Kirsten Gillibrand and Julianna Margulies Share More Than Fame
By PHILIP GALANESOCT. 24, 2014
When Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and the actress Julianna Margulies met at the Crosby Street Hotel recently, the talk turned quickly to such serious subjects as body shaming, sexual harassment in the military and rape on college campuses.
But first there were a couple of sartorial adjustments to be made. Ms. Margulies, 48, a three-time Emmy-winning actress (two for her starring role in “The Good Wife,” including one this year, and another for “ER”), leaned over to straighten the lapel of Ms. Gillibrand’s navy suit jacket.
“Hang on a second,” Ms. Gillibrand said a moment later, as the photographer began to shoot. The junior Democratic senator from New York, 47, an upstate representative to Congress before that, and the author of the recent best-selling memoir “Off the Sidelines,” tucked back a stray lock of Ms. Margulies’s hair. “I want her to look her best.”
And then, over coffee and sparkling water, the conversation began.
Philip Galanes: The first things I found, researching both of you, were these sexist comments about your bodies. Remarks by various congressmen to Kirsten, “I like my ladies chubby,” or calling you fat when you were pregnant.
‘We can teach our boys that girls may be different, but those differences are good.’ - Kirsten GillibrandCreditJolie Ruben for The New York Times
Kirsten Gillibrand: And he was trying to be nice. This congressman said to me: “You know, Kirsten, you’re even pretty when you’re fat.”
PG: She was eight months pregnant.
Julianna Margulies: My God! How did you react?
KG: I just smiled and thought, “This is crazy.” But it didn’t affect me. I was a member of Congress.
JM: That is why I could never be in politics. My industry is tough enough.
PG: That’s what I thought until I Googled you the day after you won your Emmy and found an Internet frenzy about your arms being too skinny. “She must gain weight!” What’s at the root of this craziness?
JM: The most important thing is not to go on the Internet — because I didn’t know any of that until you said it.
PG: Oops. Sorry.
KG: But this issue affects all women. In politics, studies show that when women’s looks are commented on in a campaign, it undermines their credibility — even if the comment is positive. It makes us seem less qualified. When I ran my first campaign, my opponent started with: “Oh, she’s just a pretty face.”
JM: Meaning: You couldn’t possibly be smart, too?
KG: Exactly. And he followed that up with these ugly photos of me, washed in green, so I looked too crazed and power hungry to be elected to Congress. It’s a challenge we all face.
PG: But men don’t.
JM: Right. You don’t hear these things about men.
PG: Why are we so free to comment on women’s bodies?
KG: I don’t know the reason, but I know it makes women feel undermined. When I was a young lawyer, I worked for months on this case. I worked weekends, gave up vacation, worked until midnight. And at the celebratory dinner afterward, my boss says: “Let’s thank Kirsten for her hard work. And don’t we just love her haircut?” It was heart wrenching. I thought, “After all that work, you’re commenting on my hair?”
JM: I would be a fool to read what people write about me online. What I’m wearing, how I look, who I’m dating. I refuse to let strangers affect me. But when I see teenage girls, just coming into adulthood — all of a sudden they have breasts and hips — I know those comments will affect them.
KG: Self-esteem is a huge issue.
PG: And tearing down women’s bodies ...
JM: But it’s not just women’s bodies. People feel free to rip down anything, and it’s not new. Take Gloria Steinem. People told her, every step of the way, that Ms. magazine would fail. But she said: “I don’t care what you think. This is what I’m going to do.” It’s back to the basics of Buddhism: It’s not what people say, it’s your reaction to it.
KG: But we can still call out unfairness to women. The fact that we’re only paid 70 cents on the dollar shows that we aren’t valuing women’s work. We can demand equality. We stop defining women on how they look, but on what they say and do.
PG: The ironic thing is that most interviewers missed the point of your fat-shaming. You were trying to shine a light on women’s experiences, but they were focused on who, who, who.
‘I know the landscape for men is complicated these days because women are strong. But we still love a compliment in a loving manner.’ - Julianna MarguliesCreditJolie Ruben for The New York Times
KG: They wanted to talk about which guy was the jerk. [Although Ms. Gillibrand does not name any men in the book, published reports have since identified one of them as Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who died in 2012.]
