Is Dianne Feinstein the victim of sexism? Could be — but she still needs to go | Opinion

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently criticized calls for the U.S. Senate’s oldest and longest-serving member, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to resign from office, saying “I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate.”

Four-term Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow has also said that calls for Feinstein to step down are rooted in sexism.

“I don’t recall it happening to other colleagues of mine who now are also in their late eighties and having various challenges,” Stabenow said.

They have a point.


Two of the longest-serving and oldest members in the U.S. Senate, Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond, “were widely known by the end of their careers to be non-compos mentis,” according to The New Yorker. A Latin phrase meaning “not of sound mind,” it’s a dismal label to describe anyone, let alone someone who should be a powerful U.S. senator.

Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, served in the Senate for 51 years, from 1959 until his death in 2010 at the age of 92. Thurmond represented South Carolina in the Senate for 47 years, first as a Democrat and then as a Republican.

By the time he retired, Thurmond was 100 years old, but it was well known that he should have left the Senate long before he did. One former Senate aide said that “for his last ten years, Strom Thurmond didn’t know if he was on foot or on horseback.”

American political history is full of men who were allowed to remain in elected office when they were no longer physically able or mentally competent to serve. These men generally were given the benefit of the doubt by their colleagues, the media and the public. But now Feinstein, a woman, is in the same position, and she has been subjected to intense scrutiny and pressure to step down.

This new public reaction, however, is ultimately the right one. The days of excusing politicians who can no longer serve out of a misplaced sense of “tradition” should be eliminated.

If it takes a woman to amend that… well, it’s hardly the first convention Feinstein will have broken in her career.

It’s always worse for women

Feinstein is a woman and a trailblazer for her gender. Age and infirmity are, perhaps, not the final glass ceiling she wanted to break in her career, but it’s the one she now faces.

Successful women are often more heavily scrutinized and closely watched than their male counterparts. Consider how intensely the public despises Theranos fraudster Elizabeth Holmes. Theranos’ former chief operating officer, Sunny Balwani, is also guilty of defrauding the public, yet is absent from much of the discourse.

Consider, too, the “glass cliff” — coined by researchers in 2003, who found that women have a better chance of being elevated to higher levels of management when an organization is facing a crisis, leaving the powerful men to escape the blame for mismanaging organizations to point of crisis.

The reason why media accounts describe Feinstein as “selfish” and “tragic” when Thurmond was largely given a pass is undoubtedly explained by deeply-rooted misogyny that exists in a patriarchal society that props up and lauds white men in power while simultaneously tearing down women.

But it’s also true that Feinstein, like some male predecessors, overstayed their welcome in office, to the lasting detriment of the American people.

So if Feinstein is the subject of intense scrutiny or public questioning in a way those men were not, it’s in part due to the presence of women and people of color in the Senate, which has helped challenge the status quo that sheltered powerful white men for far too long.

Ultimately, our state’s current conversation over whether Feinstein should or should not remain in office is not just a debate over the presence of sexism in society, it is — perhaps most importantly — a recognition of the insidious issues posed by the U.S. Senate existing as a gerontocracy.

Feinstein’s physical return this week to the Senate — in a wheelchair pushed by an aide — after a long bout with shingles was hardly the resounding picture of health and competency her staff has been peddling to the media in her absence.

The median age of members of the U.S. Senate is 65, while the median age of the nation they serve is just 38.

It seems improbable at this time, however, that the senator will do the right thing and step down.

That final act of selfishness will undoubtedly mar what should have been a great legacy.