Comment: Is it sexist to think Dianne Feinstein should retire?

The best way to move this conversation ahead would be to focus less on age or gender and more on behavior.

By Monica Hesse / The Washington Post

Last week, Politico published an article about Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in which the former House speaker was asked, predictably, whether her home state’s 90-year-old senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, should step down.

Showing “evident irritation,” Pelosi told the reporter that there was a sexist double standard when it came to assessing the capability of aging politicians. “Dianne comes along and then they’re making such a fuss?” she said. “Uh-uh. It’s a guy thing, but that’s the way the world is.” Pelosi asked the reporter whether he would “ever say anything about any of those other guys, that they should leave,” accusing: “You never ever wrote about them.”

It was a sentiment Pelosi expressed before, in April. Feinstein had just returned to the Hill after a nasty bout of shingles, which prompted coverage about whether the senator was well enough to serve. “I’ve never seen them go after a man … that way,” Pelosi told reporters, joining a chorus of other female lawmakers, including Democratic Rep. Norma Torres (“When men age or get sick, they get a promotion.”) and Republican Sen. Joni Ernst (“If it were a dude would they be saying you need to step down?”), who all argued that it was misogynistic to ask Feinstein to retire.

Look, there is no great way for any lawmaker to respond to a question that essentially asks them to evaluate whether an esteemed colleague is too decrepit for the job. But it was bananas to read what Pelosi answered in the same week that plenty of Americans were indeed questioning the fitness of “those other guys.”

Eight days earlier, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., 81, for the second time this summer, responded to a question during a news conference by silently freezing, this time for about 20 alarming seconds while gripping his lectern. Then there was a resuscitation of speculation over whether President Biden, 80, is fit to serve his second term. In a Wall Street Journal survey, 73 percent of Americans said the phrase “too old to run for president” applied at least somewhat to Biden.

Age is a number, sure, and physical and mental acuity vary wildly from person to person. Plenty of us know sharp-as-a-tack octogenarians whom we would trust with the nuclear codes. Yet it is hard not to be concerned by McConnell gazing vacantly into the void, or by Donald Trump, 77, railing on Tucker Carlson’s show, or by whatever is going on with Feinstein. After returning from her long absence, she told a reporter, “I have not been gone.” Feinstein later appeared confused during a July vote, attempting to read prepared remarks while another senator and her assistants told her to just say “aye.”

For years, being an aging woman, particularly an aging woman in the public eye, has been a fraught experience. My first job out of college was as an editorial assistant for AARP the Magazine. The organization was in the middle of a rebrand, and the vibe we were meant to project was boundless energy. The word “old” was seen as a pejorative. “Mature” was fine, “senior” was OK, but the most preferred term was just “older.” At AARP, members got older and older but eventually died, at age 86 or 94 or 103, without ever getting old.

Nearly two decades later, we, as a society, have collectively gotten to the point where we realize that “she’s too old to …” is a bad way to begin a sentence in most contexts (“… wear a two-piece swimsuit/hike the Appalachian Trail/have a sex life”), and that doing so will get you rightly spammed with images of hot Helen Mirren. This is a good thing.

But if we are not going to talk about aging in negative terms, we need to find a nuanced way to think and talk about our gerontocracy. This senatorial class is now the oldest in American history, with a median age of 65 compared with a national median age of 39. And rebutting concerns about age with accusations of sexism, that ain’t it.

Ageism is another matter, and I can understand why the likes of Pelosi are sensitive to that kind of bias, even in a world where old(er) women and old(er) men are equally seen as past due to hand over the keys. It seems that a useful test for everyone having this conversation would be to lose the focus on age or gender and focus instead on behavior. Is appearing confused during a vote or freezing without explanation in the middle of a news conference behavior you would accept from a 35-year-old senator? If the answer is no, then it is probably OK to wonder about it when the senator is 85.

The question is not whether someone is too old for the job. The question is whether someone is doing the job or not, serving the country or not. Pelosi is smart and practical enough to know all of this. She has been around long enough to have seen that the late Strom Thurmond’s “Weekend at Bernie’s” appearances on the Senate floor in the early 2000s are not something to be held up as aspirational, but something to be avoided at all costs.

Pelosi cannot possibly want that for Feinstein. At 83 herself, she has also been around long enough to think about her own fitness and legacy, her own stamina of body and soul. She announced a few days ago that she intends to seek reelection, but last year she said she would step down from her role as speaker of the House, saying it was time for a “new generation” to lead the Democratic caucus.

But the discussion about Feinstein is complicated, I think, for female lawmakers like Ernst, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.. and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., all of whom have made comments implying that Feinstein is the victim of misogyny. It is complicated, because each of them might be considering their own political journeys, bushwhacking their way to a Senate that did not even have women’s bathrooms until 1992 and did not even allow women to wear pants until 1993. Maybe it is not sexism now, in this particular instance. Lord knows it usually is.

Over the weekend, a taped interview aired with the California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who would be tasked with appointing a replacement for Feinstein, should the senator choose to resign before her term ends. Newsom said that he had admired Feinstein since he was young and that he interned with her in college. He said he could not be objective when he talked and thought about her, that he was, in fact, “the most subjective human being in the world on this topic.” He said he hoped he would never be asked to fill her seat, but he would do it as his duty if asked.

It was among the more honest responses that I have seen about the Feinstein question, because it got at the parts of the conversation that are hard to figure out how to say if you are preoccupied with not sounding sexist or ageist. That part of the conversation looks like this: Nobody who admires Feinstein wants her to have to resign.

The people who admire her do not want to lose her. They want to clone her. They wish for a hundred of her, the version of her that came to Washington some 30 years ago and spoke out for domestic violence victims, for gays in the military and for women’s rights. When she was elected, there were only two other women in the Senate. She famously told voters that 2 percent was fine for milk but not for representation in politics. She was magnificent.

The discussions about her potential resignation are not filled with ageism as much as they are filled with the knowledge that if we keep our older heroes too long, we will never make new ones. Not filled with sexism but with sadness.

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section, who frequently writes about gender and its impact on society. Follow her on X @MonicaHesse.

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