04.04.146:41 PM ET

Two Senators Who Cross the Aisle

Kirsten Gillibrand and Susan Collins talk at Women in the World about mentors, bipartisanship, sexual assault in the military, and a decent wage for low-income women.

“If you want to fix Washington, elect more women," was the theme of the conversation between U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Susan M. Collins (R-ME) at the 5th annual Women In The World summit in New York City on Friday.

Most recently, Gillibrand and Collins worked across party lines to implement reforms that will address sexual assaults in the military. Their effort hit a roadblock last month, when Gillibrand's bill to remove prosecutorial decisions for sexual assaults from the chain of command failed to overcome a filibuster—by just five votes. 

Moderator Mellody Hobson, president of Chicago-based Ariel Investments, began with some disheartening facts: in United States history, there have only been 44 female senators; women today account for merely one fifth of the Senate; and half of the states have yet to elect a woman to the Senate. 

With that as preamble, Hobson asked Gillibrand and Collins the obvious question: Why is it so hard for women to get into politics? 

Collins speculated that one big reason why there aren't more women in politics is confidence. "When I encourage women to step forward and run for office, I often hear, 'I'm just not ready.'" With a knowing laugh, she added, "I have never heard a man say, 'I'm just not ready.'" Then she backed up her point with a joke: "If a woman is running for public office, she feels she has to have a Ph.D. in international economics to talk about trade policy. A man just feels he has to drive a Honda."

Collins, who got into politics in 1975 as a legislative assistant to Maine Republican William Cohen, said that growing up in the Pine Tree State gave her an advantage. "I was very fortunate to grow up in a state where the legendary Senator Margaret Chase Smith was the senator the entire time I was growing up,” Collins said. “For my generation in Maine, it was not odd to have a woman representing in the Senate." 

The crowd cheered at the mention of Senator Smith, who entered the House in 1940, and the Senate nine years later. Smith was a vocal opponent of McCarthyism and became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination at a major political party's convention, when she appeared on the ballot in the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco. 

Gillibrand, the daughter of a Republican lobbyist, said she never personally felt that she wasn't ready to run. After foregoing a congressional run in 2004 at the behest of Hillary Clinton, Gillibrand ran in 2006, beating four-term Republican incumbent John E. Sweeney. 

“What I think women bring to the table that's unique is our life experience,” Gillibrand said. “We have a very different life experience—we are raised differently, we are made different …I think when women are told that they are needed … they respond." Gillibrand said her evidence for that latter point is Rosie the Riveter, the bandana-clad feminist icon and poster child for all the women who worked in factories during World War II. 

Gillibrand said bluntly, "if we had more women in Congress, we wouldn't [have] wasted the last four years debating contraception …" 

Collins and Gillibrand explained that a big reason for bipartisan cooperation among the women of the Senate was dinner parties. The dinner parties were the brainchild of Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who first entered the Senate ten years before Collins, in 1987. Gillibrand said there are some rules at the dinner parties (besides no boys allowed): "no staff" and "no leaks." Gillibrand said that not disparaging one another publicly is an "unsaid" rule. Collins got a laugh when she countered, "It's not said, you're right , [but] I don't want to give the impression that everybody necessarily follows those rules, because we're being honest here." 

But Collins said that disparaging her colleagues in the Senate would serve no purpose. "When I first was elected, a senior male [in the Senate] took me aside and said 'never campaign against a colleague'… there are only 100 of us! If you go into someone's state and smear them, it's hard to work together."

Gillibrand and Collins said they were disappointed the military sexual assault bill failed to garner enough votes, but were heartened it got the 55 it did. "This was one of the most bipartisan bills that we've seen in a long time," said Gillibrand. "On the GOP side, we had Senator Collins and Chuck Grassley—well regarded moderates—but we also had Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Rand Paul."

Gillibrand reminded the audience that in the military, "26,000 women have been subject to unwanted sexual contact over the last 12 months. Only just over 3,000 [of those incidents] were reported, [with] only 238 convictions, [out of which] only 176 perpetrators served time." She continued, “Literally only 1 in 100 perpetrators are convicted, [and] less go to jail." 

Beyond military sexual assault, Gillibrand is trying to reform the way we handle sexual assault on college campuses, which she told the audience was an epidemic. There is, Gillibrand said, a "1 in 5 chance of being raped if you're a student on a college campus. Most of the rapes happen in the first year and in the first few months of school." Gillibrand was confident that this issue, like military sexual assault, "won't be partisan," because women in the Senate, she said, "look for issues that aren't partisan" so that they can get things done. "That's why we need more women senators."

Collins agreed: "I always try to actually get things done in the Senate." Gillibrand chimed in, sarcastically, "so revolutionary."

"As opposed to trying to score political points or what they call 'message votes' where you know there's not going to be a result," Collins said, she was devoting herself to a cause that could really affect peoples lives: the minimum wage. "It's obvious that the votes are not there for a minimum wage of $10.10, so the question is, do you want some kind of increase on the minimum wage—and how do you get there?—or do you want a single vote on the minimum wage … that won't succeed?"

Collins said when it comes to the minimum wage, people need to be realistic. "I do believe that if you increase the minimum wage by too much and too rapidly that the evidence is overwhelming … that it will lead to a loss of jobs, 500,000 jobs." But Collins said it was important to also remember the human component of the issue. "On the other hand, imagine trying to get by on the minimum wage, which is currently only $7.25 an hour."

Gillibrand explained why the minimum wage is a women's issue. "Two thirds of all minimum wage earners are women. If we can raise the minimum wage it will bring 17 million women to a place where they can raise their families." Gillibrand described low-income women as dealing with not a glass-ceiling but "stuck with a sticky floor." Women earning the minimum wage trying to care for a family, she said, cannot afford childcare. When their children are sick, they have to miss work, and they might be fired. It's a vicious cycle, Gillibrand said, "women are chronically stuck in these low wage jobs … and they never get ahead."

The discussion ended with Gillibrand and Collins explaining what they hope to be their legacy when they end their careers as senators.

Gillibrand said she wants to be remembered for advocating "equality for all, and that means equal pay, paid leave" and support for the LGBT community, in addition to no sexual assault in the military or on college campuses.

Collins said she wants an "overall legacy of bringing people together and actually forging compromises, not scoring partisan political points—but actually getting things done." Collins also said she as proud of her work for equality. "I believe that without my leadership … we would not have repealed Don't Ask Don't Tell."