Telling Dianne Feinstein to resign is sexist and 'unprecedented,' women Democratic senators say

Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York says Feinstein is being held to an “unacceptable and unprecedented” standard.
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York says Feinstein is being held to an “unacceptable and unprecedented” standard.Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images; Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • As Sen. Feinstein's health-related absence affects Democrats' agenda, some want her to step down.

  • But Democratic women in the Senate say gender is playing a role in how her absence is being handled.

  • "I think the standard she's being held to is unacceptable and unprecedented," said Sen. Gillibrand.

As the 89-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California's health-related absence from the Senate increasingly stalls Democrats' agenda, some lawmakers in her own party have called for her to resign.

But women Democratic senators told Insider at the Capitol on Wednesday that they believe sexism is at play and that the chamber's longest-serving Democrat is being held to an unfair standard because she is a woman.

"I hope that Sen. Feinstein continues to recover, and she has earned the right to make her own decisions about when she's coming back," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. "I think the standard she's being held to is unacceptable and unprecedented."

"We have male members that have various challenges, and I'm not hearing anybody suggesting that they retire," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. "I do think she has been treated unfairly. And so she'll make the decision, and I will support that decision."

Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, a fellow member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that she's "not gonna get into it with regard to this particular situation" but spoke broadly of the existence of double standards for women in politics.

"For all the women that I know, I know very few who have not been subjected to comments such as 'you're not ready,' 'you can't win,' all of those kinds of attitudes," she said. "So, draw your own conclusions."

The remarks by the senators largely echoed the sentiment expressed by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who's long served alongside Feinstein, when the former speaker of the House was asked about Feinstein's political future by reporters in California last week.

"I've never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way," said Pelosi, arguing that "political agendas are at work."

Rep. Norma Torres, another California Democrat, has also argued that Feinstein's being held to a double standard.

"When women age or get sick, the men are quick to push them aside," wrote Torres on Twitter. "When men age or get sick, they get a promotion."

Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California was the first lawmaker to call on Feinstein to resign and has since defended himself against accusations of sexism, pointing to the fact that people called for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's retirement in part due to concerns about his health and age.

And on Wednesday, Khanna told Insider that he's received "private encouragement" since making the original call.

'Many senators get sick'

Feinstein, who's long faced questions about her ability to serve, has not cast a vote in the Senate in over two months as she struggles with a bout of shingles, leaving Democrats down one vote in the chamber.

More significantly, her absence from the Senate Judiciary Committee, which approves President Joe Biden's judicial nominees, has rendered the committee deadlocked. That's preventing Democrats from quickly advancing nominees that lack Republican support on the committee.

On Tuesday, Republicans blocked an attempt by Democrats to quickly swap Feinstein out for Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland via a voice vote, and the GOP is unlikely to supply Democrats with the minimum 10 votes necessary to do it with a roll-call vote.

While this is the first time Feinstein has faced resignation calls from sitting lawmakers, it's not the first time that the question has been raised in the public sphere. Defenders of Feinstein have often pointed out that male senators have remained in office well into old age, while not facing similar questions about their ability to serve.

"I served with her on the Intelligence Committee, she continues to ask very insightful and probing questions," said Gillibrand. "She is sick. Many senators get sick and need time to heal."

Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who stayed in office until he was 100 years old, was widely known to have lost his ability to carry out the job. Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia died in office at age 92 after years of visibly underperforming in the role and was absent from the Senate for two months with an illness in 2009.

More recently, Democratic Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania was recently absent from the chamber for six weeks as he sought treatment for clinical depression.

Still, not every woman Democratic senator that Insider spoke with was willing to explicitly argue that sexism is at play — a possible sign of the unique stakes of Feinstein's current absence.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, asked about whether calls for Feinstein to resign are sexist, opted to criticize Republicans for blocking her replacement on the Judiciary Committee.

"My focus is on the Republicans who have refused to offer basic human courtesy to someone who has served honorably in the United States Senate for decades," she said. "They should be ashamed of themselves."

Pressed on the question of a double standard, Warren largely repeated herself.

"What the Republicans are doing is fundamentally wrong," she said. "They're playing politics."

"I think it's important for Senator Feinstein to do what is what is best for her," said Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. "I wasn't around when Robert Byrd was out for a long period of time, so I can't speak to that."

"I just believe that it's not somebody else's assessment to make; it's her assessment to make," said Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

And Cardin, the temporary heir to Feinstein's Judiciary Committee seat, said that he was "not going to judge people's views." But he pointed out that the Senate has "had members out for a much longer period of time than Dianne's been out for."

"We always give them the time they need in order to recover," said the Maryland Democrat.

Read the original article on Business Insider