First Women of San Francisco

Last week my husband and I flew to San Francisco, into that rarefied air that can only be California. Our first stop was San Francisco, or the polyglot that columnist Herb Caen used to call Baghdad by the Bay (back when Baghdad had a romantic aura about it). As we traveled around the city, several First Women asserted themselves into my reflections —as strong women are wont to do.

On our way to Grace Cathedral, where we are always rewarded with inspiration, we walked to the cable car CABLE CARwaiting only a few blocks from our hotel. Little did I know that inspiration would strike even before we reached the Church. We secured a seat on the cable car, relatively easy to do on a Sunday morning outside of tourist season. The iron bar that reaches down to clamp the ever-rotating cable, giving the cable car conductor control over when the car halts and lurches forward, was only a few feet from my own hands. The wooden handle was polished from years of firm grips and I could almost see Maya Angelou, the first black woman to be a San Francisco streetcar conductor. I could visualize that determined young woman gripping the wooden handle with her gloved hand, and almost certainly greeting her riders as they jumped on board.

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Later, on a bus tour of the city with my brother and sisters, who had joined us in “The City,” we passed City Hall.The guide did not comment on its grizzly history, when Dan White entered the building and assassinated gay activist and city supervisor Harvey Milk, as well as Mayor George Moscone. This tragedy elevated Dianne Feinstein to the position of Mayor—the First Woman Mayor of San Francisco. (Feinstein later became the First Woman Senator from California.)

DSC_0036 - Version 2 My siblings, my husband and I sailed out to Alcatraz, that infamous prison of book and lore. The tour of the prison, narrated on an audiotape by a former warden, was sobering, but the history of Alcatraz is more than the history of a prison. The ruins of an old fort still hold fast to the hillside and remnants of the Native American occupation of the abandoned island in 1969 still demonstrate tribal efforts to be heard and honored. Pictures of the occupation reminded me of Wilma Mankiller who visited the island frequently, worked in the San Francisco command post, and raised money for the cause of respecting treaty rights. She wrote in her biography that the people she met there had “major and enduring effects on me.” The lessons she learned during that nineteen months put her on the road to the position of First Woman chief of the Cherokee Nation.

As I flew away from “The City,” and back to my writing, I wondered how many other First Women it had produced.


Afterthought: This site is about First Women, but one statement on a display at Alcatraz caught my eye and pricked my focus on First Women for a moment. Frank Weatherman, known as AZ 1576, was the Last Man to leave Alcatraz. “Alcatraz was never no good for nobody,” he said on the occasion.

Dianne Feinstein – Senator, Mayor of San Francisco

DIANNE FEINSTEIN, OFFICIAL     Dianne Feinstein’s career has been a succession of firsts:

–the first woman to be President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors

–the first woman to be Mayor of San Francisco

–the first woman elected Senator from the State of California

–the first woman member of the Senate Judiciary Committee

–the first woman to chair the Senate Rules and Administration Committee

–the first woman to chair the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Dianne Feinstein was active in government as early as high school and, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree, she worked in city government. Her first political race was for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She served for two and a half terms, later serving as the board’s president. She also ran for mayor twice during this period, but lost both times. Her rise to mayor came from a tragedy in 1978. A disgruntled city supervisor assassinated then Mayor George Moscone and another supervisor, Harvey Milk. Feinstein filled the remainder of Moscone’s term and then was elected in her own right. She served for ten years. City and State magazine named her “Most Effective Mayor” in the nation.

When Dianne Feinstein ran for Governor of the State of California, she lost and, in a turn of events that seems almost like a game of musical chairs, she became Senator from California. Feinstein’s opponent for Governor was Pete Wilson, then U.S. Senator from California. When he stepped down from his Senate seat to become governor, Feinstein won his Senate seat in a special election. Because she took office immediately, she is Senior Senator from California, even though Barbara Boxer was elected to the Senate in the same election.

During Feinstein’s first term as senator she co-authored the Gun Free Schools Act, the Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act, and legislation to ban the manufacture, sale and possession of military-style assault weapons, all of which passed and were signed into law. In 1984, before the Democratic National Convention, rumors abounded that Walter Mondale would select a woman for Vice-President and Feinstein’s name was on his list. A woman was selected, but it was Geraldine Ferraro, not Feinstein.

Feinstein continues to champion gun laws, laws to protect our national security and laws related to crime and punishment. She also is passionate about protecting the earth’s environment and citizen’s health.

In 2010 The New York Times said Feinstein appeared more often on Sunday talk-shows than any other woman. That record probably still holds, because, as chair of the Committee on Intelligence, she is often in today’s news whiles the country debates surveillance of its citizens. She holds another record, not just as a woman, but as an elected U.S. Senator. In 2012 she won 7.75 million votes, more votes than any other Senator in history.



FROM THE National Journal, “Do Women Make Better Senators Than Men?”



Dianne Feinstein: Never Let Them See You Cry by Jerry Roberts, and

Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate Barbara Mikulski, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Patty Murray, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Mary Landrieu and Blanche L. Lincoln, written with Catherine Whitney


Has tragedy ever made you stronger?