Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California will turn 90 next month and in February announced she would not run for reelection in 2024. Not only is Feinstein the oldest member of Congress (beating Chuck Grassley of Iowa by three months) and the longest-serving woman in U.S. Senate history, she also holds the distinction of being the first Jewish woman to be sworn in as senator (followed shortly by fellow Californian Barbara Boxer).
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 (as many European Jews had, some in search of gold). 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, it was Betty’s wish that her daughter Dianne attend an exclusive Catholic high school in San Francisco. She was the only Jewish student and continued going to synagogue during her time at Covenant of the Sacred Heart. It so happened that a 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 firsts.
Feinstein has been in the news of late, not for any of those firsts or for her legislative accomplishments, but rather over her extended absence (since February) from the Senate floor as she recovers from shingles (which she reportedly contracted in March). Shingles can be debilitating for a person of any age, and for older people can take months to abate. Meanwhile, other lawmakers, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for one, have taken extended medical leave for various reasons without the same level of scrutiny. Even so, the chorus of voices calling for Feinstein’s resignation, particularly from her own party, is growing.
This week, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez noted that Feinstein’s absence on the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding up crucial judicial appointments at a time when reproductive rights are being challenged in multiple states. (With Feinstein gone, the current 10-10 split among Republicans and Democrats on the committee means that President Biden’s nominees can’t advance without at least one GOP member’s support or a series of complex and time-consuming maneuvers to bring the nomination to the floor without committee support.)
Aware of the importance of moving forward on judicial appointments, Feinstein asked to be temporarily replaced on the Judiciary Committee, but the GOP, equally aware of the stakes, blocked the move. Her absence has other ramifications—for example, last week Senate Republicans were joined by Senator Joe Manchin in a 50-49 vote to overturn a Biden administration rule that limited emissions from heavy trucks. A Feinstein vote could have made it a tie, breakable by the vice president. This, along with the debt limit battle, has amplified demands for Feinstein to cut her storied career short.
Is the first Jewish woman senator and longest-serving female senator in history a victim of sexism? Ageism? Antisemitism? There’s no evidence whatsoever of the latter, although she has been subjected to antisemitic attacks before. And contrary to what Jacob Savage thinks, California Governor Gavin Newsom’s pledge to replace Feinstein with a Black woman if she were to resign does not mean activists were pressuring him to choose someone who isn’t Jewish. Charges of a sexist double standard are the most credible, and as far as age, criticism is growing of octo- and nonagenarian members in general who’ve been given a pass in the past for absences due to illness and age-related cognitive decline, for which Feinstein is also under the microscope. Appearing on CNN In March, for example, Jon Stewart said, “Our country is held together by hundreds of really talented legislative aides. Their bosses, many times, are wind-up dolls… if you go down there, especially the Senate, it’s like an assisted living facility.”
In all this, one may hear echoes of the criticism lobbed at Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for not resigning during President Obama’s second term due to her advanced age and cancer history. A stark difference is that Feinstein is simply not there to do her job right now.
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.”
I think we can all hope that Senator Feinstein is able to draw on that strength and proceed on her life’s path with dignity, mindful of her incumbent duty.