Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California died yesterday at the age of 90, the longest-serving woman in U.S. Senate history and the first Jewish woman to be sworn in as senator (followed shortly afterward by fellow Californian Barbara Boxer).
A trailblazer long characterized as a centrist Democrat who supported many liberal causes, Feinstein was first elected to the Senate in 1992. Dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” that election followed Clarence Thomas’s 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings and Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against him that galvanized American women to try to shift the balance of power in government and other areas of society. Feinstein, Boxer, Patty Murray, Carol Moseley Braun and Barbara Mikulski took the number of women in the U.S. Senate from two to five. In the ensuing decades Feinstein was at the forefront of legislation to support consumer and environmental protections, gay marriage, gun safety, humane interrogation methods and much more.
“From the start, Dianne was a leader,” recalls Ann Lewis, who was Mikulski’s chief of staff when the Maryland legislator was in the House and later worked with her Senate office, which provided her the opportunity to observe both pioneering female senators. “Part of it was [Feinstein’s] dramatic history. We all knew her actions right after the Moscone/Milk shootings and watched her determination on gun violence ever after,” says Lewis, referring to the 1978 assassination of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by former Supervisor Dan White, who shot them in their City Hall offices. Feinstein, who was president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors and would succeed Moscone as mayor, discovered Milk’s body and broke the news of the murders to the public.
Lewis also remembered Senator Feinstein’s ability “in committee and on the floor to speak to whatever was at stake in a quiet but impressive style,” along with her artistic talent. “Barbara’s office was decorated with flower drawings by Dianne, lovely and precisely drawn.”
She was born Dianne Emiel Goldman on June 22, 1933, in San Francisco. According to The Jews of Capitol Hill by Kurt F. Stone, Feinstein’s father, Leon Goldman, was a prominent Bay Area surgeon whose Orthodox Jewish parents emigrated from Poland to San Francisco in the late 1800s. Her mother’s side of the family came from St. Petersburg, Russia, and reportedly had both Jewish and Eastern Orthodox roots. According to a 1983 obituary in The New York Times, Feinstein’s mother, Betty (née Rosenburg), was the daughter of a Czarist army officer whose family “fled during the 1917 revolution by driving a haycart across Siberia to Shanghai, then emigrating to Eureka, California.”
As told by the Jewish Women’s Archive, Feinstein attended a Jewish religious school, but it was Betty’s wish that her daughter attend an exclusive Catholic high school in San Francisco, the Covenant of the Sacred Heart. She graduated in 1951 and went to college at Stanford, during which time she formally converted to Judaism. It so happened that a Sacred Heart classmate’s father was California Attorney General Edmund “Pat” Brown, whom Feinstein met and impressed; as governor he appointed her to the California Women’s Parole Board in 1960.
Feinstein would go on to become the first female mayor of San Francisco, the first female member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the first woman to chair the Senate Intelligence Committee, among other pioneering accomplishments.
Feinstein was married three times, her first in 1956 to Jack Berman, a prosecutor in the San Francisco DA’s office. The following year she gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Katherine, who survives her. The marriage ended in divorce two years later. She was then married to neurosurgeon Bertram Feinstein from 1962 until his death in 1978 and to investment banker Richard Blum from 1980 until his death in 2022.
Her own health became a painfully public issue the same year, when reports of memory lapses and possible signs of cognitive decline surfaced. Feinstein was then absent from the Senate for an extended period starting in early 2023, during which it was revealed she was battling shingles and related encephalitis. She returned to the Senate in May and appeared frail as concerns about her capacity to serve continued. Now that her life has come to an end, Feinstein’s legacy shifts to a long, storied and impactful career.
In her response to a 2010 Moment symposium asking what it means to be a Jew in contemporary times and what Jews bring to the world, Feinstein said: “Since the whole history of the Jewish people has been one of struggle, there’s much strength to draw from Judaism. The motivation, drive, staying power, all those traits we have needed, are not just inherent in the scriptures or the Ten Commandments but in the whole of our history.”