Dianne Feinstein, California senator who broke glass ceilings, dies at 90

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Dianne Feinstein
WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 28: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) walks through the Senate subway on her way to a procedural vote on the Respect For Marriage Act at the U.S. Capitol on November 28, 2022 in Washington, DC. Congress returns to Washington this week after a Thanksgiving break. Pending issues in the lame-duck session are government funding legislation, Respect For Marriage Act, National Defense Authorization Act and the changes to the Electoral Count Act. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who shattered glass ceilings during her more than three decades in the U.S. Senate, has died, two sources confirmed to CBS News. She was 90.

Feinstein was the longest-serving woman in the Senate, as well as the longest-serving senator from California. But in recent months and years, questions about her health have clouded her governing profile.

She was absent from the Senate for about three months earlier this year because of a difficult bout with shingles and complications related to the virus. Feinstein returned to the Senate in mid-May, appearing in public for the first time since February. She was wheeled into the Capitol, looking frail and with one eye nearly closed. She said in a statement that she’d made “significant progress” but was “still experiencing some side effects from the shingles virus.”

A few days later, her office said that her health issues were more serious than had been previously disclosed. The 89-year-old Democrat was suffering from encephalitis, or swelling of the brain, and a condition known as Ramsay Hunt syndrome.

A conversation with reporters suggested she was not aware she had been absent for months. “I haven’t been gone,” she said, according to the Los Angeles Times and Slate. When asked whether she had been working from home, Feinstein said, “No, I’ve been here. I’ve been voting.”

Her lengthy absence from Washington for health reasons had become a point of contention for Democrats, as confirmations of President Biden’s judicial nominees slowed without her presence on the Judiciary Committee. Democrats needed all the votes they could get in a narrowly divided Senate, prompting some in her own party to call for her resignation.

She was also briefly hospitalized in early August for a fall at her San Francisco home.

In recent years, Feinstein’s advancing age and apparent memory lapses increasingly raised questions about how much longer she could serve. She announced in early 2023 that she would not seek reelection for another term, setting up a political battle for her seat in 2024.

She was the first woman to chair the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the latter of which she ran for six years. Feinstein served as the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and was also the first woman to serve in that role, from 2017 to 2021.

In the Senate since 1992, Feinstein fought for what she called “sensible gun laws,” worked to preserve the environment and improve her state’s water infrastructure, and she championed LGBTQ+ rights and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Feinstein authored and helped pass the federal assault weapons ban in 1994. The law expired in 2004, and along with other Democrats, including President Joe Biden, Feinstein advocated to reinstate it.

The California senator also helped establish the nationwide Amber Alert network to alert the public to missing children.

In 2014, Feinstein, as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, released a controversial and much disputed 6,700-page report on the interrogation methods used by the CIA after the 9/11 terror attacks. The report, which took five years to complete and publish, found that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques did not lead to the collection of critical intelligence that disrupted a plot; that the CIA provided inaccurate information about the program and its effectiveness; and that it was far more brutal than the CIA led lawmakers and the public to believe once it was revealed in 2006.

President Obama ended the practices portrayed within it early in his administration. But Feinstein’s great hope in publishing the report was that the harsh light it shone on the CIA’s practices in the early years after the 9/11 attacks would help ensure that those practices remained in the past. Asked by CBS News at the time whether it was fair to revisit what was done, given that the techniques are no longer used, she responded, “Read the report, and you tell me if you think this is how you want the country to behave.”

Born in San Francisco on June 22, 1933, she was the daughter of a former model and a doctor. She graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in 1955.

She served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the 1970s and rose to national prominence at a moment of crisis in the city — when Mayor George Moscone and fellow Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot and killed at City Hall by a disgruntled former colleague on Nov. 28, 1978. Feinstein heard the gunshots and saw the gunman leaving the supervisors’ offices.

“He whisked by, everybody disappeared. I walked down the line of supervisors’ offices. I walked into one and found Harvey Milk – put my finger in a bullet hole trying to get a pulse,” she told CNN in an interview in 2017. “But you know, it was the first person I’d ever seen shot to death, and you know when they’re dead.”

It was Feinstein who announced the news of the tragedy to the public.

Feinstein succeeded Moscone as mayor and went on to hold the office for a decade. She lost a race for governor in 1990 before winning a special election for the Senate seat in 1992 — an election cycle that became known as the “Year of the Woman” for the record number of female candidates elected to Congress.

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