Rest in Power, Sen. Dianne Feinstein: ‘The Feminist Movement Has Lost a True Friend’

Dianne Feinstein in her office after she was elected mayor of San Francisco in 1978. (Nick Allen / Pictorial Parade / Archive Photos / Getty Images)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein—the first woman president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the first woman mayor of San Francisco, and one of two of the first women elected to the U.S. Senate from California, the same year (1992) as Sen. Barbara Boxer—died on Thursday, Sept. 28. She was 90 years old. 

As the longest serving woman in the Senate, Feinstein was also the first woman to have chaired the Senate Rules Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as one of the first women to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee. She was known for her advocacy on many feminist and progressive issues, including abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, voting rights, banning assault weapons and gun reforms, LGBTQIA+ equality, the rights of children, the rights of prisoners, and healthcare access. Her legislative efforts—from reproductive rights and equal pay, to combating gender-based violence—have consistently reflected a deep understanding of the challenges faced by women in various spheres of life. 

“It has been a great pleasure to watch more and more women walk the halls of the Senate,” said Feinstein in a 2022 interview. “We went from two women senators when I ran for office in 1992 to 24 today—and I know that number will keep climbing.”

On Friday morning, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for a moment of silence for Sen. Feinstein on the Senate floor. Schumer described Feinstein as “a giant in the Senate” and “one of the most amazing people who ever graced the Senate, who ever graced the country.”

Rest in power, Sen. Feinstein.

Feinstein’s death leaves a vacancy on the powerful Judiciary Committee and shrinks the Senate Democratic majority to 50 seats. Feinstein’s replacement will be appointed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to finish her term—and there is pressure to act quickly in light of the looming government shutdown, where Democrats will need every Senate vote they can get. Newsom had previously committed to appointing a Black woman if he got a second Senate appointment. Earlier this month, he also ruled out selecting one of the current candidates running for Feinstein’s seat in the 2024 election: Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee.

Here’s what some of her colleagues and friends had to say about her feminist legacy.

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and publisher of Ms:

“Senator Feinstein was strongly committed to increasing the representation of women in political office. During her gubernatorial campaign in California in 1990, she made a pledge to ensure gender balance in all her appointments if elected. Two years later, when both she and Senator Barbara Boxer campaigned for Senate, they joined forces, challenging the notion of whether two women could effectively serve as senators from the same state. Their resounding response to the question was a simple yet powerful, ‘Why not?’

“The feminist movement has lost a true friend with the death of Senator Dianne Feinstein. She was one of the first political leaders to proudly say that she was a feminist. She will be missed.”   

Kathy Spillar, executive editor of Ms. and executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation:

“Senator Feinstein was deeply dedicated to protecting abortion rights, arguing in her 1992 Senate campaign that Congress should immediately codify Roe v. Wade given the looming threats of an increasingly conservative Supreme Court. She partnered with us in the fight to defend clinics from anti-abortion extremists’ harassment, joining the frontlines of clinic defenders, standing shoulder to shoulder with us in front of a Southern California clinic, boldly declaring, ‘This clinic will stay open.’”

“Senator Dianne Feinstein’s enduring commitment to the feminist movement has forever left a mark on the political landscape, paving the way for future generations of women in public service.”

President Joe Biden:

“Senator Dianne Feinstein was a pioneering American. A true trailblazer. And for Jill and me, a cherished friend. … Serving in the Senate together for more than 15 years, I had a front row seat to what Dianne was able to accomplish. It’s why I recruited her to serve on the Judiciary Committee when I was Chairman – I knew what she was made of, and I wanted her on our team. There’s no better example of her skillful legislating and sheer force of will than when she turned passion into purpose, and led the fight to ban assault weapons. Dianne made her mark on everything from national security to the environment to protecting civil liberties. She’s made history in so many ways, and our country will benefit from her legacy for generations.

“Often the only woman in the room, Dianne was a role model for so many Americans – a job she took seriously by mentoring countless public servants, many of whom now serve in my Administration. She had an immense impact on younger female leaders for whom she generously opened doors. Dianne was tough, sharp, always prepared, and never pulled a punch, but she was also a kind and loyal friend, and that’s what Jill and I will miss the most.”

Vice President Kamala Harris:

“For years, I witnessed Senator Feinstein’s leadership, when the cameras were on and when they were off. In 2008, when I was re-elected District Attorney of San Francisco, it was Senator Feinstein who swore me in. As a United States Senator, it was my honor to serve the people of California alongside Senator Feinstein.

“On the Senate Intelligence Committee, we spent a great deal of time together—in classified, bipartisan briefings and hearings—working on issues critical to America’s national security and the stability of the world. Senator Feinstein and I shared a fundamental belief in the importance of strong American leadership. And I saw firsthand how she worked courageously to ensure that our leadership was guided by our nation’s values.

“In the tradition of so many great Senators from California, she was not only a leader for our state, but for our nation and our world. Through her long career, Senator Feinstein worked across the aisle to help our nation live up to its promise.”

Sec. Hillary Clinton:

“I’m deeply saddened by the passing of Dianne Feinstein. She blazed trails for women in politics and found a life’s calling in public service. I’ll miss her greatly as a friend and colleague and send my condolences to all who loved her.”

House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.):

“Heartbroken to learn of the passing of my dear friend Dianne Feinstein. Her indomitable, indefatigable leadership made a magnificent difference for our national security and personal safety, the health of our people and our planet, and the strength of our Democracy.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom:

“Dianne Feinstein was many things—a powerful, trailblazing U.S. Senator; an early voice for gun control; a leader in times of tragedy and chaos. But to me, she was a dear friend, a lifelong mentor, and a role model not only for me, but to my wife and daughters for what a powerful, effective leader looks like. She was a political giant, whose tenacity was matched by her grace. She broke down barriers and glass ceilings, but never lost her belief in the spirit of political cooperation.

