Is It Sexist to Want Dianne Feinstein to Retire?

Last month, Senator Dianne Feinstein was hospitalized with shingles. Feinstein, who is eighty-nine, and who has held her seat in Congress for more than three decades, has been planning to retire after her term expires next year. But there have been concerns about whether she has the ability—and the mental acuity—to carry out her job till then. A year ago, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “Four U.S. senators, including three Democrats, as well as three former Feinstein staffers and the California Democratic member of Congress told The Chronicle in recent interviews that her memory is rapidly deteriorating. They said it appears she can no longer fulfill her job duties without her staff doing much of the work required to represent the nearly 40 million people of California.”

This creates a problem for Democrats. In a narrowly divided Senate, they hold only a one-vote majority on the Judiciary Committee, on which Feinstein sits. Her absence has made it impossible for the Party to move judicial nominees from the committee to the full Senate, where they can be confirmed. (An attempt to replace her on the committee, which would have required sixty votes, was stymied by Republicans.) Some Democratic office holders have called for Feinstein to resign, but she has retained the support of most of her Senate and House colleagues. Nancy Pelosi recently said that sexism was playing a role in the push to have Feinstein step down. And Debbie Stabenow, the four-term Democratic senator from Michigan, said, “We have male members that have various challenges, and I’m not hearing anybody suggesting that they retire. I do think she has been treated unfairly. And so she’ll make the decision, and I will support that decision.”

I recently spoke by phone with Senator Stabenow. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why she sees double standards at work, her feelings about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s decision not to retire during Barack Obama’s Presidency, and her sense of Feinstein’s mental capacities.

Why do you think sexism is playing a role in the situation with Senator Feinstein?

Well, first, I really want to back up, Isaac, and just say that Senator Feinstein has been a real icon, a real leader for women in this country. I’ve even admired her since she was mayor of San Francisco. This is somebody who, when I came in, in 2001, was already an incredible leader. We wouldn’t have had a ten-year assault-weapons ban if it had not been for her. There was her effort on the Violence Against Women Act. She has just been a courageous, passionate leader.

To get to your question, she is now eighty-nine, the oldest sitting United States senator. When I came in, Strom Thurmond was in the Senate. He stayed until he was a hundred years old. He wanted to be the first senator to hit a hundred years old, but he literally would lie down in the reading room off of the reception area of the Senate. Then, for voting, they would put him in a wheelchair, and he would come in to vote. I don’t recall people saying that he should step down. I don’t recall it happening to other colleagues of mine who now are also in their late eighties and having various challenges, so I’m sensitive to that.

Do you think your sensitivity arises in part from your own experience of sexism in politics?

I’ve been in the state legislature, the U.S. House, and the U.S. Senate, and certainly I’ve experienced sexism over the years. My antenna goes up when it appears that a woman is being treated differently, when it’s unfair. I’m not saying that Senator Feinstein doesn’t have health challenges, as do male colleagues. I mean, Mr. McConnell was out for how many weeks?

Mitch McConnell has not had multiple colleagues from his own party call his mental faculties into question though, right?

First of all, how many folks are we talking about?

Well, I know multiple Democratic senators told the San Francisco Chronicle that they were concerned or thought that Feinstein couldn’t really do the job anymore, at least not without extensive help from her staff.

I would say that, first of all, we should look at the fact that there’s a primary happening in California, and different people are supporting different candidates. That brings us a different agenda, I think, depending on who you’re supporting and so on. I’ve been very disheartened to see public calls from California members for her to step down. I’m not saying that there aren’t challenges. I’m not saying that. I’m saying that she should be respected like anyone else is respected. And, yes, there are challenges. We also have male colleagues with challenges.

I don’t know if anyone called for Thurmond to resign. He was certainly a joke by the end of his career, but I don’t think he was serving on an evenly divided Judiciary Committee and therefore keeping his party’s nominees from coming up for a vote.

We could go back and look at the various votes that came up with Senator Thurmond. He had a full-time male nurse with him and was in a very elderly, challenged situation when he was here. But let me go to the Judiciary situation as well. What should be acknowledged is that Senator Feinstein has said she’s not going to run again. She asked Senator Schumer if she could step down while she was gone and he could put someone in. Frankly, Republicans did something unprecedented. Normally, you respect each caucus to make its own decisions on who goes on committees. It could have been very routine.

But we know they’re not going to do that, right? The Republicans are not going to help Democrats.

Well, I know, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

Of course not.

It’s like we assume that all the bad stuff they do is O.K. You know what I mean? It’s like, well, we know they’re going to be bad. The reason I’m saying that is that if there was someone new who came in and needed committee assignments, do we know if they would be seated? The reality is that we need Senator Feinstein to be back with us, and she wants to be back with us. So, rather than people disrespecting her right now, I would prefer that they were wishing her well and rooting her on to be back with us, which is what she wants.

Offering her thoughts and prayers?

Right, and it doesn’t help her credibility to have that happening.

Her credibility?

Well, I mean in the sense of people in her own party suggesting that she step down or whatever. That’s not helpful. Anybody in elected office—it wouldn’t be helpful to me or anybody. I’m not trying to minimize the situation. It’s a difficult situation.

Let’s say that I’m a Democrat who wants to see my party’s judicial nominees confirmed, and I say, “The most important thing is getting these nominees confirmed, even if Feinstein has had this career.” I don’t totally understand how responding, “Well, when Strom Thurmond two decades ago was a member of another party, people didn’t call for him to resign, so it’s sexist for you to—”

No, no, no. You were asking me how I was reacting in terms of the feelings, and the criticisms, and so on. No, of course. But Senator Feinstein, being responsible, suggested that she be replaced, and Republicans blocked it. The theory is that she resigns and then someone is appointed. It’s not clear if they would even seat that person. We would assume they would have to, but I’m just saying it’s more complicated than people think.

About a decade ago, there was a big debate about whether Ruth Bader Ginsburg should resign. There were a lot of charges of sexism—that this would not have been said about a male Supreme Court Justice. How did you feel about that at the time, and, in hindsight, do you look at that any different?

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