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The Feinstein they knew: Women of the Senate remember a fighter and friend

In tributes to Sen. Dianne Feinstein after her death, her female colleagues talked about her indomitable, fierce intelligence and how she had paved the way for so many women

Mary Clare Jalonick
Saturday 30 September 2023 05:05 BST

When Washington Sen. Patty Murray received a call early Friday morning that Sen. Dianne Feinstein had died, she immediately started calling her fellow female senators.

The Democrat’s first call was to Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who had worked with Feinstein almost as long as she had. Murray and Feinstein were elected in 1992 — “the year of the woman” — and Collins was elected just four years later. Murray then called several other female Senate colleagues, hastily arranging a tribute.

“My immediate response was my women Senate colleagues that have been her friends and her family for so long, and that we needed to be together on the floor.” Murray said in an interview in her Capitol office Friday afternoon.

They were all there when the Senate opened at 10 a.m., just hours after Feinstein had died at her home in Washington after serving more than three decades in the Senate. Standing near Feinstein’s Senate desk, now draped in black cloth, the senators — along with some of their male colleagues — talked about her indomitable, fierce intelligence and how she had paved the way for so many women as the first female mayor of San Francisco, one of California’s first two female senators and the first female chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But the women also talked about their private times with Feinstein that were at odds with her tough public persona -- how she would invite them out to dinners, how she would sometimes give them the clothes off her back, and how she brought them together for bipartisan gatherings as their ranks in the Senate grew from just a handful to a quarter of the chamber. Several of them teared up as they spoke.

It was a peek into Feinstein’s friendships and also the private, collegial side of the Senate that the public rarely sees — and that has faded in recent years as Congress has become more partisan and divided. Feinstein often received criticism from the left flank for her bipartisanship.

“I think it’s important that people understand that here in the United States Senate, a place that can be so divisive at times, that true friendships actually exist,” said Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican.

Murkowski spoke about sharing dinners with Feinstein when the Senate would stay in town over a weekend and they weren’t able to fly home to their faraway states. She joked that Feinstein, always impeccably dressed, probably wouldn’t have approved of the shoes she was wearing.

As the senators spoke, Feinstein's daughter Katherine watched from the gallery, sitting close to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Members of California's House delegation lined the back wall.

Collins said Feinstein held an engagement party for her before she was married more than a decade ago. She displayed a painting that Feinstein had painted for her, that now hangs in her office “and will have a place of honor there always,” Collins said.

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said that when attending an event in San Francisco around 15 years ago, Feinstein invited her to stay the night at her mansion in the city. When Klobuchar woke up early the next morning, Feinstein summoned her to her room, where she was wearing fuzzy slippers -- and reading a 200-page bill. She proceeded to quiz Klobuchar on the details.

“That was Dianne,” Klobuchar said, noting that the California Democrat had to work harder than everyone else as she rose up through politics at a time when there were so few women.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., brought a drawing Feinstein had given her and wore red lipstick in her honor. Murray told a story about admiring one of Feinstein’s purses, and then receiving one in the mail from the California senator a few days later. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said she was wearing shoes she said Feinstein had once admired.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, was wearing a scarf Feinstein had given her on the spot when she had told her she liked it.

“She just took it off and gave it to me,” Hirono said. “We had to be careful about admiring anything Dianne had, because she would likely take it off and give it to us.”

Wyoming Sen. Cynthia Lummis, a Republican, said Feinstein was “particularly kind to other women senators. She was the first to invite other women senators to dinner, to lead our gatherings and to focus our attention on things that are good for all Americans without regard to political ideology.”

Feinstein was one of the leaders and hosts of regular bipartisan dinners with all the women of the Senate, even as the group got a bit too large for them all to sit around one table and as the gatherings became a bit less frequent.

When eating at her house, said Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Feinstein “would have a little parting gift for you, a little coin purse or something to show you just truly who she was.”

Speaking at an event Friday, former New York Sen. Hillary Clinton told her own story about a gathering at Feinstein’s home.

After she lost the Democratic presidential primary to Barack Obama in 2008, Clinton said, she called Feinstein when the two former opponents — and then-senators — wanted to talk privately and weren’t sure where to go. Clinton said they ended up talking about what she would do to support Obama in Feinstein’s living room, while Feinstein would occasionally pop in, asking if they wanted more Chardonnay.

“I had total trust in her,” Clinton said at The Atlantic Festival in Washington.

One of the female senators Murray contacted Friday morning was Alabama Sen. Katie Britt, a Republican and former Senate Appropriations Committee staffer. Britt texted back that Feinstein had blazed a trail for her, and asked to sit with the other women senators on the floor during the tribute. “My heart is so sad,” Britt texted her.

Murray said the text brought her to tears.

“There was a side of Dianne that most people probably never saw, which all of us who are so lucky to be her friends here saw,” Murray said.

On the Senate floor, Murray teared up again as she recalled seeing Feinstein there just Thursday, casting her last vote.

“I’m so sorry I didn’t hug her when she went back out that door yesterday,” Murray said.

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