Part-memoir, part-playbook, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s “Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World” is a refreshingly practical addition to the women’s empowerment shelf, especially for women who aspire to public service. True to mission, the book even ends with a note that the women’s congressional softball team could use another starting pitcher. She’s talking to you, dear reader. Get in the game!
The book chronicles the life of an extraordinarily accomplished woman leader, but studiously conveys warmth and accessibility with folksy “Hey, I have fat jeans, too!” anecdotes. (Yes, the senator actually uses those exact words in the book.) But don’t mistake the tone for a lack of seriousness about the mission. It’s part of her strategy for convincing readers that leadership isn’t reserved for “special” people.
She issues us all an invitation to get off the sidelines and take seriously our moral obligation to participate in the political conversations surrounding issues that we care deeply about. Yes, even you. She argues that voting, advocacy, and even candidacy are powerful paths to progress. If we–the people affected most by issues–don’t act, who will? “We need a Rosie the Riveter for this generation–not to draw women into professional life, because they are already there, but to elevate women’s voices in the public sphere and bring women more fully into making the decisions that shape our country,” she writes.
And when she speaks of women, she’s speaking of all women, not just a privileged subset. “I’m angry and I’m depressed, and I’m scared that the women’s movement is dead, or at least on life support,” she writes. “Women talk a lot these days about shattering the glass ceiling, but we also need to focus on cleaning the so-called sticky floor, making sure all women have a chance to rise.”
(The book doesn’t delve into policy details, but the accompanying website offthesidelines.org sets out her opportunity plan for empowering women and families to rise in the 21st-century economy. It centers on paid family and medical leave, raising the minimum wage, quality affordable childcare, universal pre-k and equal pay for equal work.)
Click to Tweet: “We need to focus on cleaning the so-called sticky floor, making sure all women have a chance to rise.” @SenGillibrand
Whatever your policy positions, the book presents a warmer and fuzzier view of politics than typical media accounts. In Gillibrand land, leadership isn’t so much about savvy political and workplace maneuvering, but about the much more appealing work of listening to people, caring about them, and marshalling your unique, personal resources to respond.
She uses examples from her legislative work on the 9/11 healthcare bill and seeking justice for survivors of sexual assault in the military to emphasize storytelling as a legitimate and powerful tool of persuasion. “You can drop a dozen binders full of white papers on my desk, and the stack won’t be as effective as a single human being willing to speak honestly about her life,” she writes.
In the spirit of truth-telling, Gillibrand’s call to leadership isn’t all smiles and roses. She allows that political candidacy and service are a grind, requiring straight-up hard work and persistence despite the odds, which range from personal foibles to nasty political opposition.
She recounts her successes but doesn’t skip over the failures and foundering that preceded and, in some cases, facilitated later wins. It wasn’t so long ago, readers learn, that she couldn’t get hired at the U.S. Attorney’s office or a full-time job on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. And even as a rookie congresswoman she was prone to embarrassing missteps, like crashing one of Senator Patrick Leahy’s fundraisers to hand him a draft of her bill. But she persevered and, she contends, you can too.
Beyond the politics, one of the best aspects of the book is her transparency about how she spends her time. She is open about how hard it has been to learn to embrace her limits and schedule time for food, bathroom breaks and traffic delays, let alone friendship, relaxation and fun.
Where other high-profile women leaders have been purposely vague on their daily schedules and child care habits, Gillibrand puts it all out there. She recounts what time she rises, when she goes to sleep, how much time she spends with her sons (2-3 hours/day, if you’re wondering), and how much she’s in the office. She tells the costs of trading the congressional cocktail-party circuit for a bath-books-bed routine with her sons. Moreover, she shares some of the ways staff, sitters, friends, family and even parents of her kids’ friends help her meld public service and the “absurdist sitcom” of her family life. It takes a village, apparently.
I appreciated her candor and gleaned some lessons from her day-to-day life management techniques. She exercises first thing after taking the kids to school and trains her staff to protect that personal time. She consumes 1,200 calories a day–fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish. She tracks constituent issues on index cards and uses 10-point lists for everything from planning a wedding to passing a bill.
The particulars are unlikely to work for any of us, but it’s reassuring to see that even U.S. senators make it through the day with an idiosyncratic mix of habits and routines. She’s got a big title, a huge constituency, and a staff, but her biggest challenge is managing herself–keeping the big-picture goals alive amid the minutiae of daily life. How human!