Sen. Dianne Feinstein remembered as trailblazer for women in politics, ardent defender of human rights

Dianne Feinstein surrounded by signs saying Dianne for Senator 1992
New York, NY., USA, July 13,1992 Dianne Feinstein the Mayor of San Francisco addresses the Democratic National Convention. She would be elected to the Senate in November of 1992 Credit: Mark Reinstein/MediaPunch /IPX

Dianne Feinstein, the nation’s longest-serving female member of Congress, whose decades of activism shaped policy from gun safety to issues related to torture and terrorism in the post-9/11 world, died this week.

Feinstein, a Democrat, was 90 years old, and the oldest member of Congress. She’d been in ill health in the months prior to her death, but continued serving out the remainder of her Senate term.

Northeastern political science faculty note that Feinstein will be remembered as an ardent defender of human rights, a staunch advocate for gun reform, and a pioneer who blazed a trail for women in politics for generations to come.

Head shot of Daniel Aldrich.
Daniel Aldrich, director of the security and resilience studies program and professor in political science and public policy. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

“I find that ‘trailblazer’ is certainly an accurate description of her,” says Daniel Aldrich, a Northeastern professor, director of the university’s Security and Resilience Program and co-director at the Global Resilience Institute.

A towering figure in the Democratic Party for decades, Feinstein’s political career is a story of many firsts. She was San Francisco’s first female mayor. As the first woman to be elected senator of California, she sat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, eventually becoming the highest-ranking Democrat on the panel. Then she went on to become the first woman to chair the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

Feinstein is often described as a political centrist — though the label she reportedly preferred was pragmatist. Her tenure in Congress spanned more than 30 years, and was marked by many policy successes that furthered her party’s agenda on a number of key issues.

“I think there are two different areas that most people know her from,” Aldrich says. “One is the issue of gun control, when, since the early 1990s, she relentlessly pursued a federal assault weapons ban.”

In 1994, the U.S. enacted a bipartisan assault weapons ban, an effort Feinstein was influential in making happen. After the ban expired in 2004, she worked tirelessly to reintroduce the issue; but, ultimately, the political climate had changed to the point where a new federal law restricting semi-automatics was unlikely to garner the necessary support from both parties.

Aldrich also noted that her focus on human rights in the context of the country’s national security approach in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks raised important questions about the ethics and efficacy of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. She led a multiyear review of the federal government’s detention and interrogation program during the presidency of George W. Bush. The result of that probe was a 6,300-page report detailing how such techniques were not effective in the hunt for Osama bin Laden

“She really pushed hard against the CIA, and against a whole variety of techniques that came to be called ‘enhanced interrogation,’ to say that … all of those things are still forms of torture,” Aldrich says.

Aldrich summarized: “She recognized that we actually have a way to reduce death in the assault weapons ban, and then pushed really hard to make sure we understand that — even if we are very angry at those who we consider our opponents — that we have to exercise moral guidance and moral restraint. I think those are two very powerful lessons from her career.”

Tributes from both parties came pouring in on Friday, a testament to her legacy as a trusted convener. 

“She was a pioneer and a towering figure in American politics for decades,” says Costas Panagopoulos, head of Northeastern’s political science department. “She was a force to be reckoned with on Capitol Hill and her service on major committees has left a legacy that will shape American society for decades to come.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is reportedly considering a Black woman to succeed Feinstein.

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.