WOMEN
09/16/2014 12:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

14 Badass Lessons From Kirsten Gillibrand's Off The Sidelines

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19:  Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks at a news conference supporting passage of the Military
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks at a news conference supporting passage of the Military Justice Improvement Act November 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. The legislation would help address increasing numbers of sexual assaults in the U.S. military by establishing an independent military justice system. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Kirsten Gillibrand is a cool chick.

As a 28-year-old Manhattan lawyer watching Hillary Clinton declare "women's rights are human rights" on the world stage, Gillibrand was moved to shift her course towards public service. She entered the House of Representatives after winning a hard-fought race against a four-term Republican incumbent in 2006. Just two years later, she received a surprise promotion when she was appointed to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat as her idol-turned-mentor became the secretary of state. At 42, Kirsten Gillibrand was youngest senator in Congress.

In the Senate, Gillibrand ensured health care for 9/11 first responders and stood on the front lines of the fight to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." She held the first Senate hearing on sexual assault in the military in nearly a decade, challenging the military's ability to prosecute crimes against women committed by those in their own ranks. This summer, she introduced a bipartisan bill to more effectively prosecute sexual assault on college campuses and penalize those that fail to do so.

Senator Gillibrand addresses all this and more in her new memoir Off The Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World. Her impressive record on women's issues goes deeper (OK, a bit shallower) than politics: She lists "girl crush" Tina Fey next to the president as someone she's nervous to talk to, speaks candidly about her "fat jeans," knows the utility of a well-timed F-bomb and is pretty tired of dudes talking about what she looks like.

Frank in matters of female friendship and family leave alike, Gillibrand offers some blunt prescriptions for a women's movement she worries is "on life support." From combatting a general lack of sympathy for sore breasts to institutionalized apathy towards victims of sexual assault, Gillibrand shows just how critical it is for women to occupy decision-making roles, and offers a few guidelines for getting there:

1. Always stand up for yourself. And your boobs.

Gillibrand shares an anecdote that perfectly illustrates how the day-to-day realities of women's lives can fall on deaf ears among a male-dominated congressional staff. When assigned a shift to preside over the often-empty Senate chamber:

The time slot I was given could not have been worse: 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. I tried to explain to the young male Senate staffer who issued my orders that these hours were impossible: I had an infant whom I need to nurse during that time, and if I didn't feed him, I'd be extremely uncomfortable. (Any more detail than that would have fallen into the category of too much information.) The staffer didn't care.

When a woman who is nursing misses a feeding, her breasts get sore. Believe it or not, this doesn't factor in to the administrative planning of an institution that has never been less than 80 percent male. But sore boobs just will not do. So Gillibrand called upon a few fellow senators to switch slots until she found a sympathetic ear in Senator Mark Udall.

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What "boy's club?"

2. There is power in showing emotion.

When Gillibrand was appointed to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat in 2008, she inherited Clinton's health care bill for 9/11 first responders. Understandably, speaking about the men and women who ran into the towers on that day, and the illnesses they suffer today as a result, didn't make for stoic debate.

"I really didn't want to cry on the Senate floor; that seemed like a total breach in decorum. I contained it, sort of, and continued reading... I left the podium feeling pretty insecure," Gillibrand writes. It turned out, showing emotion doesn't signal defeat, but makes a persuasive case for victory:

Then a Senate page ... approached me and said 'Thank you so much, that was such a powerful speech.' No one had done this to me before, nor has anyone since... To be clear: I did nothing brilliant. I didn't deliver my address with great oratorical style. I didn't even speak in my own words. I just read a letter and allowed myself to feel the pain contained in it and show that pain to the world. In my mind, that will always be the moment I learned my most powerful moment about advocacy.

The bill passed unanimously.

3. Get angry.

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In her fight against the Department of Defense on how the military handles sexual assault, Gillibrand confronted some truly enraging defenses of the status quo:

... When generals sat before me in a row and started saying that same ridiculous line, that we needed to keep decision-making about whether to prosecute sexual assault in the chain of command for the sake of "good order and discipline," I lost it, for real... I'd had it with their bullshit and condescension... People often remark that it's hard for women to get angry and public and still be taken seriously. On that day, and on many days after it, I didn't care.

Fighting with men, about an issue that largely perpetrated by men, which "would have been a no-brainer" if more women served in Congress, is definitely worth getting angry about.

4. Ambition does not come at the expense of femininity.

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As a newly-appointed member of the Senate Gillibrand was "nicknamed Tracy Flick, the aggressive, comical, and somewhat unhinged blonde high school student in the movie 'Election,'" she writes. "I liked the film well enough, but this was not a compliment. It was a put-down to me and other ambitious women, meant to keep us in our place. Yes, I'm competitive. I fight for what I believe in, and I drive hard toward my goals. Does that make me ruthless or crazed? No."

