Women in politics: Gillibrand and Davis memoirs
BETH J. HARPAZ
Sep. 16, 2014
NEW YORK (AP) — "Forgetting to Be Afraid: A Memoir" (Penguin/Blue Rider Press), by Wendy Davis, and "Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World" (Ballantine Books), by Kirsten Gillibrand
Two prominent women in politics, New Yorker Kirsten Gillibrand, who replaced Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate, and Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, who shot to fame in pink sneakers with an abortion-rights filibuster, are out this month with memoirs.
"Forgetting to Be Afraid" chronicles Davis' hardscrabble journey from teen mom in a trailer park to Harvard Law School. Gillibrand's "Off the Sidelines" is a "Lean In"-style exhortation about women in a man's world.
Both books made headlines. Davis' revealed that she terminated two pregnancies for medical reasons. Gillibrand's describes unnamed male colleagues in Washington making inappropriate remarks about her appearance.
But readers may find other aspects of the books equally compelling. Working moms will nod in recognition as Gillibrand describes raising two little boys, running from day care to the Senate to home, juggling sick kids, legislation and making dinner. Americans who have struggled with poverty will relate to Davis' trips to the pawn shop and her tears of gratitude over a found $20 bill.
"Forgetting to Be Afraid" is the more dramatic book. Davis' grandparents were itinerant farmers whose 13 children slept head to foot in two beds and subsisted on water-and-flour biscuits. Her father moved the family five times before Davis was in third grade, then left for good, throwing them into poverty. Her mother worked nights and weekends; Davis took odd jobs to help. By 19, she was a pregnant college dropout. She's at her visceral best describing that raw time: "If I had a flat tire, there was never an extra twenty dollars to fix it."
Eventually, Davis takes paralegal classes, gets her degree, marries a successful older man, has a second child and goes to Harvard Law School. She commutes between Harvard and Texas, juggling marriage, child-rearing and school. She's elected to the Fort Worth City Council and Texas state Senate, where her famous filibuster took place last year. Under filibuster rules, she couldn't eat, drink or sit; she wore a catheter, and for hours told stories from women who'd had abortions. But she didn't reveal her own experiences ending an ectopic pregnancy and a pregnancy in which the fetus had a fatal brain abnormality. She feared a "dramatically personal confession ... would overshadow the events of the day."
As a child, Davis took dictation from a grandparent who'd suffered a stroke, teaching her "how important it is to speak up for those who can't speak for themselves." Whether voters will let her apply that lesson as governor remains to be seen. Davis, the Democrat, is trailing behind Republican Greg Abbott, but she's narrowed the gap.
Gillibrand grew up middle-class in Albany, New York. Both parents were lawyers; her grandmother was a leader in the local Democratic machine. Gillibrand went to Dartmouth, then UCLA Law School, before joining a New York corporate law firm, where her long hours earned her $200,000 a year. But a speech by Hillary Clinton made her yearn for a more meaningful career.
What does it take for a young lawyer with political ambitions to get noticed? Forget Gillibrand's chirpy, Oprah-esque advice ("Wake up thirty minutes earlier in the morning and go for a walk ... so you can face the day from a stronger, healthier, happier place"). Instead, learn by example: Gillibrand joins boards and political groups. She seeks out mentors, writes checks, raises money and milks moments on reception lines, asking Hillary Clinton at one event how she can help. Clinton asks her to host a fundraiser; Gillibrand throws "the best event" ever.
Gillibrand tries and fails to get hired by federal prosecutors, then tells Andrew Cuomo — then U.S. Housing Secretary — at another event that she can't "break in" to public service. Within days, she's working in Washington. She later beats a four-term Republican congressman in a GOP district and is appointed U.S. senator when Hillary Clinton becomes secretary of state.
Gillibrand's accounts of comments by men in Washington have made waves. One told her: "Good thing you're working out, because you wouldn't want to get porky!" Another said: "Don't lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby!" She told People magazine the men were "well into their 60s, 70s or 80s" and didn't know their comments were "inappropriate." Some reporters said they didn't believe her stories and demanded she name the offenders. But her defenders countered that if she named names, she'd never get support from male senators on issues she's fought for like reforming how sexual assaults are handled in the military.
"Off the Sidelines" sometimes feels like a campaign commercial, detailing Gillibrand's advocacy for 9/11 first-responders and other issues. But working mothers will find much to relate to. If you've ever had a child beg you not to go to work; if you've ever arrived at day care 15 minutes late; if you've ever missed work to stay home with a sick kid, there are passages in Gillibrand's book that will move you to tears.
Beth J. Harpaz is the author of "The Girls in the Van: Covering Hillary."