Dianne Feinstein (1933-2023): Trailblazer, Legislative Powerhouse, Jewish Woman

By | Sep 29, 2023
Sen. Dianne Feinstein

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).

Dianne Feinstein's swearing in

Dianne Feinstein is sworn in as California Senator in 1992.

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.”

2 thoughts on “Dianne Feinstein (1933-2023): Trailblazer, Legislative Powerhouse, Jewish Woman

  1. Wa Go says:

    Interesting that “‘Jewish” is in the headline (and the obit content) yet Israel is never mentioned. Let’s review:

    One might point to 2006 [age 74] as Feinstein’s descent into Israel-bashing, for prior to that her Zionist credentials seemed impeccable. But that year, Lebanon’s rocket attacks toward Israel needed to be responded to and her most prominent public statements were criticism of alleged cluster munitions. I won’t defend it (if it did occur; evidence is ambiguous) but it raised some eyebrows that her first concern seemed to be the well-being of those on the side that initiated the terrorist rocket attacks.

    In 2010 when Israel was compelled to accost a flotilla of smugglers illegally trying to reach the Gaza Coast in support of Hamas terrorists, the IDF squad was attacked [video proof] when boarding following the flotilla’s failure to heed instructions to desist. Senator Feinstein called for Israel (not the terror supporters) to be investigated.

    In 2014, bellowing from the Senate floor against a bipartisan bill to slap Iran with sanctions, she invoked an age-old antisemitic trope of behind-the-scenes Jewish manipulation, declaring, ““we cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war,” though the bill expressly stated, “Nothing in this Act or the amendments made by this Act shall be construed as a declaration of war or an authorization of the use of force against Iran.”

    In 2017, she expressed opposition to the pending US Embassy move to Jerusalem though in her interminable Senate tenure she was all for it in 1995.

    In 2018 she teamed up with the America’s most infamous token Jew, Bernie Sanders, to decry a spending bill that included anti-BDS provisions, falsely claiming it infringed upon free speech (as opposed to commercial activity).

    Also in 2018, as a signatory among just 13 of the Senate’s anti-Israel left fringe, she excoriated the world’s only Jewish state for defending itself from rocket fire originating in Gaza, insisting Trump restore funding to the Hamas-affiliated UNRWA where its schools have been used to store rockets and its pupils are force fed antisemitic propaganda.

    Her 2019 rejection of another bipartisan Senate bill that imposed fresh sanctions on Syria, boosted security cooperation with Israel and Jordan, and contained elements to tackle the anti-Israel BDS movement domestically left her in the company of just 19 other senators, many a who’s-who of anti-Israel leftists.

    That same year, in a tacit endorsement of Palestinian Authority President Abbas’ pay-to-slay policy, she became one of just 6 senators (all Democrats) attempting to change the law to prohibit American terror victims from suing the Palestinian Authority in US courts [she failed].

    The list goes on. As a career, self-professed “pro-Israel” politician, she may have been among the most duplicitous members in Senate history. Beyond that, her descent into Israel-bashing between ages 74 and 90 highlights what seems from the start her tenuous connection to Judaism, as Zionism is, for most modern Jews, the central pillar of that identity.

  2. Roberta Wall says:

    Wow, thank you so much for educating us about the very principles and crucial stand that she took as a Jewish women leader, to call out Israel, when it clearly was acting against the interests of human rights and dignity. For me, as a Jew, Israel’s actions endanger me, and all of our people, when they are not balanced, and completely respectful and supportive of the dignity and freedom of the Palestinians. Not just the Jews.

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