Her advice? Carry on, proving your ambition is not in spite of your womanhood, but because of it:

Do not fall for the lie that ambition is counter to femininity. What creature is stronger and more motivated than a mother protecting her children? Use that feminine strength. It's a huge asset ... Trust yourself... Confidence is infectious and builds momentum. Share your faith in yourself. You'll be surprised how quickly others will come to have faith in it.

5. We need to rethink the idea of "Having It All."

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A woman after our own heart, Gillibrand calls the discussion about whether women can "have it all" an "absurd frame." "For almost all mothers, earning money is a necessity, not a choice. We need to stop pretending that work is optional for all but the most financially secure American women," she writes. "That we have come to a place where women seeking work and family can be seen as overreaching, even selfish, is inane."

6. We should shift our thinking to "doing" it all.

"Having it all" not only "demeans women who do stay at home with their children, by implying their lives are less than full," Gillibrand writes, but frames work as something women can choose to "have." Most American women -- who make up 62 percent of minimum wage earners -- don't get to pick and choose how much of "it all" they can "have."

Gillibrand offers an alternative way to talk about work/life balance for women: "So, please, let's stop talking about 'having it all' and start talking about the very real challenges of 'doing it all.'"

7. Female friendships are invaluable at every stage of life.

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For Gillibrand -- who lists college travel buddy Connie Britton and former colleague former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as close pals -- friends are often "the people we seek out to make us feel whole in a way that sometimes not even family can":

Women talk a lot about juggling work and family, and it's a crucial conversation. But for me, the third leg of the stool, the one that keeps my life from toppling over, is friendship. It's a choice, not a responsibility. It's my respite from demands, the place I go to recharge myself so I have energy for all the rest: raising my children, nurturing my marriage, serving my constituents to the best of my ability, and caring for my extended family.

8. Speaking up is stressful. Do it anyway.

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At one point or another, we've all had to fight for our boss's attention. Gillibrand's boss happens to be the president of the United States. Speaking up to authority figures can be stressful -- especially for women -- but preparation and conviction lighten the load, writes Gillibrand:

I always know my ask, and I always raise my hand when the president comes to our caucus meetings. There are plenty of times I'd rather blend into the crowd and not add a mountain of stress to my life, but I know how much speaking up matters.

9. Competition is different for women. (And brings out a lot more bullsh*t.)

Gillibrand writes about her contentious 2006 congressional race against four-term Republican incumbent John E. Sweeney. She quickly discovered that men will compete with women in a different way than they compete with each other:

On the one hand, my opponent referred to me as "Just a pretty face!" And on the other, he used in his mailers the ugliest photographs he could find and even tinted my face green. Combined with the witchy skin tone, I presented the perfect embodiment of what many people feared: the crazed, power-hungry woman. I let this roll off me, certain it would backfire, and it did.

When it comes to general bullsh*t, Gillibrand subscribes to the brush-it-off philosophy: "Sweeney hurled everything he had at the race, including a bunch of ridiculous lies. My attitude was "F**k 'em.'" Preach.

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10. It doesn't matter how you look: If you're a woman, it will be noticed and remarked upon.

While her opponent's sexist barbs didn't impress voters, the campaign "made me realize that in politics, beautiful and ugly are two sides of the same coin," she writes. In Off the Sidelines Gillibrand recalls the unsolicited remarks on her appearance that followed her from the campaign trail into the halls Congress. More specifically, into the congressional gym... while working out... pregnant...

Many of my older male colleagues didn't know what to say but still compelled to offer advice, such as this gem: "Good thing you're working out, because you wouldn't want to get porky!" Thanks, asshole... The prize comment came from a Southern congressman who said, as he held my arm, walking me down the center aisle of the House chamber, "You know, Kirsten, you're even pretty wen you're fat." I believed his intentions were sweet, even if he was being an idiot. I wanted to put out a bulletin saying, "Please keep your thoughts about my pregnant body to yourself."

11. Struggles with appearance are a universal "tricky balance."

Gillibrand writes openly about weight and body image. "Appearance and how much to think about it is a never-ending question in most women's minds. I haven't put it to rest myself, not by a long shot," she admits in Off The Sidelines.

Challenging the focus on women's appearance is a "tricky balance" the senator knows all too well. "To win this election, you need to be beautiful again," she recalls a labor leader telling her, when a campaign threatened to arrive before every pound of baby weight left. "It took every bit of my self-control not to react visibly. I wanted to tell the guy to go screw himself, then leave the table and go home and cry... I was worn down and depressed by the superficiality of it all, the endless discussions of what I looked like instead of what I thought."

As much as we need to call out "undercutting remarks" that "belittle women professionally," Gillibrand writes, "We also have to find a way to navigate the current reality... Having more women in leadership roles will certainly help."

