A few weeks ago I wrote a column called “Hoping for Leadership”. I want to thank Laura Matos (@Lauramatos), Geri Jannarone (@JannaroneGeri) and others for pointing out that while listing a host of leaders and leadership styles, I failed to mention a single woman or person of color, just a bunch of white dudes. They are absolutely right, and I apologize. Period full stop.
When I originally saw their posts my first thoughts started with the words “But… wait… what I really I meant was… insert some professor mansplaining BS here.” I started, stopped, threw away, started over and tried again to write and explain why I only focused on the white guys. In the end, none of those thoughts really matter, made much sense, or made up for the omissions. So, I decided to just listen to Laura and Geri and do as they encouraged me to do and just “do better.”
The death last week of California Senator Dianne Feinstein is an opportunity for me to try again and see if I can, in fact, do better.
In another lifetime, I worked for California’s other Senator, Barbara Boxer. In that capacity, I was lucky enough to get to work with and be around Senator Feinstein at least a fair bit. In 1991, the US Senate had two women, Nancy Kassenbaum (R-Kansas) and Barbara Mikulski (D- Maryland). In 1992, Boxer and Feinstein joined with Carol Mosely Braun (D-Illinois), Patty Murray (D-Washington) and Kay Baliey Hutchinson (R-Texas) in winning Senate seats and to 1992 being declared the Year of the Woman.
My memory of that time is that Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray really led the Year of the Woman idea. They both leaned heavily into the need to elect more women. Boxer held events called “Woman Making History” which honored the accomplishments of amazing woman up and down California. Boxer’s speeches at these events were as subtle as a Molotov cocktail, filled with passionate exhortations to break down the barriers (and the doors to the US Senate) in the fight for gender equality.
Patty Murray was the self-styled “Mom in Tennis Shoes” who used that tag line to highlight the missing perspective she was going to bring to our government. She was much less fire and brimstone than Boxer but no less tough. Murray made the case for equality the way that Moms often due, by simply stating the case for what was true and what was right and dared you to disagree. Most didn’t.
Perhaps because I knew her less well than Boxer, Feinstein always seemed to me to be less comfortable centralizing her focus on gender. One of the original theories of leadership argues that leaders are simply born and those with leadership in their DNA would rise to the top of any situation or profession. Today that theory seems kind of silly, but my memory is that Senator Feinstein was always in charge of every room she entered, and you felt good that she was the one in charge.
The dynamics of the 1992 campaign seemed to carry over after they both got elected. Boxer, who came from the House, had to tone down her fiery rhetoric and confrontational nature to survive in the Senate. By all measures she was able to make that shift and when she retired it was to a chorus of respect and admiration for her willingness to get in and do the grunt work needed for progress.
Feinstein, who came from being a mayor, never seemed to me to change her approach. Again, it is my memory that she was leading from day one. Feinstein was nowhere near the environmentalist that Boxer was but somehow it was Feinstein who got the stalled 1994 Desert Protection Act through the Senate. Later she used her personal experience and stories of the assassinations of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone to author and lead the charge to pass the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban.
While both Boxer and Feinstein went on to long and distinguished careers, I have a vivid memory of feeling like the Boxer staff (of which I was one) were still trying to find the Senate restroom[i] in 1994 while Feinstein and her team were passing major legislation. Feinstein was ready to lead from day one and kept leading up until the end. Feinstein was patrician in bearing, she was smart, thoughtful and tough. She spoke less and acted more. She listened to her own counsel and was not so interested in what was particularly popular at the moment. She knew where she wanted to go and how to get there. I remember feeling like would have followed her anywhere.
Today there are many more woman in politics than there were in 1992 when less than 10% of our federal legislatures were woman. But even so, today it is still less than 30%. Better but not great. We can do better. In 2023, a record 12 states had woman governors in 1992 it was about 4. Better but not great. We must do better.
But the only way to do better is to first recognize and admit when the fight for gender equity (or any equity) is downplayed, ignored or just plain forgotten about. I did that and I feel like I let the Senators of my youth down. I can do better.