A pioneer in the women’s movement in Minnesota died last week. By the time she died, Gloria Griffin was a bit of a woman, severely afflicted by rheumatoid arthritis for most of her life. Because Gloria hasn’t been around so much in recent times so many younger women may not know her – but everyone knows her legacy, primarily the Minnesota Women’s Consortium and the Women’s Building on Rice Street, just North of the State Capitol.
What is not so evident is the women to whom she gave an opportunity. I am one of those women and it is Gloria’s talent scouting impact that I experienced personally and that I try to deserve today.
When I first knew of Gloria Griffin, she was a commanding presence, a vocal force with considerable power because of her own political acumen, classy style and her commitment to giving women a chance to prove themselves and to contribute their perspective and their efforts to the common good. A striking sophisticate Gloria was a business woman and candidate for Congress in 1976 in what was then the 2nd Congressional District, a challenge that would weed out a lesser soul.
Though she didn’t win that election, she caught the attention of then first-termer and visionary Governor Rudy Perpich. He created the Governor’s Open Appointments Commission, placing Gloria at the head with a mandate to include women and minorities in the pool.
Meanwhile I was a classic nobody, a single mom supporting two little boys on my wages as a temporary librarian at a small private college in Mankato. My political engagement included a timid toe dipped in the DFL and maybe the Mankato Area League of Women Voters. For reasons I have never cared to plumb, my name somehow bubbled to the top of what must have been a zillion candidates for gubernatorial appointment. A call came for an appointment with the Governor’s Commission which was interviewing candidates for the Minnesota State Board of Education.
Having little to lose, I dug out some suitable garb, looked up the authority of the SBE, and headed for the State Capitol which I had probably not visited since Girls State circa 1958.
Gloria and her distinguished bipartisan Commission offered a gracious welcome markedly free of the condescending tone I had anticipated. I survived and life went on.
Some weeks or months later I was at a work-related meeting at the Minnesota Valley Regional Library when a staffer broke in with a call for me – from the Governor’s office. Unaccustomed as anyone was for me to get a call of any sort, definitely not from the Governor’s office, I’m sure the assumption was that I was in trouble for something, probably dereliction of duty or possibly child endangerment.
The message was that the Governor had just appointed me to the Minnesota State Board of Education, the Board responsible for K-12 and vocational ( AVTI’s in those days) and libraries. To say the least, I was willing, if not necessarily ready or able.
Gloria’s long reach and commitment to giving women, even nobodies, a chance, changed my life.
The learning process she jump-started continues to this day, decades later. I learned about the politics of education, state and local. I experienced the real if implicit forces that shape and pull on the systems. In the days of Title IX, displaced homemakers and the outrageous barriers facing women and girls I delighted in systemic de-construction of the system in order to effect change. I learned about the pressures and the possibilities of politics writ large.
Gloria Griffin never knew me personally – we met but once at that formal interview. Still, she used her mandate to give women with even a glimmer of potential a chance to grow, to learn and to contribute something, even if it were but the voice of a young mom on a board otherwise dominated by grey haired grandpas with political clout.
My story must be one of hundreds of similar reflections ignited by the news of Gloria’s death. Others know about and laud her more public contributions. I can speak only from my small touch with her impact. I hope I do her proud – and I am both grateful and strengthened to have felt her impact for these past three decades.
Note: There have been and will be countless tributes to Gloria Griffin – those who knew her will remember the stories; others will want to know more. In his obituary for Gloria Tom Meersman, writing in the Strib, notes that Gloria “poked her nose into politics and helped women organize and improve their status in Minnesota.” The interview with Gloria published in the collection entitled In the Company of Women: Voice from the Women’s Movement, edited by Bonnie Watkins and Nina Rothchild, offers a brief glimpse into the political awakening of this powerful and gracious woman.