It was 1978, and 45-year-old Dianne Feinstein was thinking about quitting public service after two unsuccessful runs for mayor of San Francisco. But events stepped in and changed her path. Feinstein was the first person to find the horrific scene: The city’s mayor, George Moscone, and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been shot to death by a former supervisor. As the first woman president of the board of supervisors, Feinstein became the first woman to lead San Francisco as mayor. Her nine-year tenure as the city’s chief executive led her to the U.S. Senate to cap a nearly half-century-long political career.
Feinstein died Thursday night at age 90 at her home, according to the Associated Press. Feinstein’s health had declined in recent years.
Feinstein’s career included a series of other notable firsts. In 1992, she became the first woman U.S. senator from California. Barbara Boxer joined Feinstein as the junior senator from the Golden State two months later. Feinstein and Boxer, both Democrats, were part of what was dubbed the Year of the Woman, the first time four women were elected to the Senate in a single year.
“It has been a great pleasure to watch more and more women walk the halls of the Senate,” Feinstein reflected in 2022 when she became the longest-serving woman in that body. “We went from two women senators when I ran for office in 1992 to 24 today, and I know that number will keep climbing.”
In 1993, then-Sen. Joe Biden was chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee. He decided it was time to put a woman on that panel, and Feinstein and Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) became the committee’s first female members. Feinstein was the first woman to chair the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, and as that committee’s leader, she was in charge of President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. She was also the first woman to chair the Intelligence Committee.
A passion for gun control
Legislatively, Feinstein was perhaps best known for her passionate fight for gun control. She battled the powerful gun lobby and succeeded in securing a landmark assault weapons ban in 1994. But her victory came with a string: To get the bill passed, she had to agree that it would expire in 2004. She was unable to get it renewed, and for the rest of her time in office, Feinstein continued to fight for legislation to control assault weapons.
Feinstein described her most important work as when, as chair of the Intelligence Committee, she presided over the investigation into enhanced interrogation techniques of suspected terrorists after the 9/11 attacks. Her work was memorialized in the movie The Report, in which Annette Bening played the role of the senator.