Senator Jeanne Shaheen On A Lifetime Of Breaking Down Barriers

Photo courtesy of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) didn’t always want to be a politician. In fact, when she was a little girl, she dreamed of being a cowgirl. And not just any cowgirl — she wanted to be Annie Oakley, sharpshooter extraordinaire, otherwise known as “Little Miss Sure Shot.”

Shaheen may not have achieved that goal (admittedly, it’s a lofty one). But after changing course a couple of times in her early career, she eventually decided to pursue public office, where she’s achieved plenty of new and arguably loftier goals, and helped a whole bunch of people in the process.

The only woman in American history to be elected both a governor and a senator, Shaheen has served on the Senate since 2009. (Fun fact: She’s also New Hampshire’s first elected female governor.) As a senator, she’s used her voice to advocate and legislate on the issues that matter to her, many of which happen to directly affect women’s lives and rights.

One of the first bills Shaheen co-sponsored was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which makes it easier for women to fight for equal pay. Passionate about protecting women in the military, she introduced — and Congress passed — 2012’s Shaheen Amendment, which provides affordable, guaranteed abortion access to servicewomen who are sexually assaulted. She was a co-sponsor of 2014’s Not My Boss’s Business Act, which preserves women’s right to receive no-co-pay birth control from their employers. In July, she eloquently spoke out on the Senate floor to denounce the GOP’s efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. And in August, she publicly backed Hillary Clinton for president.

As the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Subcommittee for European Affairs, Shaheen is also vocal about the plight of refugees in the Middle East, and America’s duty to help them. She was moved by a recent trip to Europe in which she and other delegates convened to address the Syrian refugee crisis. In fact, just the other day, she wrote a piece for Time about how America owes it to provide a “more robust U.S. response to the greatest humanitarian challenge of our time” and take in more Syrian refugees because, well, it’s the right thing to do.

We interviewed Shaheen at her Capitol Hill office about career changes, work/life balance, and why more women don’t — but should — run for office. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

I appreciated the comments you made on the Senate floor about the GOP’s attempts to defund Planned Parenthood. Why does Planned Parenthood’s livelihood matter so much?

“For about 12,000 women in New Hampshire, Planned Parenthood is where they get their health care. Without those clinics, they wouldn’t have access to any family-planning services.

“I think the issue has gotten distorted by opponents of abortion, because Planned Parenthood doesn’t use public dollars for abortion. Abortion is a very small percentage of what they do — most of it is preventative care, breast exams, cancer screenings.”

Right. People seem to forget that Planned Parenthood isn’t just about abortion.

“In fact, they’re not mostly about abortion!”

I’d ask them, ‘How many of you want to run for office one day?’ Almost every man would raise his hand. Only about a quarter of the young women would.

I read a statistic that said that women sometimes need to be nudged to run for office, while men just go for it.

“I spent some time as the director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. One of the things that always amazed me was how when I’d have a room full of graduate students, I’d ask them, ‘How many of you want to run for office one day?’ and almost every man would raise his hand. Only about a quarter of the young women would.”

What about you? How did you first come to politics?

“I came of age in the ’60s, and women’s rights, civil rights, and anti-war activism were all happening. I got very involved in campus politics, then moved to New Hampshire.

“Before that, I had been teaching at a newly integrated school in Mississippi. Jimmy Carter got elected for governor of Georgia and gave a very famous speech about the need to end segregation in the South. It got our attention, and when Carter announced his run for president, back in New Hampshire, my husband, Bill, and I went to the first organizational meeting he had, in 1975. That was my entree into politics.”

When you open doors for marginalized people — whether it’s women, African-Americans, the LGBT community — that opens doors for everybody.

How did teaching at that school in Mississippi shape your perspectives?

“It was a good lesson that when you open doors for marginalized people — whether it’s women, African-Americans, the LGBT community — that opens doors for everybody.

Did you ever deal with doubts about whether you’d make it as a woman in politics?

