Courtesy of Wake Forest University School of Law via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Calls for the resignation of California Senator Dianne Feinstein, age 89, have swept the U.S. Senate due to her multiple months’ absence due to shingles. Entering the Senate floor two weeks ago in a wheelchair, Senator Feinstein’s return to Washington weighs heavily on Democrats as her vote is essential to President Biden’s upcoming confirmation hearings of judicial nominees. However, Senator Feinstein’s age was a matter of public concern for many years before she showed signs of cognitive difficulties. While gender is not the determining factor related to demands for Senator Feinstein to resign, it plays a clear role in the calls for the resignation of many high-profile female politicians at an advanced age.  

Pressure to step down is not a new phenomenon for female politicians, as many of the most influential political leaders have been called to resign earlier than their male counterparts — even from their own parties. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served on the Supreme Court for 27 years, was pressured to resign in 2016 while President Obama was still in office and could appoint a successor. Despite her long-standing battle with cancer, Justice Ginsburg believed she could continue fighting and had more to contribute to the Court. Though calls for her resignation were more about saving a seat for a liberal-leaning judge, Justice Ginsburg’s stance to continue serving was hard-fought partly because of her gender. 

Nancy Pelosi, former Democrat Speaker of the House who led her party for two decades, was also pushed to step down from her leadership role last year. However, she became the target of immense hatred from the far right that culminated in a violent attack on her husband, Paul Pelosi, by a right-wing conspiracy theorist. Pelosi’s decision to resign last year and make room for a “new generation” of leaders is honorable, but the forcing of her hand through violence and death threats is an unfair and reprehensible experience that marks an increasingly disturbing political landscape. 

Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, in contrast, continues to hold his position despite being just two years younger than Pelosi and suffering from his own health problems. Unlike Pelosi, McConnell also intends to hold his seat until the end of his term in 2027, when he will be 85. Strom Thurmond, the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, worked in Congress for 48 years until his death in 2003 at the age of 100. Fewer calls for the resignation of male politicians at an older age and in worse conditions show how gender creates different types of attention for politicians.

Additionally, President Joe Biden, who is already the oldest president in U.S. history at the age of 80, announced in April he will run for the 2024 presidential election, which would make him 86 if he is reelected. His opponent, former president Donald Trump, age 76, also announced he will be seeking reelection after his doctors proclaimed the former president has “incredible genes” and “could live up to 200 years old if he changed his diet.” Questions about President Biden and former President Trump’s advanced age and health have been raised, but public pressure to step down from their roles or not seek reelection has not materialized as intensely as it does for women in top leadership positions. 

Many of the politicians in federal level seats are at an advanced age as the current Congress consists of the “second-oldest Senate and the third-oldest House of Representatives” since 1789. The average age in the federal government continues to tick upward, strengthening a system of seniority. America’s gerontocracy is concerning because younger generations do not have the opportunity to hold leadership roles, creating a gap between representatives and the public. Older government representatives should, of their own volition, choose to step down from their roles to make room for the younger generation, not be forced.

It is obvious Senator Feinstein should resign, not because of her age, but due to her frail condition. But the harsh treatment she and other female political figures experience at an advanced age, when they reach the top of government, is sexist and wrong, as many other male politicians remain in office at older ages and in worse conditions. There is a double standard in how ageism is used for men and women holding higher governmental offices, especially in the intensity of calls for their resignation. Perhaps, rather than analyzing every politician’s age, the broken seniority system in Washington’s political elite should be reevaluated so more representatives of all ages can hold leadership roles.