Feinstein Leaves Behind Feminist Legacy, Colleagues Say

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein died on Thursday night at 90, her family confirmed. She was the oldest member of Congress. 

Feinstein’s peers in the Senate say she will be remembered as a trailblazer and an exemplar of perseverance whose many firsts paved the way for generations of women to take charge in politics and society.

She was the first woman to serve as mayor of San Francisco and the first woman to be considered for a presidential ticket in 1984 — though Walter Mondale ultimately ran with Geraldine Ferraro.

Feinstein also was the first female front-runner for governor of California; the state’s first woman to win a seat in the Senate; the first woman to preside over a presidential inauguration; and the first woman to serve 30 years as a senator.

As a self-described centrist, Feinstein sometimes changed her views. Like many older politicians, she was once opposed to same-sex marriage, but reversed herself and became a staunch advocate of it in her later years.

One of her most memorable changes of heart, though, came in the fallout of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Feinstein voted for the Iraq war and was a proponent of many of President George W. Bush’s so-called war on terror policies, including brutal interrogations of suspected extremists, many of whom were transferred to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

But in 2007, Feinstein rallied to shut down Guantanamo, and, in 2014, as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, made public a shocking report about the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret prisons across the globe, where extrajudicial torture was being used to extract information from suspected terrorists.

“I came to the conclusion that America’s greatness is being able to say we made a mistake, and we are going to correct it and go from there,” Feinstein said in 2014 after an hour-long speech denouncing the CIA’s interrogation program.

Opened doors for women

For decades, Feinstein built her reputation around open-mindedness and working across the aisle. But she wasn’t one to compromise her values, her colleagues say.

“She was smart. She was strong. She was compassionate, but maybe the trait that stood out most of all was her amazing integrity — her integrity was a diamond,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

On Friday morning, a teary-eyed Schumer led a moment of silence on the Senate floor before delivering a eulogy.

“She gave a voice, a platform and a leader to women throughout the country for decades,” Schumer told his peers. “Dianne didn’t just push down doors that were closed for women, she held them open for generations of women after her, to follow her. Today, there are 25 women serving in this chamber, and every one of them will admit they stand on Dianne’s shoulders.”

Feinstein cast her final vote on Thursday, according to official roll call data. By Friday, her chair was empty, her desk draped in a black sheet with a large vase of white flowers on it.

“Dianne was a trailblazer, and her beloved home state of California, and our entire nation are better for her dogged advocacy,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday.

Nearly called off career

For decades, Feinstein was a mainstay of California politics. But there was a point when she nearly called off her career as a public servant.

The year was 1978. After two failed bids for mayor and nearly a decade on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Feinstein was unsure if politics was her calling. Then tragedy struck. A former supervisor shot dead San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

As board president, Feinstein announced their deaths and called for spiritual healing in one of her most famous speeches. Overnight, she became a national symbol of resilience and was appointed mayor, a post she held for nearly a decade before an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1990.

Two years after losing out, Feinstein ran for Senate and won. She would win five reelections, all by considerable margins.

Feinstein said that the horror of watching Milk die always stuck with her. She later recounted how she rushed to Milk’s office after hearing gunshots and attempted to locate a pulse. “My finger went into a bullet hole in his wrist,” she said. Feinstein went on to spearhead the first nationwide ban on assault weapons in 1994, which expired in 2004.

Throughout her career, Feinstein was a vocal critic of congressional inaction on gun control, particularly in recent years with nationwide upticks in school shootings. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, she tried unsuccessfully to restore the ban.

Feinstein also pushed for abortion rights and rights for crime victims. In 2018, she referred then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh to federal investigators over Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation that he sexually assaulted her when the two were teenagers.

“I’ve lived a feminist life,” Feinstein once told a reporter.

In a tribute on Friday, U.S. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said “Dianne was a pioneering woman leader who served as San Francisco’s first female mayor with unmatched courage, poise and grace.”

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