When Senator Dianne Feinstein died Thursday at 90, she had already settled her legacy. She spent her last months in office despite cognitive decline and failing health. The ghoulish spectacle of her recent absence and return indicted not only her own judgment but that of her many supporters in the Democratic Party. Her name had become a byword for Senate gerontocracy by the time of her passing, yet a public rehabilitation campaign has already swung into view. Governor Gavin Newsom of her home state of California called her “a powerful, trailblazing U.S. senator.” That image of Feinstein as trailblazer appears again and again in the statements of politicians and in the press.
Feinstein was both the first female mayor of San Francisco and the first woman to represent California in the Senate, becoming the longest-serving female senator in U.S. history. She broke many glass ceilings, as Newsom said. That version of her coexists with other, less flattering realities. As my colleague Rebecca Traister wrote, she was also a determined institutionalist who did not always grasp the stakes of a moment, especially toward the end of her life. Now that she’s gone, it would be kind to call her a hero for women, but to do so is to tell only part of the truth. Feinstein blazed a trail to ruin. Women surely deserve more from their icons.
Some voices urged women to settle. To criticize Feinstein was to invite accusations of ageism or outright misogyny. One May piece in The Nation called her “a lodestar for every woman in politics still fighting for just a shred of the respect that’s automatically afforded to their male peers” and blamed the “dirtbag left” for swarming her on social media. Others suggested a double standard was at work. Democratic senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said earlier this year, “We have male members that have various challenges, and I’m not hearing anybody suggesting that they retire. I do think she has been treated unfairly. And so she’ll make the decision, and I will support that decision.”
Women in politics certainly face misogyny, and Feinstein dealt with her share. That matters, but only to a point. When the late senator sought power, she raised the bar for herself — as do all women in politics. They are public servants, and the quality of their service thus deserves scrutiny. It’s not misogynistic to say that Feinstein erred when she decided to run for reelection at age 84 or that she overestimated her capabilities and became a liability to the party she served. In Feinstein’s case, hubris led to a preventable tragedy. Any feminist will tell you women are people and people have flaws. Even liberal politicians.
Feinstein’s own political views also prevented her from being much of a lodestar for anyone. She watched democracy fracture but did not always see the cracks. She opposed filibuster reform because, she said, “if democracy were in jeopardy, I would want to protect it, but I don’t see it being in jeopardy right now.” When Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett appeared before the Senate, Feinstein hugged Republican senator Lindsey Graham and thanked him for running “one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in,” making her seem radically tone-deaf. She behaved, often, as though the future were guaranteed to be bright. Who can forget the way she scolded young climate activists because she thought there was no way to pay for a Green New Deal? “Some things take longer than others, and you can only do what you can do at a given time,” she told Traister last year. “That doesn’t mean you can’t do it at another time. And so one of the things that you develop is a certain kind of memory for progress: when you can do something in terms of legislation and have a chance of getting it through, and when the odds are against it, meaning the votes and that kind of thing. So I’m very optimistic about the future of our country.”
Nobody should give up hope, but Feinstein’s optimism felt unwarranted — even insulting with her emphasis on bipartisan civility. The Senate is an undemocratic institution made worse by people like Feinstein and her friends across the aisle. People who cling to power despite age or ability, who believe against all evidence that our institutions can still save us. No politician should be an icon, in life or in death. Feinstein’s legacy reminds us to be wary and to demand better from those who would serve. Facile appeals to identity did her a disservice in life and are even crasser in death. She failed us. That may be unpleasant, but it’s the truth. Better admit it and learn than repeat her mistakes. Women are worthy of more, as is everyone.