When she entered the Senate as an appointee in 2009, Gillibrand said she realized that while there were several groups pushing so-called “women’s issues,” there was no real women’s movement. “I really had this aha moment where I was feeling that the women’s movement was largely dead, that we didn’t have a cohesive women’s movement," Gillibrand said. "No grassroots movement, no effort to get women’s voices heard, no effort to move women to change outcomes of elections. And so I wanted to create that.”
It’s slow-going. There were 99 women in Congress (including nonvoting delegates) when Gillibrand started Off the Sidelines in 2011, now there are 108, according to statistics from the Congressional Research Service. During the 2010 elections, the number of women in Congress actually stayed flat for the first time in 30 years.
It’s not easy, Gillibrand admitted in an interview in her Capitol Hill office. In part, she blames the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which has increased the flow of undisclosed money that benefits a largely male incumbent class and provides for highly negative advertising that has dissuaded many potential female candidates from running for office.
“I don’t know if it’s getting harder, but it’s not getting easier," Gillibrand said. "I feel we’re stalled out on our percentage.”
Going into 2016, Gillibrand is supporting eight female candidates for the Senate who—if they all manage to win their races—would represent a net-gain of five seats for women in the Senate. (Sen. Patty Murray is running for reelection, and California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards would replace retiring female senators.) “That would be huge,” Gillibrand says emphatically, noting women would make up a quarter of the Senate. That's not sufficient for Gillibrand, but it's a start.
But more than just recruiting, advising, and funding female candidates, Gillibrand is building up a grassroots movement that could prove even more powerful.
A ROLODEX OF DONORS
While Off the Sidelines has grabbed headlines for its mission to elect more women to Congress and its staggering fundraising numbers, its larger goal is to activate a brand-new class of female donors and activists.
In that, Gillibrand has found success. At Off the Sidelines, Gillibrand has created a symbiotic system that empowers the group’s supporters while also benefiting the politicians she supports. She has pushed Off the Sidelines donors to find issues they care about and use their financial support to encourage candidates to champion them, while also building an issue-based list of potential donors to introduce to candidates. The group’s frequent email petitions not only build up her email list but ignite new activists and donors on her preferred issues that they might not otherwise have heard about. It’s a win-win relationship that Gillibrand embraces.