Senators of Steel: Gillibrand And McCaskill Make A Formidable Team
When Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) joined the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2010, she launched a partnership for the ages. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) already sat on that committee, and realized quickly they complemented each other well.
"She goes around really sweetly and gets everyone to agree with her, and I just kind of pound people into submission," McCaskill says with a laugh.
McCaskill was elected to the Senate in 2006, becoming the first woman senator from her state of Missouri. Gillibrand was appointed by the governor of New York to fill Hillary Clinton's vacated seat, then successfully ran to keep the seat in a 2010 special election, and again in 2012.
The two first teamed up to tackle sexual assault within the military.
"[With] my background as a sexual assault prosecutor, and with her commitment to this issue and the passion she has for this issue, we were just naturally in sync," McCaskill says. "We worked together to get an awful lot done within the uniform code of military justice and changing the entire system of how victims are handled in the military."
Though not always in agreement about the specific measures required to address sexual assault in the military, the two moved forward together to take a hard look at how best to reform the way campuses handle sexual assault cases.
In the midst of working on addressing military sexual assault, Gillibrand received a visit from some student activists.
"They told a very familiar story of being raped, reporting the rape, being disbelieved, retaliated against by their school administrators, and not getting justice," Gillibrand says. "It was a real wake-up call to me that the work that Claire and I had already started was just as urgent in another context, so we decided to work together to figure out what is the best approach to end the scourge."
In 2014, McCaskill conducted a national survey about sexual assault on college campuses. The data from that survey came to anchor the Campus Safety and Accountability Act (CASA) introduced later that year. Of the bill, Gillibrand says, "We wanted to make sure there were protections for survivors and the accused, to make sure that the scales of justice were blind."
CASA has yet to pass or even come up for a vote in either chamber of the legislature, but the senators have a plan.
"We are confident that important provisions from our bill will be included in [the reauthorization of higher education]. That's really the vehicle that makes the most sense for us to get some of this to the finish line," McCaskill says.
Gillibrand adds, "One way or another, we will have a vote on the bill, and when we do have a vote, it will pass."
But the senators know they have a long road ahead. "This is not one of those things where we will just hug each other and go, 'Boy, got that problem solved!'" McCaskill says. "That's just never gonna happen because there are just too many women out there who are living in silence with a huge burden."
Gillibrand agrees the battle will be long, "but to me it really goes to this question of, 'Do we value women? Do we value the vulnerable?' Unfortunately, the answer is, 'Not enough.'"
The senators, who are 2015 espnW IMPACT25 honorees, work hard to lift up women. So they had plenty of love to go around when asked to name the year's most impactful people.
"On the issues of sexual violence, the heroes, for me, are the students. Annie [Clark] and Andrea [Pino] have really put themselves out there," Gillibrand says. "Their courage and passion continues to inspire me."
"I have to give a shoutout to the Notorious RBG," McCaskill says of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "I just think her spirit is so strong, and I think a lot of women gain strength just from watching her spirit."
And, of course, they both mention 2016 Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.
The senators have some advice for young women and girls, as well.
"Own your ambition," McCaskill says. "There's nothing wrong with a woman being ambitious."
"I think Claire and I are both ambitious feminists, so we like all young women to be ambitious feminists," Gillibrand says.
And they're not about to let up.
"There's no magic bullet for any of these issues," Gillibrand adds, "so I think Claire and I will work together as long as we're in the Senate together to get these things done."
The IMPACT25 is espnW's annual list of the 25 athletes and influencers who have made the greatest impact for women in sports. Explore the 2015 list at espnW.com/IMPACT25.
Katie Barnes is a Digital Media Associate at ESPN. Follow them on Twitter @Katie_Barnes3.