Senator Dianne Feinstein, an ‘icon for women in politics,’ dies at 90

Senator Dianne Feinstein has died at 90 years old, her office has confirmed. Her career was one of many firsts. She was the first woman president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the first woman mayor of San Francisco, and one of two of the first women elected to the U.S. Senate from California.

James Sauls, chief of staff to Sen. Feinstein, released the following statement:

“Sadly, Senator Feinstein passed away last night at her home in Washington, D.C. Her passing is a great loss for so many, from those who loved and cared for her to the people of California that she dedicated her life to serving. Senator Feinstein never backed away from a fight for what was just and right. At the same time, she was always willing to work with anyone, even those she disagreed with, if it meant bettering the lives of Californians or the betterment of our nation. There are few women who can be called senator, chairman, mayor, wife, mom and grandmother. Senator Feinstein was a force of nature who made an incredible impact on our country and her home state. She left a legacy that is undeniable and extraordinary. There is much to say about who she was and what she did, but for now, we are going to grieve the passing of our beloved boss, mentor and friend.”

Senator Chuck Schumer once said of Feinstein, “She’s a legend. A legend in California as the first woman senator. A legend in the Senate. She was the leader on so many different issues.”

Born Dianne Goldman in San Francisco on June 22, 1933, she was raised by a Russian Orthodox mother and Jewish father. She worshipped at Temple Emanuel Synagogue and graduated from San Francisco’s Convent of the Sacred Heart, a Roman Catholic all girls’ high school. She was in the glee club, ballet, camera club and athletics.

Feinstein went on to study at Stanford University where she graduated in 1955 and was later married three times.

She had her only daughter, Katherine, with her first husband, who she divorced after three years.

In 1962, she married her second husband, Bertram Feinstein, who died in 1978 of colon cancer, just months before Feinstein became San Francisco mayor.

In 1980, Feinstein married her third husband, investment banker Richard Blum. She remained with him until his death from cancer in 2022.

Feinstein’s first foray into politics came in 1960 when then-Gov. Pat Brown appointed her to the California Women’s Parole Board. But it was in 1969, at the age of 35, that Feinstein first held public office, winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was in the state Senate at the time. He recalled meeting Feinstein during those years.

“I remember that I was trying to get a house here in San Francisco, when they wouldn’t allow Black people easily to get houses,” he said. “And there was a demonstration and this angular tall, great looking white woman pushing a baby stroller with a little kid in it, who nobody knew anything about, came out to participate in the protest. That was Dianne Feinstein! And it was that long ago, and so I am a great admirer.”

In the 1970s, while serving as the first female president of the Board of Supervisors, Feinstein ran twice for mayor, but lost. She had decided to not run again, when tragedy struck the city.

The tragic assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by Supervisor Dan White in 1978 put Feinstein in the job. In 1979, Feinstein won her first full term as mayor and began reshaping the city.

During the decade she served, she survived a recall attempt, lead mostly by detractors of her proposal to ban handguns in San Francisco. She oversaw the remaking of the city’s skyline, which some decried as the Manhattan-ization of San Francisco, also oversaw a raucous 1984 Democratic National Convention and saved the city’s cable car system.

“The cable cars still running!” Brown exclaimed. “Cause of Dianne.”

Feinstein rose to power as a crisis gripped the city’s gay community. A disease that would later be called AIDS, killed thousands of gay men. Hoping to save lives, Feinstein ordered the city’s bathhouses closed. A risky move, considering the political power of the gay community at the time.

Under her watch, the city’s health department created the global standard for AIDS healthcare at San Francisco General Hospital. In 1990, Feinstein set her sights on a higher office, running for California governor. She lost to Republican Pete Wilson, but still made history again as the first woman in the state to win a major party’s gubernatorial nomination. Then, in 1992, there was a turning point.

During what was dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” Feinstein was elected to the U.S. Senate, alongside Bay Area Congresswoman Barbara Boxer.

In Congress, Feinstein served as the first woman to chair the Senate Rules Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee. She authored the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, leading to a 10 year restriction on certain semi-automatic weapons. The legislation was prompted by the 101 California Street shooting, when a gunman opened fire at a law firm in San Francisco’s financial district, killing eight people.

“I worked with Republican and Democrats alike,” said Feinstein in an interview with CSPAN. “Ten Republicans along with 46 Democrats voted in favor of the amendment.”

Brown adds, “Dianne Feinstein is the only member of Congress either on the Congressional side or on the Senate side who’s ever been able to get a controlled weapons ban signed into law. Dianne got that.”

In 2014, Feinstein released a report revealing how the CIA was detaining and interrogating potential terrorists, sometimes torturing the suspects. The release of the report, led to anti-torture legislation.

“This program was morally, legally and administratively misguided,” she said in an interview with CSPAN. “This nation should never again engage in these tactics.”

Feinstein’s legislative legacy also includes:

  • Creating federal coordination of Amber Alerts, the national child abduction warning system
  • Passing the California Desert Protection Act, which protected millions of acres of California desert and created the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks
  • Reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, to protect women from domestic violence and sexual assault
  • Authoring the 2022 Respect for Marriage Act, to enshrine marriage equality into federal law

In an interview with CSPAN she said, “Simply put, Americans should be free to marry the person they love regardless of sexual orientation or race.”

At times, Sen. Feinstein faced criticism from some in her own party.

Some of the worst came in 2018, after she initially declined to make public a letter from Bay Area professor Christine Blasey Ford during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanagh. Ford had said Kavanagh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school.

Two years later, some Democrats also criticized Feinstein for appearing too cozy with Republicans during the confirmation hearings for conservative Supreme Court appointee Amy Coney Barrett.

Still, throughout her career, Feinstein was seen as a trailblazer for women. Someone who broke barriers, juggling being a wife and mother while navigating a career in the male-dominated field of politics.

“Dianne is unbelievable in how she sets her mind and her program on doing something and it gets done,” Brown said. “

In Feinstein’s later years in office, concerns were raised about her mental fitness and ability to serve. She was the oldest sitting member of Congress.

In late February of 2023, at age 89, she was hospitalized with shingles. That health scare came the same month Feinstein had announced she would retire from the U.S. Senate when her term was up in 2024. She told reporters it was time.

“You know, there are times for all things under the sun, and I think that will be the right time,” Feinstein said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Feinstein teared up when she told her Democratic colleagues about her decision.

“And she got a standing ovation that lasted minutes and minutes,” he said. “One of the longest I’ve ever seen. Which shows the love our caucus, and the country have for this wonderful, wonderful leader and legend, Dianne Feinstein.”

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