WASHINGTON — On the anniversary of women’s suffrage passing the Senate, Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto tweeted a picture of the women currently serving in the body.
However, as they honored the seminal moment in women’s rights 104 years ago and progress since then, several were fuming over what they see as persistent sexism in politics today regarding the one woman senator who was not in the picture: California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
Feinstein, who turns 90 on Thursday, has faced calls to resign from within the Capitol and outside it after a long absence due to a case of shingles. She returned to the Senate in May and has been working in a limited capacity, traveling through the Capitol in a wheelchair pushed by her ever-present staff, and at times appearing confused when questioned by the press.
Many of her fellow women senators have offered the most spirited defense of Feinstein, taking the calls for her to resign as an almost personal offense and furious with what they see as sexism and a double standard in a political system still dominated by men.
“I have served with many male senators who have had difficulty, and I didn’t hear anyone pushing them to not run again, to resign, in the way that Dianne has been treated,” said Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine who has served since 1997. “It shows that there is a different standard — still — that is applied to women senators in some cases by some people.”
The debate has layers that are difficult to separate. There are uncomfortable questions about the Senate’s long history as overwhelmingly white, male, and elderly. And it’s unfolding as a younger generation of Americans is less deferential to seniority writ large, as well as a vastly different media landscape, both of which are contributing to the scrutiny of Feinstein, who may just be the unfortunate test case for a new reality for politicians.
More broadly, the angst over Feinstein’s situation is revealing a tension in the Senate, where her colleagues feel she is owed some modicum of respect, but her constituents — two-thirds of whom said in a poll taken in May that she is no longer fit to serve — also feel they are owed more.
Feinstein was first elected in 1992, dubbed “The Year of the Woman” for tripling the number of women in the Senate to six. That group began a custom of the women of the Senate regularly dining together and maintaining a closeness despite political differences, a tradition that continues to this day.
The 1992 class of women senators also overlapped with a number of their male colleagues who infamously served past their prime and ability to function, said former senator Barbara Boxer, who was elected from California the same year as Feinstein. Boxer recalled “fabulous” male senators who were “wheeled … literally sometimes lying flat” for votes.
That experience has been at the core of allegations of sexism against those who have called for Feinstein’s retirement. Some women senators cited men having “similar challenges” as Feinstein as evidence, though most tend to focus on physical frailty, not mental acuity. But Collins was clear that she sees a double standard there, as well.
“Robert C. Byrd had memory difficulties — there was no push to get him to resign prematurely. Strom Thurmond had memory difficulties — there were many others,” Collins said, citing two former senators who served for decades. “So I think that’s been sexist as well.”
Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, alleged “recent” interactions with similarly situated men, though she declined to offer specifics on whom or whether she was referring to physical or mental fitness in her consideration.
“I have been interacting with male colleagues recently that have similar challenges,” Stabenow said. “But the only person that has been focused on is Senator Feinstein, and I just find that really unfortunate.”
Feinstein, a barrier-breaking politician and the longest-serving woman senator, has struggled in recent years with memory lapses. Last year, colleagues detailed concerns about her ability to serve in a story published by The San Francisco Chronicle. In February, she was hospitalized with shingles and suffered complications that included brain swelling, according to The New York Times.
As she convalesced in California without a clear return date, House members and outside groups began calling for her to resign. After Republicans rejected her proposal to have a replacement serve for her on the important Judiciary Committee, the visibly frail and still recovering senator returned to Washington in May. Her office declined to comment.
Her return to Washington hasn’t stopped the calls to resign. In fact, the exposure to daily questions has yielded uncomfortable moments, such as when, in response to reporters innocuously asking her about her return, Feinstein insisted she had not been gone.
The allegations of double standards have truth to them, to a point. Thurmond and Byrd were both edged out of key chairmanships in their later days. In 2017, a report described a “disoriented” Senator Thad Cochran, a Republican from Mississippi, who seemed confused that he was chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee and needed help finding the Senate chamber to vote. He retired roughly six months later as health challenges mounted. Plenty of male senators have also defended Feinstein, though they’ve been less likely to perceive a sexist double standard.
Pressure is also coming from across the Capitol, where a newer generation of lawmakers is not as deferential to more senior lawmakers. At least six younger Democratic House members have called for her resignation. One, Minnesota Democrat Dean Phillips, 54, has also called for President Biden to not run for reelection at 80 years old.
Phillips rejected the idea that sexism or ageism was behind his calls for her resignation.
“Senator Feinstein is clearly diminished, and anybody who works with her, near her, or is observing, knows that to be the truth,” Phillips said. “This is not sexist. It is not ageist. It’s just fact.”
Politics are also at play. Feinstein’s seat, which she is not running for again, is a coveted position in California. The Senate is at one of its most narrowly divided margins in history and a single absence can throw confirmations and legislation into doubt.
The close-knit group of women loyal to Feinstein have watched the pressure campaign inside and outside the Capitol walls with growing disgust.
“We all love Dianne,” said Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia. “It’s unfair when a friend gets attacked unfairly, especially when people are having difficulties in their life.”
Stabenow noted women of the Senate have leadership positions and committee gavels, but said they all have faced sexism.
“Every single one of us has had to break down barriers,” Stabenow said. “We’re not running around with chips on our shoulders, by any means. But it’s a reality.”
One former longtime Senate chief of staff to a female senator said women politicians have endured double standards which make them more prone to see it. She spoke on condition of anonymity as her current job does not allow her to speak publicly.
“They’ve so constantly, continuously, run into a double standard: They’re reported differently, their clothing is described, their hairdo is described, whether they look good or look tired, how they sound,” the former chief of staff said. “It adds up I think to a lot of cauldrons, within those women, of resentment and just seeing a double standard all over the place — rightfully so.”
However, the former chief of staff said, that doesn’t mean ability to serve shouldn’t be questioned.
“I still think that we’re talking about the ability to do the job that we’re paid to do and expected to do, and she’s not,” she said of Feinstein.
Many of her defenders noted Feinstein has opted not to run again and was reelected to this term by voters in 2018. They said it’s Feinstein’s choice when to retire.
“Lay off,” said Capito bluntly. “She’s going to make her decision, and it’s going to be the right decision, whenever and however she wants to do it.”
Boxer blamed Republicans for refusing to replace Feinstein on the Judiciary Committee temporarily for motivating Feinstein to return before she was fully recovered, an assertion that Capito and fellow Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska rejected despite their calls for better treatment for Feinstein.
Boxer, who retired in 2017, said it was fair game to disagree with her decision to stay, but that she sees a lack of humanity in how that’s been expressed.
“Questioning whether someone should retire or not, that’s fine,” Boxer said. “At the end of the day, if the person is still there, you need to give them the respect and dignity they deserve.”