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Colleagues’ clumsy comments fortify Gillibrand against sexism

WASHINGTON – One man told Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., she was “even pretty when you’re fat.” Another encouraged her workouts, saying, “You wouldn’t want to get porky.” Yet another urged her not to overdo her postpartum weight loss, squeezing her belly and saying, “I like my girls chubby.”

Who were these Neanderthals?

They were among the New York Democrat’s colleagues in the House and Senate.

Those sexist remarks, and others from her male colleagues, are related by Gillibrand in a new book, “Off the Sidelines,” due to be released Sept. 9.

They are certainly not the point of the book, which is a call to women to use their energy and intellect to change the world for the better. But they provide a revealing glimpse into the male-dominated environment on Capitol Hill, where politicians who should know better are anything but politically correct.

Gillibrand writes that she’s been called a “honey badger,” and said Majority Leader Harry Reid called her “the hottest member of the Senate.”

“He was trying to be nice,” she said.

Gillibrand told People magazine, which published an excerpt of her book this week, that she isn’t that upset by her colleagues’ remarks. She said of the Southern congressman who told her on the House floor that she was pretty “even when you’re fat”: “I believed his intentions were sweet even if he was being an idiot.”

“It was all statements that were being made by men who were well into their 60s, 70s or 80s,” she said. “They had no clue that those are inappropriate things to say to a pregnant woman or a woman who just had a baby or to women in general.”

“No clue” seems charitable given the fact that the men involved are national leaders with many years in public life. But Gillibrand said she isn’t wasting time taking offense rather, she told People, she’s using the sexism she encounters as fuel to power her efforts to attack issues like military and campus sexual assault.

Certainly, though, the examples make it easier to understand why her Military Justice Improvement Act – which would have taken sexual-assault prosecution decisions out of the hands of the chain of command and into the purview of trained prosecutors – was an uphill fight.

Starting from scratch, and bucking the power structure of her own party in the form of Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, Gillibrand built a bipartisan coalition of 55 senators who supported the measure, but it failed to reach the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster.

Gillibrand, who wrote in the excerpt that she has been every size from 4 to 16, said that a labor leader told her when she became a senator in 2009 that she should lose weight.

“He said, ‘When I first met you in 2006, you were beautiful, a breath of fresh air. To win (in a special election to the Senate) you need to be beautiful again.”

Through a publicist, Gillibrand declined to comment on the book and magazine excerpt this week. The publicist said she would be available for interviews after the book’s publication.