(CNBC) Dianne Feinstein, the oldest member of the U.S. Senate and the longest-serving senator from California, has died at age 90, two sources familiar with the matter told NBC News on Friday.
The Democrat’s passing marks the end of a boundary-pushing political career that spanned more than half a century, studded with major legislative achievements on issues including gun control and the environment.
Feinstein had planned to retire at the end of her current term in 2024.
Feinstein’s death leaves vacant her powerful Senate seat, requiring Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint a temporary successor.
A San Francisco native, Feinstein cleared a path for women in politics as she rose the ranks of leadership. After two failed bids for mayor, she was elected president of San Francisco’s board of supervisors in 1978, becoming the first woman to hold the title.
American politician Dianne Feinstein, her arms outstretched in celebration, in her office after she was elected mayor of San Francisco, at San Francisco City Hall in San Francisco, California, circa 1978.
Nick Allen | Archive Photos | Getty Images
Feinstein was made acting mayor of the city later that year, after then-Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, her colleague on the board of supervisors, were assassinated by Dan White, a former member of the same board.
In later interviews, Feinstein recalled finding Milk’s body and searching for a pulse by putting her finger in a bullet hole.
Feinstein was the first to announce the murders to the press. She was appointed mayor a week later, again becoming the first woman elevated to the office.
The tragedy had the side effect of jumpstarting Feinstein’s political career, but the trauma of the day stuck with her even decades later.
“I never really talk about this,” Feinstein said with a sigh when asked about the murders in a CNN interview in 2017.
Her streak of firsts continued at the national level. Feinstein lost a gubernatorial bid in 1990, but two years later won a special election to the U.S. Senate, becoming California’s first female senator.
Weeks later, the state’s second female senator, Barbara Boxer, was sworn into office, making California the first state in the U.S. to be represented in the Senate by two women.
Their 1992 elections helped define the “Year of the Woman,” in which four Democratic women were newly elected to the Senate — more than doubling the chamber’s female representation.