12. There are ways to talk about appearance constructively.

Gillibrand writes of re-committing to health for its own sake, and when a more lithe New York senator emerged, the media noticed. "Much to my surprise, reporters started asking me about it," she writes. Asking a U.S. Senator to do a "diet story" sounds our sexism-alarms, but discussing an issue so many Americans struggle with, Gillibrand writes, could be a positive step:

People want and deserve to know who represents them ... Talking about weight loss, like talking about baseball or parenting, builds a simple bridge. Hey, I have fat jeans, too! People want to know that you share their struggle and goals.

13. Stop going for the wrong guy (or gal).

Ever find yourself thinking "I should have known better" at the end of a bad relationship? So do members of Congress. "It's amazing how many strong, self-empowered women get caught up in bad relationships," Gillibrand writes, detailing her own disappointing dating history.

Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I was always looking for a guy that I considered a catch ... My relationships tended to last four or five years and end in either disappointment or disaster. Some of the men I dated undermined my sense of self-worth, convincing me that I wasn't smart, attractive, or interesting enough... Breaking my bad relationship patterns became a a priority.

She met her now-husband Jonathan on a blind date, and offers readers this wisdom: "I know you all know this, but believe me: You really do want to go for the nice guy, not the hot, flashy, or cool one."

14. Don't conceal your unique perspectives -- they are an asset to your workplace.

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Since 81 percent of Congress is male, not many people in Congress come back to work recently having given birth. But in 2008, Kirsten Gillibrand had. Instead of pretending that she hadn't just birthed a child, she introduced new baby Henry on the floor of the House of Representatives:

The moment meant a tremendous amount to me personally, but I knew that it mattered symbolically. I was standing before 434 of our nation's legislators sending a very clear message: "See? This is what a young mother in Congress looks like. I have a baby, who I will be caring for, and I will also be doing my job. What everyone says is true: The personal is political. I wanted my colleagues to take notice that I was going to represent my district and serve my country from the perspective of a new and working parent. I would view the world differently than most of my co-workers, and I felt very strongly that that difference was essential and good.

Watch Kirsten Gillibrand on HuffPost Live:

