Dianne Feinstein, Longest-Serving Female US Senator, Dies at 90

Dianne Feinstein, whose 30-plus-year tenure as a US senator was the longest in history by a woman and was distinguished by the battles she took on against gunmakers and the US intelligence community, has died. She was 90.

(Bloomberg) — Dianne Feinstein, whose 30-plus-year tenure as a US senator was the longest in history by a woman and was distinguished by the battles she took on against gunmakers and the US intelligence community, has died. She was 90.

She died on Thursday night, the New York Times reported, citing a family member.

Amid questions about her age and fitness to keep serving, Feinstein had announced in February that she wouldn’t run for a seventh term in 2024. In May, using a wheelchair, she returned to the Capitol to vote for the first time in three months after she contracted shingles. Her extended absence had stalled a handful of President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees and sparked calls from a few fellow Democrats for her to resign. 

Before she became the first female US senator from the most populous state, Feinstein cracked glass ceilings as the first female president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the first female mayor of San Francisco. 

She won her Senate seat in 1992 in what was called “the year of the woman” because it produced four new female senators, tripling the number of women in the upper house of Congress to six. The election turned in part on public anger over the confirmation a year earlier of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who had been accused of sexual harassment. 

In addition to Feinstein, the new female senators included another Californian, Barbara Boxer. But because Feinstein was elected to fill the unexpired term of Republican Pete Wilson, who had become California’s governor, she was sworn in about two months before Boxer — making her the state’s senior senator.

Once sworn in, the firsts continued: Feinstein was the first woman to serve on the Judiciary Committee and first to serve as its top Democrat, the first to chair the Rules Committee and first to chair the Intelligence Committee. In that last role, she played a prominent role in investigating the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogations of detainees following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

31st Year

Feinstein became the longest-serving female senator in history in 2022, when she began her 31st year in office. She was the oldest sitting senator, a distinction that became an issue over the past few years as her mental acuity was questioned quietly by some colleagues and more publicly by reports in the media.

Legislatively, Feinstein was best known as the lead author of the 1994 law that banned the manufacture of certain types of semi-automatic firearms — “assault weapons,” in the language of the legislation — and large-capacity magazines. That ban expired in 2004 without action by Congress to renew it. In the years after, Feinstein tried without success to move a new version through Congress.

Feinstein had experienced gun violence up close. She was president of San Francisco’s legislative council, the Board of Supervisors, in 1978 when a disgruntled former member, Dan White, entered City Hall and shot to death the mayor, George Moscone, and board member Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. It was Feinstein who discovered Milk’s body in his office. 

“I tried to get a pulse and put my finger through a bullet hole,” she recalled in a 2008 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.

As chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 2009 to 2015, Feinstein led a painstaking five-year review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program in the fear-filled aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US.

In the course of producing a 6,700-page report, Feinstein became locked in a bureaucratic war with the CIA’s leadership over the release of names and aliases of agency personnel. The CIA issued a rare apology after an investigation found it had inappropriately spied on a computer network that the Senate’s investigators were using. 

The tug-of-war inspired the 2019 movie The Report, with Annette Bening portraying Feinstein and Adam Driver playing Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator.

‘Stain on Our Values’

In the end, a 500-page summary — with most of the names and pseudonyms redacted — was released on Dec. 9, 2014. Feinstein said the investigation showed the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” had been both ineffective and “far more brutal than the CIA represented to policy makers and the American public.”

She concluded that some of the methods had constituted torture, which she condemned as “a stain on our values and on our history.” She called the report the most important work of her career.

Tall and regal in her bearing, Feinstein was a policy wonk who was open to compromise and reluctant to engage in the partisan rhetorical sniping that dominates many days in Washington. 

“Dianne is almost unsuited to politics,” then-California Assembly speaker Willie Brown told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “She’s too candid, too direct, too incapable of game-playing.”

Feinstein took nuanced positions on many contentious issues — breaking with many of her Democratic colleagues to support capital punishment, for instance, and once being recorded summarily dismissing teenagers urging her to support the Green New Deal, a liberal wish list of government initiatives.

Her centrist approach to politics won her praise at times, such as when she wangled enough Republican support in the Senate to pass a 1994 law protecting more than 7 million acres of desert. But as California moved further to the political left in recent decades, Feinstein started to be viewed as too conservative for many of her constituents.

Drone Strikes

She was a vocal supporter of drone strikes, enhanced surveillance by the National Security Agency and other covert-warfare measures. In 2013, when former CIA employee Edward Snowden leaked the NSA’s phone-snooping programs, she condemned the act as treason.

“I feel I have an obligation to do everything I can to keep this country safe,” she told the New York Times. “So put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

Feinstein was born Dianne Emiel Goldman on June 22, 1933, in San Francisco. She was the first of three daughters born to Leon Goldman, a Jewish surgeon, and the former Betty Rosenburg, a former model of Russian Orthodox heritage. Reflecting the influence of both parents, she attended a Jewish religious school before attending Roman Catholic high school at the socially elite Convent of the Sacred Heart in San Francisco.

In 1955, Feinstein received a bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford University. While there, she helped establish Stanford’s first chapter of Young Democrats, a sign of her “growing independence from her staunch Republican father,” Stanford Magazine reported in a 2017 profile. She also ran successfully for vice president of the student body, which was then the highest office women could hold.

After college she worked as an intern in the office of San Francisco’s district attorney, and in 1956 she married a lawyer, Jack Berman. They had a daughter, Katherine, before divorcing in 1960.

Feinstein’s second marriage was in 1962 to Bertram Feinstein, a neurosurgeon who helped finance her early campaigns. He died in 1978. She married Richard Blum, an investment banker, in 1980. He died in 2022 after a long battle with cancer. 

Parole Board

After working on John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, she won an appointment by California governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown — a patient of her father’s — to the state’s parole board for women. She served from 1960 to 1966.

Feinstein was elected in 1969 to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, the city’s legislative body. She remained on the board as she ran for mayor in 1971 and 1975, losing both times.

Her steady leadership in the hours and days following the 1978 assassination of Moscone and Milk won her praise for calming the city. As board president, she succeeded Moscone as acting mayor, then went on to win two terms as mayor. 

During almost 10 years as mayor, until 1988, Feinstein oversaw San Francisco’s initial response to the AIDS epidemic and won approval of a law criminalizing possession of handguns. That law was struck down in court, though not before Feinstein herself complied by turning in the Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver she had acquired in the 1970s after an attack on her home.

Following a 1990 gubernatorial bid to Wilson, she won her Senate seat in 1992, defeating John Seymour, whom Wilson had appointed to replace him.

Her last reelection, in 2018, was her narrowest win since 1994; she defeated a fellow Democrat, Kevin De Leon, 54% to 46%. (In California’s system, the top two candidates in the primary face off in the general election, even if they are in the same party.)

In 2020, Feinstein stepped aside as top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee after she was criticized by progressives who said she had been far too tame during the Supreme Court hearings of Amy Coney Barrett, who went on to win confirmation.

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