Kirsten Gillibrand: Taking On Military Sexual Assault, One Bill at a Time

This March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.

“We should all be able to agree our brave men and women in uniform deserve blind justice,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), on the hot-button issue of sexual assault in the military.

The Senator, who has been in office since 2009—following former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appointment to the Obama Administration and subsequent vacancy in the New York Senate—has been making a name for herself in politics ever since her election to the House of Representatives in 2006.

Gillibrand is a Dartmouth College alumnae and graduate of the UCLA School of Law who began her work with the Women’s Leadership Forum, a program of the Democratic National Committee of which she later became leader. An opportune speech to the organization, given by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, inspired Gillibrand to later work on Clinton’s 2000 U.S. Senate campaign and eventually her own race for Congress.

I was just a young lawyer thinking, What am I doing with my life? What am I doing with my career? As I watched her on that stage I thought, Why aren’t I there? It was so poignant for me. And that’s what made me figure out how to get involved in politics.

An early supporter of the repeal of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy—which “prohibited any homosexual or bisexual person from disclosing his or her sexual orientation or from speaking about any homosexual relationships…while serving in the United States armed forces”—Gillibrand’s political positions have been marked by support for same-sex marriage, “always protecting a woman’s right to choose” and increased governmental transparency.

Though Gillibrand has seen her work derailed in the recent past (her Military Justice Improvement Act, which would have removed the prosecution of sexual assaults from the military chain of command, fell just five votes short of overcoming a filibuster), she continues working towards ending sexual assault in the military in the face of ongoing challenges from the opposition.

“Too many of the members of the Senate have turned their back on these victims and survivors,” said Gillibrand, immediately following the Military Justice Improvement Act decision last March. As of late, Gillibrand has been urging fellow members of the Senate to review a recent Defense Department report that found that “62 percent of those who reported an assault faced retaliation” while simultaneously preparing for future debate regarding the issue.

“I think it’s a major issue, and I think the next commander-in-chief will have to look at this very seriously, particularly if our current one doesn’t embrace this final reform as necessary,” said Gillibrand in a recent interview.

In the wake of recent high-profile cases of the mishandling of military sexual assaults, widespread public outcry over sexual violence against women in the media, and rampant sexual assault at the fore of discussion on college campuses, Gillibrand’s bill couldn’t be more timely—or necessary.

Despite President Obama’s omission of sexual assault as a talking point from this year’s State of the Union address, Senator Gillibrand maintained her stance on supporting survivors of sexual assault, whether on a university campus or otherwise. She brought anti-rape activist and performance artist Emma Sulkowicz as her guest to the speech, calling her “a woman of great courage who got no justice,” following Columbia University’s decision to not expel her accused rapist last year.

As part of a bipartisan group of senators that recently introduced a bill “meant to hold colleges more accountable in their handling of sexual assaults on campus,” Senator Gillibrand is currently on a tour of several universities in New York that aims to host round table discussions with students, officials, law enforcement, advocates and survivors.

Her autobiography, Off the Sidelines, serves as both a telling reflection of her professional career in and outside of our nation’s capital and an impassioned call to action for women to “get off the sidelines ” and “get involved.” With a foreword written by Hillary Clinton, Gillibrand’s book serves as a mantra for “taking action, raising your voice and changing the world.”

“For me, getting off the sidelines means women making a difference by letting their voices be heard on the issues they care about.” Whether it’s continually drawing attention to the need for reform in the armed forces when it comes to sexual assault or supporting everyday working mothers like herself, Kirsten Gillibrand has made a career of doing just that.

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Photo via Shutterstock



Jenevieve Ting is a student at the University of Southern California and an editorial intern at Ms. She has written for The Hollywood Reporter, Next Magazine and Thought Catalog. Find out