PG: After a while, does it start to feel like sexism is baked into everything?
KG: Look at the N.F.L. Look at sexual assault in the military and on college campuses. What you see is institutions propping up the favored person, the favored star, the favored student. They close ranks to protect the status quo, and in the process, they victim-blame and undermine the people who are trying to speak truth to power.
PG: Which brings me to your strong kinship: advocacy for survivors of sexual assault and preventing it. How did you get involved?
JM: Three years ago, I met Erin Merryn at a Glamour magazine Women of the Year dinner. Erin was sexually abused as a child for years, and she hid it from her parents and teachers. She was so ashamed. She thought there was something wrong with her. Kids are so scared in that situation. Abusers often say: “We’ll kill your parents if you tell.” So now, Erin is trying to give kids the tools they need to stop the abuse, to teach them how to speak up.
PG: This would happen in schools?
JM: One hour a year, less time than we spend on fire drills. And it’s age-appropriate, so it won’t scare the children. “Erin’s Law” has passed in 19 states, and Erin will not stop until all 50 have it. Until we give every kid a voice.
KG: That’s incredible.
JM: It’s a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t we teach kids to say: “Mommy, this is what happened”?
KG: This is what excites me. Julianna is using her voice for something she feels passionate about. I’m inspired by that. I want to help.
PG: Well, she needs your help, because Erin can’t get the law passed in New York.
JM: And I’m such a proud New Yorker, I felt ashamed when Erin told me that.
KG: I’ll work to change that. We’ll work together.
PG: This idea of listening to people who aren’t typically heard, is that what drew you to sexual assault in the military?
KG: The stories of the survivors just overwhelmed me. They were so heartbreaking. As soon as I watched the documentary “The Invisible War” [about sexual abuse in the military], I knew I had to do something.
PG: It’s a shocking film. To watch the military victimize the survivors — women and men — all over again.
KG: You hear that story over and over. The survivors say: “I could survive the rape. What I couldn’t survive was my commander turning his back on me — telling me it was my fault or that he wasn’t going to do anything about it.”
PG: It’s like sexual assault on college campuses: one in five women assaulted during their college careers.
KG: The cost of a college education should not include a greater likelihood of being raped than if you don’t go to college. Let me tell you about two brave women, Annie and Andrea, who came to my office and said they needed to see me. They told me about being brutally raped on campus. But when they told the administration, they were disbelieved, blamed and retaliated against for telling their stories.
JM: It’s unbelievable that in 2014, we could tell a woman that rape was her fault.
KG: So, they went from campus to campus, talking to other young men and women, giving them courage to hold their schools accountable. And thanks to their determination, we now have legislation in the U.S. Senate that’s going to change how colleges deal with this.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announcing legislation to curb sexual assaults on college campuses. CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
JM: That’s testament to you for taking that meeting.
PG: How do you choose which issues to take on, Julianna?
JM: I look for the ones that affect me personally, so I can put my heart and soul into them. The ones that affect the world I’m showing my child: gun control, saying no to sexual abuse, stem cell research that could help Parkinson’s disease. My grandmother died of Alzheimer’s.
PG: Speaking of children, you’re both the mothers of young boys. Do you raise them differently than girls?
KG: Here’s one for you. One day, my husband took our boys to this park with trails. And he sees our younger son — who was 2 ½ at the time — slowing down. So, he says, “Come on, Henry, you can do it.” And Henry says, “Oh, Daddy, we can do it because we’re men.” Now, how many girls say, “We can do it because we’re women”? Not enough, I think.
JM: My kid came back from day camp this summer, and all of a sudden he says, “We’re men: This is what we do.” And I said: “Excuse me?” He was 6.
PG: Do you try to discourage that?
JM: No, he’s starting to find his culture, who he is as a boy. But I don’t worry because my husband is so adamant about chivalry. I want to raise him to make his bed, know how to cook a meal and still open a door for a woman. I know the landscape for men is complicated these days because women are strong. But we still love a compliment in a loving manner.
KG: We can teach our boys that girls may be different, but those differences are good. Women bring different skills to the table, which may lead to valuable solutions.
