On November 27, 1978, Dianne Feinstein told reporters that she was giving up on her hopes of becoming San Francisco’s mayor after suffering two defeats at the ballot box. Within hours, however, the job would be thrust upon her following the assassinations of George Moscone, the mayor, and her colleague on the board of supervisors, Harvey Milk.
As president of the board, Feinstein suddenly found herself as the acting mayor, and it fell to her to announce the shocking news to the city. “It was one of the hardest moments, if not the hardest moment, of my life,” she said.
That moment pushed the trailblazing Feinstein, who died this week aged 90, into the national spotlight, which she occupied for the next four and a half decades.
Hers was a life of firsts: the first woman to be elected president of San Francisco’s board of supervisors and its first female mayor. In 1992, she became the first woman to represent California in the US Senate, where she was known for her expertise on male-dominated areas including defence and intelligence, and for scoring a significant, if shortlived, victory on gun control.
More recently, however, she drew criticism for not stepping aside as she grew visibly frail and suffered mental lapses during hearings. This year she was absent from the Senate for three months after a bout of the shingles, prompting calls for her resignation from some in her party. She refused, but said she would not seek re-election when her term ended in 2024.
Feinstein, born June 22, 1933, died hours after casting her final vote in the Senate on Thursday. The vote was intended to extend a deadline to keep the government running amid a shutdown fight with hard-right Republicans over spending.
The daughter of a prominent surgeon, Feinstein and her two sisters grew up in San Francisco’s affluent Presidio Terrace neighbourhood. They attended private schools and took riding, tennis and piano lessons, according to Never Let Them See You Cry, a biography of Feinstein by journalist Jerry Roberts.
But their mother, Betty, suffered from an undiagnosed brain disorder and was prone to angry — even violent — outbursts. She once tried to drown one of the girls in the bath. “We lived on tenterhooks,” Feinstein would recall. “You didn’t talk about it, because there’s nothing you can do.”
In her adult life, Feinstein displayed resilience through electoral and personal setbacks, including a divorce from her first husband that left her a single mother. She outlived her other spouses, Bertram Feinstein, who died in 1978, and Richard Blum, in 2022. She is survived by a daughter, Katherine, 66, an attorney and former judge.
Feinstein remained San Francisco’s mayor for nearly 10 turbulent years, a period that included an exploding Aids crisis, a rising homeless population and dramatic demographic shifts. Feinstein ran the liberal city as a centrist and was known for her hands-on approach to governance. She once performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a man in the seedy Tenderloin district, according to Roberts’s book.
Despite sometimes aggravating the city’s liberals, she left office with a 70 per cent approval rating in the city — and a national profile. She was considered by Walter Mondale as his running mate in his unsuccessful 1984 presidential campaign against Ronald Reagan, though he eventually picked Geraldine Ferraro.
After leaving the mayor’s office, Feinstein made an unsuccessful run for governor in 1990, but was elected to the Senate two years later in what became known as “the year of the woman”. Once elected she secured an early victory by writing a federal bill to ban assault weapons following a mass shooting in San Francisco. The proposal drew attacks from Republicans backed by the National Rifle Association.
“The gentlelady from California needs to become a little more familiar with firearms,” said Larry Craig of Idaho.
Feinstein responded by recounting the murders of her colleagues in San Francisco. “I became mayor as a product of assassinations,” she said. “I know something about what firearms can do.” Her assault weapons ban went into effect in 1994 but expired after 10 years and was not renewed — a fact still mourned by gun control proponents.
She held senior roles in the Senate, including chair of the intelligence committee. Her instincts were often to the right of her party on big issues, but she was also willing to rethink them. After opposing same-sex marriage she came out in favour of it, and she reversed her support of the death penalty. Feinstein voted for the invasion of Iraq but later pushed for the release of 6,700-page report on the CIA’s practices during the “War on Terror”. “My words give me no pleasure,” she said upon the release of the report.
It was typical Feinstein: tireless and demanding. “I don’t get ulcers,” she once boasted. “I give them.”