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BEFORE YOU GO

  • Jill Abramson: You're more resilient than you realize.
    "Graduating from Wake Forest means you have experienced success already. And some of you -- and now I’m talking to anyone who
    Chris Keane via Getty Images
    "Graduating from Wake Forest means you have experienced success already. And some of you -- and now I’m talking to anyone who has been dumped -- have not gotten the job you really wanted or have received those horrible rejection letters from grad school. You know the disappointment of losing or not getting something you badly want. When that happens, show what you are made of... We human beings are a lot more resilient than we often realize." (Wake Forest University)
  • Cecile Richards: Risks make the best opportunities -- so take them often.
    "If you hold out for an invitation, chances are good you’ll miss the party. And by the party I mean life. Growing up, Mom alw
    The Washington Post via Getty Images
    "If you hold out for an invitation, chances are good you’ll miss the party. And by the party I mean life. Growing up, Mom always told me: The answer to life is yes. This is the only life you have so make the most of it. Take every opportunity and risk you can. You’ll only regret the things you didn’t do because you were afraid to try." (Barnard College)
  • Katie Couric: You can't be criticized for hard work.
    “When I became the anchor of the CBS Evening News, the first woman to do so alone, the critics were harsh and unrelenting. Th
    Leah Puttkammer via Getty Images
    “When I became the anchor of the CBS Evening News, the first woman to do so alone, the critics were harsh and unrelenting. They complained about my hair, my makeup, my clothes, my delivery, even the way I held my hands. Some claimed I lacked gravitas, which I’ve decided is Latin for ‘testicles.’ It wasn't easy. But I kept my head down and I stayed focused because I loved the work ... The best antidote to the naysayers you'll surely encounter along the way is to stay strong, work hard, and put in the time. " (American University and Trinity College)
  • Sandra Bullock: It's the joy that stays with you.
    "Raise the bar higher. It is noisy out there and for some reason, people want to see you fail. That's not your problem, that
    NBC NewsWire via Getty Images
    "Raise the bar higher. It is noisy out there and for some reason, people want to see you fail. That's not your problem, that is their problem. I only remember the moments where I tried beyond what I thought I could do and I do not remember the failures because I didn't ... Go find your joy. It's what you're going to remember in the end. It's not the worry, it's not the what-ifs. It's the joy that stays with you." (Warren Easton Charter High School)
  • Jennifer Lee, director of "Frozen": Ban self-doubt.
    "While I am someone who stands before you so far from perfect -- there isn't a subway line to perfect from where I live --  I
    Jeff Vespa/VF14 via Getty Images
    "While I am someone who stands before you so far from perfect -- there isn't a subway line to perfect from where I live -- I am enough. If I've learned one thing, it's that self doubt is one of the most destructive forces. It makes you defensive instead of open, reactive instead of active. Self doubt is consuming and cruel. And my hope today is that we can all collectively agree to ban it ... Think about all the crazy ways you feel different from everyone else. And now take the judgement out of that. And what you are left with is such a wholly dynamic, inspiring character who could lead an epic story." (University of New Hampshire)
  • Billie Jean King: It's our time.
    "This is the century of women. And don't you forget it." (<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKw3isR6gyM" target="_blan
    Brad Barket via Getty Images
    "This is the century of women. And don't you forget it." (Simmon's College)
  • Michelle Obama: Always be happy; never be satisfied.
    "You should be so proud, and so happy, and so excited about your futures. But what you shouldn't be is satisfied... See, beca
    AP
    "You should be so proud, and so happy, and so excited about your futures. But what you shouldn't be is satisfied... See, because we're the lucky ones, and we can never forget that we didn't get where we are today all on our own. We got here today because of so many people who toiled and sweat and bled and died for us -- people like our parents and grandparents and all those who came before them, people who never dreamed of getting a college education themselves but who worked, and saved, and sacrificed so that we could be here today. We owe them." (Dillard University)
  • Zadie Smith: Stay open -- exclusivity is overrated.
    “Walk down these crowded streets with a smile on your face. Be thankful you get to walk so close to other humans. It’s a priv
    Facebook/The New School
    “Walk down these crowded streets with a smile on your face. Be thankful you get to walk so close to other humans. It’s a privilege. Don’t let your fellow humans be alien to you, and as you get older and perhaps a little less open than you are now, don’t assume that exclusive always and everywhere means better. It may only mean lonelier. There will always be folks hard selling you the life of the few: the private schools, private plans, private islands, private life. They are trying to convince you that hell is other people. Don’t believe it." (The New School)
  • Nancy Pelosi: Know your power.
    “Remember this: with the knowledge gained here, you can do anything. You may not be aware of the opportunities that await you
    Win McNamee via Getty Images
    “Remember this: with the knowledge gained here, you can do anything. You may not be aware of the opportunities that await you, but when those opportunities present themselves, be ready. Be idealistic, be pragmatic, be ready. That’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart in my own experience. Although with my generation, I was inspired by John F. Kennedy, I had no idea I’d go from the kitchen to Congress, from homemaker to House Speaker... My wish is that you know your power to light the future with your ideals and your optimism." (University of California at Berkeley)
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter: Stand up for your right to balance.
    "When your co-workers, and later your employees, compete as to who can put in the most hours to the day, suggest to them that
    Alonso Nichols/Tufts University
    "When your co-workers, and later your employees, compete as to who can put in the most hours to the day, suggest to them that they must be very inefficient workers. Pity them for not having enough depth and breadth to get a life... Stand up for play -- for the leisure that will renew and recharge you. Stand up for love. Stand up for each other, and equally importantly for those who do not have the privilege that you do. Stand up for their right to have a life of meaningful work that earns them a living and the time and resources to enjoy their lives." (Tufts University)
  • Madeleine Albright: Shine bright like a diamond.
    "I hope that you will go forward with confidence, despite the burdens handed down to you by others; that you will employ your
    Dickinson College
    "I hope that you will go forward with confidence, despite the burdens handed down to you by others; that you will employ your talents to keep pace with technology -- while remembering that there is no technological answer to the questions that matter most; that you will take pride in who you are, but leave room for the pride of others; and that by your actions, you will each add luster to Dickinson’s name -- and to your own." (Dickinson College)
  • Valerie Jarrett: You have the power to reflect your values in your world.
    "I do believe that the 21st century workplace must reflect the values and priorities of the 21st century workforce... You all
    MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images
    "I do believe that the 21st century workplace must reflect the values and priorities of the 21st century workforce... You all have to have the courage to speak out. You have to advocate for yourself over and over and over again and fight for that balanced life." (Pomona College)
  • Susan Wojcicki, YouTube CEO: The "right" choice doesn't always exist.
    "Life doesn't offer you the perfect opportunity at the perfect time. Opportunities come when you least expect them ... Rarely
    Facebook/Johns Hopkins University
    "Life doesn't offer you the perfect opportunity at the perfect time. Opportunities come when you least expect them ... Rarely are opportunities presented to you in a perfect way. In a nice little box with a yellow bow on top. 'Here, open it, it's perfect. You'll love it.' Opportunities -- the good ones -- are messy, confusing and hard to recognize. They're risky. They challenge you. But things happen so fast because our world is changing so much, you have to make decisions without perfect information. You have to make decisions based on the fact that the world is going to continue to change -- on the belief that the status quo will be supplanted by something better. " (Johns Hopkins University)
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