I think two words are overused: “trailblazer” and “legacy.” Despite that, those words describe Dianne Feinstein. The late California Democratic senator was a remarkable politician, devoted to causes she thought were just. She rose from a position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to San Francisco mayor to become the longest-serving woman United States senator in American history.
1992 (probably before many of today’s ATL readers were reading, let alone sentient) was the “Year of the Woman.” Women were enraged by the callous treatment of Anita Hill, who had testified against the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas the previous year. Women saw the behavior of all-male, all-white members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who voted for Thomas and were fed up with the lack of women in Congress. So, they ran for office in numbers previously unseen. The 1992 election swept a number of them into office at national, state, and local levels. When Feinstein was elected to the Senate for the first time, the Senate had only two women members. Today, there are 25. She was a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee for decades.
In 1992, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer won Senate seats and became the first two women from California to hold those offices. Boxer retired from the Senate after the 2016 election, but Feinstein soldiered on, refusing to retire until the expiration of her term in 2024. However, life — or rather death — had other plans, and she died last week with more than a year remaining before expiration of her term. She was stubborn and refused to relinquish her seat despite calls for her to do so.
Feinstein was collegial, willing to work across the aisle to get things done. (Compare and contrast with today’s environment where it’s death to resolve matters, to use that dirty word “compromise.”) However, Feinstein was unyielding on issues that affected her, both as a politician and as a person. It was she who found Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay San Francisco supervisor, dead from a gunshot fired by former Supervisor Dan White. It was she who told a stunned city and the world that Mayor George Moscone was also dead, also killed by White.
Her personal experience with gun violence spurred her to push through gun control legislation in the mid-1990s. She won passage of a landmark 10-year ban on the manufacture and sale of military-style assault weapons, including Uzis and AK-47s. The bill also banned copycat versions of the banned weapons, any weapon with a combination of specific “assault” features, and ammunition magazines that held more than 10 rounds. The law expired after 10 years and, by that time, there was insufficient interest to reauthorize the legislation.
Feinstein never backed away from a fight. She was the first woman to chair the Senate Intelligence Committee, and it was her persistence that held the CIA to account for its tactics in torturing terrorism suspects after September 11, 2001. She was unyielding, despite opposition from both the Bush and Obama administrations. After wrestling with the decision whether to release the report, she did so in 2014.
What’s her legacy? Feinstein showed that women can do anything and everything that they want to do. She fought for what she believed, and was a role model for other women, especially younger women. Despite calls for the senator to step down, given her visibly declining health, she refused to do so and left the Senate on her own terms and in her own way.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) praised Feinstein for her “outstanding work” representing the people of California and commented that the two had had a good working relationship. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on X called Feinstein a “political pioneer” who was “intelligent, hardworking & always treated everyone with courtesy & respect.” Note that these two comments came from Republicans.
“Courtesy and respect” now are words from a bygone era, a kinder, gentler era where peeps could disagree without being disagreeable. Feinstein was excoriated for not being sufficiently vociferous in her opposition to Amy Coney Barrett and having given Lindsay Graham a hug at the conclusion of the Barrett confirmation hearings. She was a symbol of days gone by when compromise was not the expletive it is now, when reaching across the aisle for the good of the citizenry was the rule, rather than the exception.
Did Feinstein stay too long? Did Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Just like with other politicians and leaders of certain ages, the issue front and center in these times is when to leave the job behind. So much of our identity (I’m talking to you, dinosaur lawyers) is inextricably linked to our work. And so, what comes after work? It’s a haunting question for those of us who see a finite horizon and wonder how to make the best of the time that’s left.
It’s not just a question of age but about health and ability. It’s distressing to see those whom we have admired and emulated over the years publicly decline. It’s hard for many of us to realize that not just technological changes (AI, I’m looking at you), but changes in the law in the areas that require our competency may well motivate us to consider our options. I’m not even mentioning the decline in civility that makes today’s practice so coarsened.
When to leave work behind? It’s a very personal question requiring a very personal answer. How do you want your professional life to be remembered? Knowing when it’s time to go is essential.
Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.