“The doubts I had had more to do with work/life balance — campaigns are all-consuming, and when my husband and I first started working for Jimmy Carter in 1975, we had a young daughter of a year and a half. It’s a constant struggle and it’s what most working women go through.”

Can you remember any mistakes you’ve made careerwise and what you did to get through?

“I have a philosophy: You make a decision and you try to make it work. You just work as hard as you can and try to be as successful as you can and learn from it, or maybe you decide it isn’t working, so you make a change. But starting off thinking, ‘Have I made the right decision?’ is something I try not to do. “

If you could give your twentysomething self one piece of advice, what would it be?

“That you have lots of opportunities and you don’t have to assume that every decision you make is so loaded. I remember thinking, if an opportunity came along and I didn’t take it, that I might not have another one. I’d tell myself that I had time.”

When you were a kid, what did you dream of doing when you grew up?

“I wanted to be Annie Oakley. Then I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was in high school. After college, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. “

“My advice to young people would be to remember that what you do tomorrow doesn’t have to be what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.”

A lot of people can relate to that!

“My advice to young people would be to remember that what you do tomorrow doesn’t have to be what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. Most people change jobs — not just jobs but careers — a number of times throughout our lives.

Can you remember the day you decided to run for the U.S. Senate? How’d you know it was time?

“I ran for the Senate and lost in 2002. I decided I wasn’t going to run again; I was working at Harvard and having a great time. But then I thought about the country, the future, and what I would say to my grandchildren in 10 years if I didn’t run again. It wasn’t good enough to say I wanted my weekends off or that I didn’t want to work that hard.”

How is the Senate different with your voice at the table?

“If you look back to the government shutdown in 2013, it was really us women senators who pushed and said, ‘We need to come to some agreement to get things running again.’

“I think the women in the Senate have made a big difference in general. There are now 20 of us, and we meet for dinner about every other month, with the rule that whatever happens at the dinner stays at the dinner.

“When you look at the women on the Armed Services Committee, I think one of the reasons women’s sexual assault has become such a big issue is because there are more women on the Committee than ever before in history — there are seven of us who’ve said, ‘We’re not going to let this go.'”

But then I thought about the country, the future, and what I would say to my grandchildren in 10 years if I didn’t run again.

Are there any issues you think young women today should be paying more attention to?

“Certainly, access to health care. Today’s young women have, fortunately, always had Roe v. Wade, so they may not recognize the extent to which anti-abortion activists have worked to restrict access to reproductive health care and those implications for women’s futures.

“There are a range of other issues that affect women and their families, too, like the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which I co-sponsored, to address the fact that women are still getting fired when they get pregnant.

“Equal pay for equal work, paid family leave, maternity benefits — these are all issues that young women might not think about as much until they encounter them directly.”

What would you say to a woman who wants to get involved in politics but isn’t sure where to start?

“What I used to say to my students was to get involved in what you care about. Most people don’t start by running for Congress or the Senate; they get active locally.

“I knew this young man who was very excited about Barack Obama but said, ‘They won’t hire me.’ So I said, ‘Can you afford to move out to Chicago and volunteer for him?’

“That’s what he did, and the next time I saw him, he was on Obama’s staff, and then he was in the White House, and now he’s a senator in Massachusetts.

You just got back from a trip to Europe to address the Syrian crisis. What was that like?

“We visited the island of Lesvos in Greece, where so many refugees are coming across, and not just from Syria. The unaccompanied children were saddest to me. At a house in Athens, we saw an unaccompanied boy with his 13-year-old cousin. At a reception center in Lesvos, we met a boy with his sister; at some point, the parents had sent the kids on alone because they were so desperate to get them out.”

What’s your most meaningful accomplishment?

“Personally meaningful: my family. I have three daughters who are doing very well.

“Professionally speaking, the thing I’m probably proudest of was helping to expand public kindergarten in New Hampshire. It was the last state in the country that didn’t have access to public kindergarten. Parents still come up to me and say, ‘My child is in public kindergarten because of what you did.'”

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