans for successes such as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal with Seantor Susan Collins and her work with Senators Lisa Murkowski and Olivia Snowe on the 9/11 Health Bill.

Additionally, women legislators bring a different perspective to conversations. During 2006 debates on ‘military readiness’ in the Armed Services Committee, men posed vital questions about equipment (e.g. “‘How many tanks? Jets? Ships?'”). Yet it was she and Senator Gabby Gifford who probed personnel concerns surrounding the mental readiness of men and women returning to combat. “So,” Gillibrand surmised, “the combination of those 2 debates – equipment and personnel – made for a much more comprehensive debate about what is military readiness.”

Start at the Kitchen Table

Of course, we cannot all all join Congress, but there are many ways we can amplify women’s voices. And it can start at the kitchen table.

For Kirsten Gillibrand, it did start at the kitchen table. As an impassioned young girl spilled countless cups of milk as she spiritedly waved her arms to emphasize her points in debates with her dad at the encouragement of her mom.

Now that little girl has brought her passion to Congress and is trying to guide more women to raise their voices wherever possible.

Sometimes women find their voices by necessity and Gillibrand highlighted two young women came to her office because they knew of her work against sexual assaults in the military. Annie and Andrea, both victims of rape in college campuses who had been blamed and retaliated against rather than protected by their institutions as they are obligated to, wished for her to see that sexual assaults are also prevalent on college campuses.

By these two unknown women bringing their plight to campuses around the country to demand accountability, the Senator emphasized, there is now proposed legislation to compel colleges to actively and effectively address rape.

Where can you start? Perhaps you will want to go right to the back of Off the Sidelines to the list of resources. But if you need some more guidance and inspiration, then open the handbook to the dedication page, “For Grandma” and start reading.

Who knows, YOU may change the world. Or at least your little corner.

Senators Gillibrand and Booker
Senators Gillibrand and Booker

Click here for more on this event.

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