Political pioneer, tough leader, crime fighter, reformer: These are some of the words that describe Dianne Feinstein, former mayor of San Francisco and United States senator from California since 1992.
The eldest of three daughters, she was born on June 22, 1933, to Dr. Leon Goldman, a surgeon and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and Betty (Rosenburg) Goldman. Both of her parents came from Russian immigrant families. The Goldmans were proud of their heritage and could trace their family tree back for generations. Sam Goldman, Dianne’s paternal grandfather, helped to found several temples in California, while his son Leon became a prominent donor to San Francisco’s Mount Zion Synagogue. Dianne’s mother’s family, the Rosenburgs, had a more distant relationship with Judaism. Some of them belonged to the Russian Orthodox church.
While growing up, she was greatly influenced by her paternal uncle. Morris Goldman, in contrast to his Republican-minded brother Leon, was a populist who worked in the city’s garment district and who introduced Dianne to the idea of the working class. He took her to San Francisco’s City Hall to watch a meeting of the Board of Supervisors, sparking her interest in politics early on. By observing her father and her uncle, she learned to weigh both sides of an argument and to think about the complexities of an issue.
She attended a Jewish religious school, but later enrolled at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, a prestigious private Catholic high school, in accordance with her mother’s wishes. At that time she met California Attorney General Edmund (Pat) Brown, the father of a classmate. The teenaged Feinstein impressed Brown with her interest in political life. After Brown was elected governor of California, he sought out Dianne and gave her a job as an advocate for prison reform.
After graduating from Sacred Heart (the first Jew to do so), she entered Stanford University, where she excelled academically and became actively involved in politics. She was vice president of her class and joined the Young Democrats. She graduated in 1955, and then worked as an intern in public affairs for the Coro Foundation. In 1956, she eloped with Jack Berman, now a San Francisco superior court judge, but the marriage ended in less than three years. Feinstein and Berman disagreed fundamentally over the role that a woman should play. Berman wanted his wife to be a wife and a mother to their daughter, Katherine (who was nine months old at the time of divorce). She saw herself in this role, but also wanted a professional career in the public sector.
In 1962, she married Bertram Feinstein, a distinguished neurosurgeon who was a colleague of her father and twenty years her senior. Their marriage, which lasted until Bertram’s death in 1978, gave Feinstein the freedom to pursue her political career. In 1980, she married Richard Blum, a successful investment banker who advises her and helps in her political campaigns.
Governor Brown appointed Feinstein a member of the California Women’s Board of Terms and Parole in 1960, where she gained her first experiences in criminal reform. In 1968, she served on the San Francisco mayor’s committee on crime and committee on adult detention. A year later, she became the first woman president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Her success and popularity in this capacity won her reelection for two additional terms.
The 1970s saw San Francisco torn apart by political strife. After the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and board colleague Harvey Milk in 1978, Feinstein decided to run for mayor. She won the election in 1979 and instituted tough legal and social reforms. In 1983 she was reelected to a second four-year term. City and State magazine named her America’s Most Effective Mayor in 1987.
Feinstein’s top priority during her nine years as mayor was public safety. She fought crime by increasing the strength of San Francisco’s police department and by cutting down the response time for major emergencies from eight minutes to two. Fiscal responsibility and boosting the local economy were two other important concerns to her. She made sure that the city’s budget was balanced in every year that she held office, and she developed relationships with major trading cities in Asia, Europe, and Africa. During her tenure, the famous San Francisco cable car system was rebuilt, city streets were repaved, and the sewer system was upgraded.
Her long and distinguished political career has been marked by a series of firsts. In 1984, she was considered by the Democratic Party for nomination for vice president of the United States. In 1990, the Democrats selected her as their first female candidate for California governor, a bid that was unsuccessful.
When California senator Pete Wilson left that office to become governor of the state in 1992, Feinstein was elected to finish his unexpired term in the Senate. As a freshman senator, she wrote the California Desert Protection Act, which protects some three million acres of national park land.
In 1994, she was reelected for a full six-year term. As a senator, she has been as actively engaged in criminal reform as when she was mayor of San Francisco. She introduced and saw the passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act (1994), requiring public schools to expel for one year any student who brings a gun to school. Both the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and Handgun Control organizations have recognized her efforts to legislate gun control. Her Hate Crimes Sentencing Enforcement Act (1993) increased the minimum sentences given to those convicted of hate crimes in a federal court. She also introduced the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act, passed in 1996, which limited access to the precursor chemicals needed to make the drug and increased the penalties for smuggling, drug possession, and possession of specialized equipment for making methamphetamine.
As a member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Feinstein is involved in legislative activities aimed at stopping illegal immigration. She was instrumental in the debate and drafting of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act and helped to block the controversial Gallegly Amendment that would have expelled more than three hundred thousand children of illegal immigrants from the public school system.
In addition, Feinstein takes an active interest in health and medical issues. Her amendment prohibiting health insurance discrimination on the basis of genetic information is now law as part of the Kassebaum-Kennedy health bill. She also worked to pass and increase the funding for the Ryan White AIDS Care Act. As cochair of the Senate Cancer Coalition, she presided over hearings that helped to win much-needed funds for cancer research at the National Cancer Institute and for a study by the National Institutes of Health on the high incidence of breast cancer rates in the San Francisco area.
Feinstein is a member of the Centrist Coalition, a bipartisan group of twenty-two moderate senators, which has proposed a seven-year balanced-budget plan to preserve Medicare and Medicaid while making fair and sensible reductions to them. The Centrist budget plan was narrowly defeated in the Senate but the coalition plans to reintroduce its proposal in the near future.
In response to the victims of the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, California, Feinstein secured passage of a bill to provide federal disaster relief funds of approximately $11 billion. Her interest in foreign relations has gained her positions on various Senate subcommittees overseeing the Middle East, African affairs, and East Asian and Pacific affairs.
Feinstein was elected to a second full term in 2000. She plans to run again in 2006.
In recognition of her public service, she has been awarded honorary degrees by the University of San Francisco, Mills College, the University of Santa Clara, and Golden Gate University, and various awards, including the American Medical Association’s award for “outstanding contributions” to the betterment of public health. In 1984, French president François Mitterrand bestowed upon her the Légion d’Honneur, one of France’s highest honors.
Other awards recognize Feinstein’s role as a Jewish woman in public office. The American Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem gave her the Scopus Award for outstanding public service in 1981. She received a distinguished public service award from the Los Angeles Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in 1984, the brotherhood/sisterhood award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1986, and a public service award from the American Jewish Congress in 1987.
Feinstein, Dianne. Printed material from the office of the senator; Morris, Celia. Storming the Statehouse (1992).
How to cite this page
Leiman, Sondra. "Dianne Feinstein." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 15, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/feinstein-dianne>.