“And she was a fighter — for the city, the state and the country she loved. Every race she won, she made history, but her story wasn’t just about being the first woman in a particular political office, it was what she did for California, and for America, with that power once she earned it. That’s what she should be remembered for .There is simply nobody who possessed the strength, gravitas, and fierceness of Dianne Feinstein.”

James Sauls, chief of staff to Sen. Feinstein:

“Senator Feinstein never backed away from a fight for what was just and right. At the same time, she was always willing to work with anyone, even those she disagreed with, if it meant bettering the lives of Californians or the betterment of our nation. There are few women who can be called senator, chairman, mayor, wife, mom and grandmother.”

The California Legislative Women’s Caucus chair, Senator Nancy Skinner, and vice chair, Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry:

“Dianne Feinstein was a true trailblazer for women in California and U.S. politics. Her remarkable breakthroughs included being elected California’s first woman U.S. Senator, San Francisco’s first female mayor, the first female major-party candidate for California governor, and last year, the longest-tenured woman senator in U.S. history. We thank her for being the only member of Congress or Senate to get a weapons ban signed into law, the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act to protect us from domestic violence and sexual assault. We will also honor and remember Senator Feinstein for her stellar record on protecting and expanding abortion access and safeguarding our environment, especially California’s desert treasures. She was a true political giant.”

U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)

“She spent her time in office fighting for causes that many overlooked, and she made history with passage of the Assault Weapons Ban, Violence Against Women Act, Respect for Marriage Act, and as Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“Dianne was my friend and seatmate on the Senate Judiciary Committee for more than twenty years.  She never backed away from the toughest political battles—she was always dignified and always effective.  The Senate and those of us privileged to serve with her have lost a woman whose public service wrote an inspiring chapter in the history of our nation.”

Cynthia Richie Terrell, executive director and founder of RepresentWomen:

“We remember and celebrate her courage and tenacity. … When she joined the Senate in 1992, there were only two women senators—one Republican and one Democrat. Thanks to leadership of Senator Feinstein’s generation, the number of women in Congress has grown steadily over the last three decades—far short of parity overall, but approaching parity among Democrats.

“The ‘Year of the Woman’ in 1992 accelerated the tipping of the partisan balance of women serving in the House and Senate—driven in part by how women reacted to the way law professor Anita Hill was treated during the Clarence Thomas hearings to join the Supreme Court and the rising impact of the recently-formed EMILY’s List that recruited Democratic, pro-choice women to run for Congress. The impact of the work to identify and support Democratic women candidates is clear: Women now make of 44 percent of the Democrats serving in Congress, while Republican women comprise just 15 percent of the GOP caucus. Women hold 49 percent of seats held by Democrats in state legislatures.

“How can we honor Senator Feinstein’s legacy? To reach true parity for women in office, we must act with even clearer intention to advance women’s representation and leadership. We must follow the example set by President Joe Biden when he stuck to his pledge to name a Black woman as his running mate. More governors should follow the lead of Governor Gavin Newsom when filling U.S. Senate seats, with Newsom pledging to name a Black woman to fill Feinstein’s seat for the remainder of her term. 

“When there are open seats for Senate, as in California, Delaware and Maryland, men should refrain from running until we reach parity—and donors and candidate endorsers should do more to recruit and support women before defaulting to men.

“We need to keep innovating in our electoral rules as well. Sen. Feinstein’s hometown of San Francisco was the first American city in the modern era to pass ranked-choice voting. It now has a Black woman mayor, and women across the nation are doing exceptionally well in ranked-choice elections that reward candidates who show they are ready to work with others to address pressing policy challenges. Women hold 51 percent of seats in jurisdictions with ranked-choice voting and the system helped elect Maine’s first woman governor Janet Mills and Mary Peltola as the first native Alaskan in Congress.

“To honor Senator Feinstein’s legacy, let’s pave the way for a new generation of women leaders by addressing the barriers women face in politics as candidates and as elected officials. Challenging the system takes courage but Senator Feinstein has provided us a road map for how it can be done.”

Kris Brown, president of Brady United Against Gun Violence:

“Sen. Dianne Feinstein was a dedicated leader who championed the issue of gun violence prevention. For years, she fearlessly led efforts to pass an assault weapon ban and I’ve been honored to work with her. I know that together, we will continue her legacy.

Mini Timmaraju, president and CEO of Freedom for All (formerly NARAL Pro-Choice America):

“From her time in state and local California politics to her tenure as the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Senate, Senator Dianne Feinstein has been a trail-blazing political force. We’re grateful for her leadership in our fight for reproductive freedom and equality.”

Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.):

“Senator Dianne Feinstein was a champion for Gun Violence Prevention that broke barriers at all levels of government. We wouldn’t have had an assault weapons ban if it wasn’t for Senator Feinstein and due to her tireless work, we will win it back.”

Jake Faleschini, Alliance for Justice’s justice program director:

“Feinstein recognized that who sits on our courts matters, and she unflinchingly voted accordingly. Through her work on the Senate Judiciary Committee, she has played a key role in many important judicial nominations and spent her final years ensuring that President Biden’s historically diverse judges were confirmed to the courts. 

“The work continues to see those judges confirmed, as does the Senate’s vital role to keep our government funded and operational.”

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.