Dianne Feinstein was an astute politician who successfully climbed the ladder of elective offices in San Francisco and California. She was the first woman elected U.S. Senator from California (1992), the first woman to be elected president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (1969), the first woman to be mayor of San Francisco (1978), the first woman to be considered for selection as the vice-presidential candidate of a major political party, and the first woman to be nominated as governor by a major party in California. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein were the first women to be elected to the United States Senate from the same state in 1992. The two were also the first Jewish female members of the U.S. Senate.
Dianne Feinstein was born on June 23, 1933, in San Francisco, the oldest of three daughters of Betty and Leon Goldman. Her father was a nationally known surgeon and professor at the University of California. She received a B.S. degree in history in 1955 from Stanford University. While attending college, she modeled clothes on television for her uncle Morris Goldman, a clothing manufacturer.
Her first election campaign was at Stanford University, where she successfully ran for student body vice president.
Feinstein began working in the California district attorney’s office, where she met Jack Berman, a prosecutor. After a short courtship, they were married on December 2, 1956. Three years later, they were divorced, and she was left with her daughter, Katherine Anne, born on July 31, 1957.
After deciding that politics was her forte, she was appointed by Governor Brown to a membership on the Board of Trust of the California Institution for Women, which was later changed to California Women’s Board of Terms and Parole, which regulated the prison terms and parole conditions for women convicts.
She resigned from her position on the Board of Terms and Parole to spend more time with her husband, Bertram Feinstein, a neurosurgeon, and her daughter. In 1969, she was elected to the board of supervisors and received the highest vote, automatically making her president for two years. Feinstein held this position for several terms, and on the morning of November 27, 1978, she was planning to announce her retirement from political life when she received the news that Mayor George Moscone had been fatally shot. Feinstein immediately became the acting mayor. It was during this year that her husband died.
She finished her term as acting mayor and then won the election for mayor in 1979. The law allowed only two terms as mayor of San Francisco, and Dianne Feinstein left office in 1988. She married Richard C. Blum, an investment banker, on January 20, 1980, who helped support her losing campaign for governor as the candidate of the Democratic Party.
Dianne Feinstein set her sights on winning the senate vacancy created when Pete Wilson vacated this position to become governor of California. She easily defeated John Seymour in a special election in 1992. Two years later, she edged out Michael Huffington, a millionaire Republican congressman from Santa Barbara, for a full six-year term. Feinstein was re-elected in 2012 with 62.5% of the vote, receiving 7.75 million votes, the most popular votes in any U.S. Senate election in history to that point.
She led a bipartisan group of senators in passing legislation to drastically increase the fuel efficiency of cars. She was a champion for preserving the Mojave Desert, Lake Tahoe, and California’s forests. She helped create the nationwide AMBER Alert network, passed bills to criminalize border drug tunnels, succeeded in passing a major bill to help California cope with severe drought, and advocated for commonsense gun laws.
Feinstein joined then-Sen. Joe Biden in passing the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. After it expired in 2019, she labored for three years against conservative opposition to LGBTQ and gun provisions before getting it reauthorized.
She authored the first major cybersecurity bill to be signed into law in years. She was an aggressive opponent of sex trafficking and authored legislation to help prevent sex abuse of amateur athletes. She advocated for consumers, authoring bills to review ingredients in personal care products, banning chemicals in toys, cracking down on rogue pharmacies, and strengthening food safety.
One of her most notable achievements was leading the six-year review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. This effort culminated in the 2014 release of the report’s executive summary and the passage of legislation banning the use of torture.
In 2017, Senator Feinstein became the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee — the first woman to assume that role—where she helped shape policy on criminal law, national security, immigration, civil rights, and the courts. She also oversaw judicial nominations and major investigations, including Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Senator Feinstein was the first woman to chair the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence—a position she held for six years beginning in 2009. She is also a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where she served as ranking member on the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development. In that role, she secured billions of dollars for California communities, including critical transportation, water supply, and federal building projects.
She also served on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which she chaired during the 110th Congress. In that capacity, Senator Feinstein was the first woman to chair the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies and presided over the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009.
In addition to her committee assignments, Senator Feinstein was co-chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, co-chairman of the Senate Cancer Coalition, and co-chairman of the Senate Women’s Caucus on Burma. She is also a member of the Anti-Meth Caucus, the Congressional Dairy Caucus, and the Congressional Former Mayors Caucus. She has served as a member of the Aspen Strategy Group since 1997.
On Israel, JTA’s Ron Kampeas noted she was a centrist who worked with AIPAC to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship. But she also did not hesitate to criticize Israel for its lack of religious pluralism and its use of cluster bombs during the Second Lebanon War. She also was on the opposite side of the lobby when she opposed sanctions on Iran, supported the nuclear deal with the Islamic regime, and promoted the resumption of aid to the Palestinians.
Dianne Feinstein demonstrated what Jewish women can achieve politically in a male-dominated sexist society if they work hard.
Feinstein faced criticism for remaining in the Senate despite failing health and was often absent due to illness. Under pressure from colleagues, she stepped down from her position on the Judiciary Committee. Feinstein announced in February 2023 that she would not run for reelection in 2024. She died on September 28, 2023, at the age of 90.
She was the only woman to have presided over a U.S. presidential inauguration. Feinstein was the oldest sitting U.S. Senator. Upon the retirement of Barbara Mikulski in January 2017, Feinstein became the longest-tenured female U.S. Senator. Having won reelection in 2018 to a six-year term expiring in January 2025, Feinstein would have become the longest-serving woman Senator in history if she had served her full term.