Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said Tuesday that the sexualizing and demeaning comments she received in the Senate weren't a big issue for her personally. Rather, she's decided to open up about these experiences to help other women feel less alone.
"I was at a very senior level in my career and they didn't affect me," Gillibrand told The Atlantic's Molly Ball of the comments. "They were just stupid statements. But by talking about it and using these examples, any one reader can say, 'Oh my god! That happened to her too? That's just like what someone said to me!' "
The New York Democrat was speaking at an event based around her new book, organized as part of The Atlantic's 2014 Women of Washington series. In the book, Off the Sidelines, she shares several anecdotes about how, following the birth of her son, certain members of Congress made inappropriate remarks about her appearance. One advised her not to get too "porky" while another informed her, "I like my girls chubby."
Following Gillibrand's revelations, many in media questioned why she hadn't identified her colleagues by name, suggesting that her stories might not be true, or that by obscuring their identities she was somehow part of the problem. These men who attacked her for not naming names "just need to spend five minutes talking to their wives," Gillibrand told Ball. "If they had just done that, they wouldn't have said what they said."
So why didn't she call out the men who wronged her by name? "Because then our conversation would be about the idiocy of any one individual male," Gillibrand said. "And I don't want to talk about that. I want to talk about the broader problems that are far more relevant." For a woman who's trying to carve out her position as a leader for women, it's not a bad conversation to own.
The anecdotes come as part of a chapter in Gillibrand's book about appearances and the fact that women's looks affect them in their careers at different times for a whole host of reasons. Almost always, the effects are negative. Studies have shown that when a woman's appearance is remarked upon, it undermines her professionally, regardless of whether the comments are positive or negative (it hurts her more if the comments are negative).
Gillibrand's experience talking about her harassment only to have her truthfulness questioned has something in common with the experience of women who speak out about being sexually harassed in the military, which Gillibrand has made her trademark issue in Congress. When these women come forward with their stories, they are themselves often the victims of counterattacks or simply disbelief. That's why earlier this year Gillibrand introduced a bill that would have removed the chain of command from prosecuting sexual assault and other major military crimes. Those are the larger, more universal problems Gillibrand would like to get at in relaying her story, she says.
"I wrote this book as a very intimate conversation among women about the issues we care very deeply about as a way to elevate the debate about all the challenges we face in the workplace," she told Ball. "Because my theory in Off the Sidelines and in a lot of the work I do outside of my Senate job is that women's voices really matter, and in fact our life experiences, what we do with our time, our viewpoint on the world, our priorities, are very different from a lot of decision makers at every helm of power. Whether you're talking about corporate America, the school board or Congress, an absence of women's voices really harms America."