New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s lilting voice takes on a hard edge when discussing what she sees as a decidedly sexist undercurrent in Washington.
“This has been an outrageous discussion, an attempt to deny healthcare to American women and an attempt to deny all women’s rights,” Gillibrand said of the heated debate over requiring insurance carriers to offer contraception coverage to employees of religious institutions.
It has reignited the culture wars in political circles. “The Republican leadership over-played their hand and they are going to lose moderate and Republican women voters because of it," she told TODAY.com.
Gillibrand, who hails from a family of politically active women, is keenly aware that as a female lawmaker, her calling as a public servant also involves advocating for the rights of women.
When conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute” for speaking out as a birth control activist, Gillibrand emailed supporters that his attack was “one of the most vile tirades against women I’ve ever heard.”
She was also one of the lawmakers who supported Fluke in February in her efforts to ensure women have access to contraception covered by health plans. Fluke was denied a chance to speak before an all-male, Republican-led congressional panel on the issue.
Fluke later spoke before an unofficial Democrat-led panel called by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“If we had 51 percent of the women in Congress we would not be having this discussion,” Gillibrand said, referring to the number of women in the electorate.
Her own path to the Senate is the stuff of a Lifetime movie.
When former New York Gov. David Patterson appointed Gillibrand to the Senate seat left vacant when Hillary Rodham Clinton was named Secretary of State, the congresswoman found herself plucked from an upstate district of a few thousand and thrust into a high-profile role representing millions. She was also following in the footsteps of one of her political role models, Sec. of State Clinton.
Gillibrand was not without her critics.
“With every Democrat in New York — with the possible exception of Bill Clinton — angling for the appointment, there was a sense of bafflement, belittlement, and bruised egos when Paterson tapped the junior legislator unknown outside of Albany,” Elle magazine wrote in a profile following Gillibrand’s initial appointment.
The statement summed up the stun and — yes — sour grapes felt by some in New York that a relative newcomer seemingly leap-frogged over more prominent politicos. For her part, Gillibrand dug in and helped pass legislation to provide aid and health care to 9-11 first responders and worked to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Gillibrand says those victories couldn’t have happened without the help of female lawmakers on the other side of the aisle.
“Every time I got a major piece of legislation passed there was a Republican woman who helped me,” Gillibrand said. Republican Maine Senator Susan Collins pushed for the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal.
When the 9-11 first responders bill faced roadblocks by Republicans concerned about the costs, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and retiring Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe worked behind the scenes and urged their colleague to support the measure, Gillibrand said.
Gillibrand’s views on gun rights have become more nuanced since taking on the Senate role. She is a staunch defender of the Second Amendment, but, after seeing the impact of gun violence on the urban areas she now represents, she fought for legislation to curb illegal weapons trafficking.
She was also deeply affected when her good friend, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in the head while visiting her district.
“The horrible incident with Gabby was devastating on a very personal level,” Gillibrand said.
Gillibrand, who is up for re-election this year, has also launched the nonpartisan “OffTheSidelines” project designed to get more women involved in politics.
“We need a Rosie the riveter for this generation,” Gillibrand said. “We need a call to ask women to be heard. We need to ask 6 million women who are not voting to vote. If we have that kind of transformative movement we’ll have a better economy, better lives.”
TODAY.com political contributor Halimah Abdullah is the site’s woman in Washington.