Dianne Feinstein had several lifetimes’ worth of accomplishments by the time she died on Thursday at 90. She was pivotal in crafting a decade-long bipartisan assault weapons ban. She helped lead the congressional response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and questioned the Central Intelligence Agency for its use of torture. As mayor of San Francisco, she led her hometown through years of tumult.
But for generations of women in California and beyond, her most lasting legacy was that she had accomplished it all in a world long dominated by men.
“She inspired women like me to leadership,” said Eleni Kounalakis, 57, the lieutenant governor of California who is among the leading contenders for the state’s top job in 2026. “Dianne broke marble ceilings for the rest of us.”
Outwardly formal in her public life and inwardly armed with a fierce work ethic, Ms. Feinstein showed that it was acceptable not only for a woman to wield political power, but also to want it, and to keep working to win it, even after repeated setbacks.
She endured bare-knuckle politics in San Francisco, twice losing bids to become its first woman to serve as mayor until she took control of the city when Mayor George Moscone was killed at City Hall in a double assassination. Later, she lost her race to become California’s first female governor but quickly pivoted to the Senate, where she and Barbara Boxer made history when they became the first two women to represent the state.
In 1991, the year before Ms. Feinstein was elected, only two women were serving in the 100-member Senate. On Thursday, when she cast her last vote, there were 25.
“Her remarkable life in politics was a message to other women about the possibilities of public life,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
The daughter of a well-known San Francisco physician, Ms. Feinstein started her political career with the help of one of her father’s patients, Edmund G. Brown, known as Pat, who was the governor of California and whose son, Jerry Brown, would also go on to become governor.
A graduate of Stanford University, Ms. Feinstein had written a report on criminal justice as a prestigious Coro fellow, and Mr. Brown had appointed her to a $600-a-month post on the state parole board for women. It was a welcome opportunity: After a brief early marriage and divorce, she had a child to support.
In 1969, she parlayed her appointment into an upset victory in a race for the Board of Supervisors that governs the city. As the highest vote-getter, she became the first female board president as well. Over the next decade, she toiled in local government as societal upheaval rocked San Francisco and cancer claimed the lives of both her father and her second husband.
She was 45 and thinking about retiring from politics when, in 1978, shots exploded down the hall from her office and the double assassination of Mayor Moscone and a fellow supervisor, Harvey Milk, catapulted her into the political limelight as the first female mayor of San Francisco. Leading from the political center, she served for nearly another decade and was nationally known by 1990, when she ran for governor.
That year, Libby Schaaf was working a catering job and busing tables in the Bay Area after college, figuring out what course her life would take. She had been a political science major and a campaign volunteer — and was particularly struck by this dynamic woman who led San Francisco and stood a real chance of becoming the first woman to serve as California governor.
At 24, Ms. Schaaf knew she had to find her way down to Los Angeles, where Democrats were convening to formally nominate their candidate for governor against Pete Wilson, the Republican senator. She was scraping by financially, but when a Bay Area delegate offered to give her his proxy vote, she hit the road.
“I was so inspired that I drove six hours to L.A. in a falling-apart Toyota and slept on somebody’s floor,” Ms. Schaaf, now 57, recalled. Decades later, after a career as a lawyer and a political aide, Ms. Schaaf won a seat on the Oakland City Council and, in 2015, became the second woman to serve as the city’s mayor.
Though Ms. Feinstein lost that governor’s race to Mr. Wilson, she turned around to win a special election to fill the Senate vacancy left by his departure from Congress. By then, a new furor consumed the nation over the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, during which Anita Hill told the male-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee that Judge Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her supervisor.
Ms Feinstein and Ms. Boxer campaigned together, “almost as a slate” and often hand-in-hand, Ms. Boxer said, recalling Ms. Feinstein’s generosity as a politician. Ms. Feinstein, who had already run statewide and was widely known for her moderate views and her courage in San Francisco, was far more popular in California than Ms. Boxer, a liberal congresswoman in a state that, in those days, tilted right in statewide races.
“She easily could have said, ‘Barbara, good luck.’ Instead, she said, ‘Barbara, we’re in this together,’” Ms. Boxer recalled.
In what would later be called “The Year of the Woman,” Senator Feinstein was sworn in shortly after the election, two months ahead of Senator Boxer, and California became the first state with two female senators. Ms. Boxer retired from the Senate in 2017 and now lives in Palm Springs. Ms. Feinstein was the longest-serving senator in California history when she died at her Washington, D.C., home.
Over several decades, Ms. Feinstein’s career would yield lessons for women who were interested in entering public office. If she did not overtly seek out the next generation of female candidates like Representative Nancy Pelosi, who served for decades as the Democratic Party’s House leader and was the first woman to become speaker, many nonetheless benefited from her exacting mentorship.
“I overprepare for everything,” said Alexis Podesta, who worked for Ms. Feinstein from 2002 to 2009. “I enjoy doing my own staff work. I make a point to listen and to be a champion of other women. The work ethic she instilled is something that I couldn’t shake even if I wanted to.”
The lessons Ms. Podesta learned from Ms. Feinstein served her well. She went on to become a cabinet member for two California governors, Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom, heading the state’s business, consumer services and housing agency.
Ms. Podesta recalled how, early in her tenure as the senator’s scheduler, Ms. Feinstein returned from a Democratic caucus lunch and handed her a notecard with the first names and dress sizes of all the female senators (by then, about two decades ago, there were more than a dozen). The male senators, it turned out, had revived a warm-weather tradition known as “seersucker suit day,” and Ms. Feinstein was determined not to let the male bonding go on without her and her fellow Senate women.
Ms. Podesta said that she was given only a couple of weeks to get every female senator outfitted, a fraught mission that, since the senator’s death, many of Ms. Feinstein’s colleagues have mentioned with affection.
“They remember it as sweet,” she said, “but on the back end, it was 1,000 percent terrifying to ensure everyone got a suit.”
Ms. Schaaf said she was in her first year as mayor of Oakland in 2015 by the time she met Senator Feinstein face-to-face for the first time. The senator, she said, invited her and the Alameda County district attorney, Nancy O’Malley, to lunch at a San Francisco restaurant.
The experience left her star-struck — “like meeting Prince,” Ms. Schaaf said — but after that, Ms. Feinstein began including her in lunches that she would hold regularly for female officeholders in California.
“We’d have these hard and detailed policy conversations about issues and resource needs and so on, and then we’d kick our staffers out and have a glass of chilled white wine,” Ms. Schaaf recalled. “Just one glass, but we’d have it.”
It may come as a surprise that California, a state that has broken so many barriers, has never had a female governor. Forty-nine women in 32 other states have served as chief executive, according to Ms. Walsh’s organization. But none in the nation’s most populous state.
Ms. Kounalakis now stands as an early favorite to become California’s first. Gov. Gavin Newsom cannot run again because the state limits its executive officeholders to two terms, which means a crowded field of ambitious candidates are planning to vie for the job in three years. The lieutenant governor said she learned valuable lessons from Ms. Feinstein, who championed her as a delegate to the California Democratic Party and as the U.S. ambassador to Hungary during the Obama administration.
“She expected you to work harder than anyone else,” Ms. Kounalakis said. “And if you were going to be intimidated, you had no business putting yourself forward.”