Kirsten Gillibrand's Campaign May Be Over, but Her Impact Is Just Beginning to Be Felt
When New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand ended her campaign for president in a video addressing her supporters on Aug. 28, I felt more disappointed to see her go than any of the many other candidates who have dropped from the crowded Democratic field. I also felt deep gratitude for everything she had contributed to the race on behalf of women everywhere, and despite so many unique, sexist obstacles.
The announcement came shortly after it was confirmed that Gillibrand had not qualified for the next round of Democratic presidential debates, as she had met the donor threshold, but failed to poll at an average of 2 percent. “It’s important to know when it’s not your time, and to know how to best serve your community and country,” she said in the video. “I can best serve by helping to unite us to beat Donald Trump in 2020.”
Since the beginning of Gillibrand’s presidential bid earlier this year, the campaign seemed regularly overlooked by mainstream media, while the Senator struggled to receive endorsements from Democratic Party politicians, and attract donors, attention, and excitement. This was all despite Gillibrand’s impactful track record in politics and a career focused on serving women and the most vulnerable communities.
I want Sen. Gillibrand to know that, despite the struggles of her campaign and dismissive treatment of it, her campaign mattered to me and so many others. She impacted the presidential race in a critical way, bringing subjects routinely dismissed as “women’s issues” to the forefront, and sparking important conversation about the persistent misogyny women in politics continue to face, as well. I’m one of many women and feminists immeasurably grateful for Gillibrand’s presidential campaign.
Gillibrand ran on the slogan “Brave wins.” And one of the bravest facets of her campaign was the fearlessness with which it centered issues disproportionately impacting women, from our lack of political representation and sexism in the workforce, to the raging war on reproductive rights and the ongoing epidemic of sexual violence. These fundamental human rights causes are frequently written off as “social issues” by members of both parties, as if women’s bodily autonomy and right to fair pay are somehow separable from their economic situations and access to public life. Sen. Gillibrand repeatedly insisted they are not. As rising maternal death rates linked with dangerous restrictions on abortion rights, and persistently high homicides by domestic partners show, she knew these issues pose existential, life-or-death threats.
Other Democratic candidates and many leading Democrats may flaunt their pro-choice records when convenient — often while very purposefully avoiding the word “abortion. But, both on the campaign trail and in the Senate, Gillibrand has remained insistent on speaking to the disparate experiences of women and women of color, and initiating thoughtful, necessary conversations about race and white privilege, too.
Gillibrand was the first candidate to pledge to nominate only pro-choice Supreme Court Justices, and one of the first to roll out a comprehensive, ambitious plan to protect and expand reproductive rights nationwide as president. She was one of the first leading Democrats to use gender-neutral language around reproductive rights and pregnancy, the first to bring up women’s rights at debates, and the first and only candidate to meet with women of color leaders in Georgia after the state signed into law a near-total abortion ban. In the Senate, Gillibrand was one of few voices to speak up for survivors of sexual assault in the military and fight for reform; she’s introduced legislation to establish paid family leave, and combat the disparate maternal death rates faced by black women and women of color.
Many of us have a guess as to what, exactly, was holding the Senator back from receiving the attention and support someone with her record in politics and progressive platform should have received: sexism.
While this presidential race has seen female candidates like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris flourish, we can’t forget the unique nature of Gillibrand’s campaign. In many ways, she seemed to be punished for her leadership in holding former Democratic Senator and alleged sexual abuser Al Franken accountable in 2017.
Gillibrand was the first voice to call for Franken’s resignation after several women accused him of sexual misconduct over the course of several years. Franken’s decision to step down ended up being not only being the moral decision for the Democratic Party, but also, arguably, the politically beneficial one: Franken would not be on the Judiciary Committee questioning alleged sexual abuser Brett Kavanaugh during Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination hearings.
Gillibrand spoke up against Franken knowing full well the Minnesota Senator was popular with Democratic Party leadership, voters, and top Democratic donors who would make formidable foes on the campaign trail. She spoke up not because doing so was the popular or politically beneficial move, but because it was the moral one — because we need to believe survivors and women who come forward, and not just when doing so is convenient and reinforces our politics.
During her presidential campaign, Gillibrand was punished for a man’s decision to abuse his power, in ways big and small. We watched her take on repeated, unfair questions about Franken; we encountered poorly disguised hit pieces citing Gillibrand’s leadership in the Franken debacle; we watched her, over and over, questioned and blamed and punished because of the choices of a male politician.
Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign, from start to finish, was a milestone in feminism. It reminded us that those existential issues we call “women’s issues” have a place on the national stage. It reminded us that we have a long way to go in supporting women in politics, who are still unfairly made to answer for the actions of male politicians. Gillibrand’s campaign was nothing if not brave, taking on abusers and fearlessly asserting that women like her — like all of us — belong here in politics, whether powerful men like it or not.
And while she may be ending her bid for president, she has already made plans to relaunch her PAC supporting and fundraising for women in politics, and has left an indelible mark on American politics. Thank you, Sen. Gillibrand, for giving women a voice in this campaign and standing by us. The possibilities for women in American politics are forever changed — and because of that, your defeat is still a victory.
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