PG: Do men have an empathy gap in understanding abuse? Is that why you couldn’t get the 60 votes you needed to break the Senate filibuster and change the way sexual assault is prosecuted in the military?
KG: We got 55 votes. That’s huge. People thought we wouldn’t get more than 30. And if you look at the people we had — Chuck Grassley, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul — it wasn’t a gender split. I’m not saying women are better, I’m just saying that we often find common ground more easily. And when we’re heard alongside men, the diversity of opinion is valuable.
JM: Wasn’t there just a study by Credit Suisse that found that companies with women on their boards do better?
KG: Right. The returns on investment are better, the returns on equity are higher and companies are 40 percent less likely to have to restate their earnings if one woman is on the corporate board.
JM: We should look at that as a country.
PG: Let’s segue to “The Good Wife.” Before you started the show, how did you feel about women like Silda Spitzer?
JM: My heart went out to her. She was on a 24-hour news loop. Everywhere you went, that news conference was playing.
KG: And she’s an amazing woman.
JM: Once I got into the role, I saw that Alicia did it for the kids. She wanted to look like a united front, even though her heart wasn’t in it — even though she wanted a big hole to open up in the ground and pull her through. But you want your children to feel protected, and there’s already a scandal, so what do you do?
KG: I don’t think any woman can guess what she’d do in those circumstances until it happens to her.
JM: When I started “The Good Wife,” the question was always, “Why don’t women politicians have scandals like men?” At the time, my kid was 16 months old. I was like: “Are you kidding? Who has the time? I’m too exhausted.”
KG: Same here. At the time, I thought: “I’m nursing every three hours. I can’t understand that question.”
PG: I read an interview where Julianna said, “For the longest time, I didn’t think I’d get married.” Why was that?
JM: I hadn’t seen great marriages. I come from a divorced family, so I always thought: I’m not doing that.
KG: How old were you when you got married?
KG: I was 33. Waiting was a good thing for me.
JM: I waited until I knew who I was. And when I met the right person, I couldn’t imagine not being married to him. Before that, I thought marriage would be crippling. I didn’t want to be dependent on anyone. I wanted to support myself and be free.
KG: When you find the right guy, and really put yourself into it, it makes all the difference.
PG: Kirsten, you gave up a big-bucks career as a corporate lawyer to go into public service. Did you wrestle with that decision?
KG: I had this great role model my whole life. My grandmother was a secretary at the State Legislature in Albany. I loved how confident she was, how passionate about politics. But like many women, I was afraid that I wasn’t qualified or tough enough. It wasn’t until I went to a political event where Hillary Clinton was the speaker. It was a room full of women at the River Club, so fancy, fancy ...
JM: Yeah, I used to waitress there.
KG: There you go. I’m in the back of the room, the youngest person by 10 or 20 years, and Hillary says: “Decisions are being made every day in Washington, and if you’re not part of the process, and you don’t like what they decide, you have no one to blame but yourself.” I thought: “She’s talking to me.” And that’s what started me on a 10-year journey of volunteering, working in the grass roots, and eventually moving back home to upstate New York and running for office.
PG: Same with you, Julianna, when you walked away from “ER” — even after they offered you $27 million to stay. How do you do that?
JM: Listen, I love making money. I’m proud that I can help my parents and make a good living. But I don’t care about making money if I’m not doing what I love. I’d been away from New York for six years. And they’d already given my character a wonderful goodbye. So I went with my gut. And whenever I’ve done that, it’s been the right thing for me.
PG: Last question. I know you have to leave.
JM: I have to go to work. I’m shooting a bar scene today.
KG: And I have to get back to D.C.
JM: She’s changing the world, and I’m shooting a bar scene.
PG: Advice for folks who might not know how to follow our dreams, or what our dream is?
KG: Dream big. Embrace your ambitions. And don’t be afraid of them just because they’re different, or because no one’s done it that way before. It might be a great goal for you.
JM: And remember to be happy. My little boy is obsessed with cheese, and he loves the cheese man at Whole Foods. He goes there every day to talk to him. If that’s what he wants to do, do it. But do it with pride, and with love, and enjoy yourself.
KG: We need some young dairy farmers in upstate New York.
JM: We do. And he likes him some cheese, that boy.