September 08, 2014 12:00 PM

Kirsten Gillibrand can now laugh about that time in 2009, just after she was appointed to fill the Senate seat that Hillary Clinton had vacated to become Secretary of State, when a young male staffer assigned her an impossible time slot to preside over the Senate: 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., right when her infant son would need to eat. “I had to nurse during that hour,” she recalls, “and how do you explain that to a young guy with no kids—that I would burst?” Gillibrand, 47, grins mischievously at the thought of the bold women’s-rights stand she could have taken by breast-feeding on the Senate dais. “It would have been hysterical, but I would have gotten kicked out,” she says. “On the Senate floor, you can’t even have your BlackBerry out!”

In an institution designed centuries ago by—and for—as Gillibrand puts it, “old white men,” New York’s junior senator stands out as the chamber’s only mom caring for young children in Washington, D.C. (Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s son and daughter live in New Hampshire.) From Monday to Friday, she’s doing it solo while husband Jonathan, 45, a finance manager, works in New York City. Emboldened by genetics (Gillibrand’s grandmother Polly McLean was an activist in Albany Democratic politics) and by her huge win during her 2012 reelection campaign (72 percent of the vote—a New York State record), Gillibrand is unabashed about shaking things up. “I can make more waves than my mother or grandmother, because in my generation we were told you could do anything and we have an expectation of parity,” the Democrat tells PEOPLE. “But we still need to work for it.”

Her candid new book Off the Sidelines is equal parts memoir and call to action. In it Gillibrand describes the sexism she’s encountered since she was elected to the U.S. House in 2006 and her struggle with her weight—she’s been every size from 4 to 16. (See excerpt, p. 82.) Although she has been called names like Honey Badger, Tracy Flick (after Reese Witherspoon‘s cutthroat character in Election) and “the hottest member of the Senate” (by Majority Leader Harry Reid), Gillibrand insists she’s not insulted by any of them. “Harry was trying to be nice,” she says. She also uses her book and a political action committee of the same name to beseech other women to join her in the fight to make Washington—and the country—more hospitable to women and working moms. “Speak up, gather strength, support one another,” she writes, envisioning equal pay, affordable child care and more. “If we do, women will sit at every table of power, making decisions.”

Growing up as Tina Rutnik (her brother couldn’t pronounce “Kirsten”) in the Albany area, Gillibrand looked up to her mother, an attorney, and the grandmother who wore roller skates in the New York State legislature to work the halls more efficiently. After her own stint as a corporate lawyer (“a grind … I was looking to make more of my life”), Gillibrand broke into government in 2000 as special counsel to then-Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo. In the Senate she first took on a repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy against gays and lesbians, then won health benefits for 9/11 responders and challenged both the armed forces (“definitely an old boys’ club”) and university administrators to change the way they prosecute sexual-assault cases. She gives her staff three months of paid family medical leave and is pushing a bill that mandates the same for all American workers.

Through it all she’s been fighting for smaller, more personal justice too—like securing a place near the Senate floor where she can park her boys Henry, 6, and Theo, 10, and keep an eye on them during evening votes. “It may take longer than it should,” she says, “but I will win all these battles.”

Her can-do spirit is more than talk. Gillibrand is a devotee of the positive-thinking self-help book The Secret (“I ordered six copies and distributed them to my staffers”) and regularly changes her computer password to serve as an affirmation for whatever her current project is. When she pledged to raise $3 million in the first quarter of her 2010 run, she made her password 3M1stQ.

If only there were a password to persuade her mentor and idol Hillary Clinton to run for President. “In my personal mind, she’s definitely running,” Gillibrand says wishfully. “Anytime I’ve ever talked to her, I’ve offered every bit of help in the world to get her elected, and she’s never said no.” As for those who buzz about Gillibrand’s jumping into the race should Clinton pass, the senator says with a wince that “things become very adversarial on that level. I have young kids. I like where I am.”

Here’s where her husband is the positive thinker. Gillibrand, after all, has at least a 20-year career ahead of her, and as she puts it, “I do not aspire to be in the Senate for 30 years.” Says Jonathan: “She could be CEO of a large company, she could run a foundation, and she could certainly do the job of President…. Everyone focuses on 2016, but Kirsten could be in politics for a while, and then there’s 2020 or 2024 if she wants to run for something else.”

For now, Gillibrand has enough of a challenge fighting partisan gridlock and the public’s record-low opinion of Congress. “People are always complaining about how Washington sucks so badly,” Gillibrand says. “But if I can work an issue like sexual assault on college campuses and drive a national narrative and know I’m making a difference, then whether or not we pass another bill in Congress, there’s still good things I can do. And that is my saving grace.”

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