Taken with Transportation

Breaking Glass Ceilings Halfway to the Stars

January 22, 2024 SFMTA Episode 11
Breaking Glass Ceilings Halfway to the Stars
Taken with Transportation
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Taken with Transportation
Breaking Glass Ceilings Halfway to the Stars
Jan 22, 2024 Episode 11

26 years ago this month, Fannie Mae Barnes made history when she became San Francisco's first female cable car grip. In this episode of Taken with Transportation, Barnes talks with host Melissa Culross about that experience. The episode also features Willa Johnson, the second female grip.

The women discuss what it takes, physically, to be a grip and what it was like to break the glass ceiling that hung over San Francisco's beloved cable cars for more than a century.

Show Notes Transcript

26 years ago this month, Fannie Mae Barnes made history when she became San Francisco's first female cable car grip. In this episode of Taken with Transportation, Barnes talks with host Melissa Culross about that experience. The episode also features Willa Johnson, the second female grip.

The women discuss what it takes, physically, to be a grip and what it was like to break the glass ceiling that hung over San Francisco's beloved cable cars for more than a century.

MELISSA CULROSS, HOST: It’s been just over a quarter century since a glass ceiling that hung over San Francisco’s cable cars for decades was broken.

FANNIE MAE BARNES: When I made it, everybody was excited.

MELISSA: Welcome to TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s official podcast. I’m your host, Melissa Culross. 26 years ago, this month…and more than a century after cable cars began climbing up the city’s iconic hills…Fannie Mae Barnes became the first female cable car grip. We had a chance to catch up with Barnes during the 150th cable car anniversary celebration. 

FANNIE: I started working at Muni as a bus operator in 1981. And uh, I was kind of getting tired of the bus situation because it’s pretty difficult operating a bus in San Francisco because you have to deal with a lot of hazardous situations, people as well as the traffic. And so, I was about to quit my job because I was really tired of it. I didn’t want to deal with it anymore, but I had quite a few of my friends had went over to cable cars. And they was telling me how different it was working at cable cars. You dealing with a lot of tourists; people just really wanna ride the cable car; they’ve never been on the cable car before; they’ve only seen it. And so, I took my friends’ advice. And so, in the next general signup, which we have once a year every year throughout the system; you can go anywhere. So. in ’91, boom, I decided I was gonna come over to cable cars, and I came over as a conductor.

MELISSA: The conductor’s role is different than that of what was called back then the “gripman.”

FANNIE: On the cable cars, you have two people on the cable car. You cannot operate the cable car with one person. It has to be two people on the cable car: the conductor, which is the person in the back that does the back brakes going downhill, and at any given time, he’s back there to pull that brake to help the person up front, the grip, and, uh, collect the fares. That’s what the conductor does and call out the stops. 

MELISSA: Since you’re calling out the stops, how do people react, especially the visitors, to being on the cable car? Like, what was that energy like?

FANNIE: It was very good. The people on the cable car was absolutely wonderful because they just here to ride the cable car, enjoy that. And so, my thing on the cable car, which a lot of the operators, conductors would call out the different stop. When we got to Lombard Street, which is the crookedest street in the world, that’s what we would say. But I would say, “Lombard Street, the second crookest street in the world!” So, some people would say, “The second crookedest street?!? So, which is the first crookedest street?” I said, “Wall Street.” And they all would crack up (laughs).

MELISSA: Now, that’s the conductor. The cable car grip, meanwhile, heaves the lever that grips and releases the underground cable that propels the cars. That requires a good amount of strength, and this is the job that no woman had held before Barnes took on the challenge.

FANNIE: So, I worked in the back for about six years, and then I went up front as a grip, which is very difficult to do, even for men. But, uh, I pulled it off by working out extensively, building up my upper body strength. But in actuality, it takes your whole body weight, especially if you don’t want to become injured, okay? So, uh, I worked out extensively, uh, 25 days, just, just, constantly working out, constantly working out. The training is for 25 days. So, I had to have my strength. I had to build up my stamina so I could deal with working up front on the cable car, being that, on the bus, you know, you sitting a lot. 

MELISSA: I’m, uh, a little bit of a gym rat, myself. I am not strong enough to operate a cable car (laughs), but what kinds of specific exercises were, were you doing as part of that training?

FANNIE: Push-up. Dips. Pull-up. Arm curls. Pull downs. Anything to build up my upper body strength.

MELISSA: Okay, so, move to the front, you operated the grip. Tell me a little bit about what that was like, just in terms of the job, itself, and then we’ll get to potentially all the other pressure of being the first woman.

FANNIE: Well, the job itself is very extensive in how you control the cable car, as well as try to keep from injuring yourself. So, it’s all about tucking your body in tight and using your entire body leverage to control the cable car.

MELISSA: To be clear, as Barnes notes, gripping a cable car requires many extraordinary skills. In addition to strength, mental and physical coordination, confidence and determination are necessary, and many men who try to become grips don’t make it through the training. However, Barnes officially became a cable car grip in January 1998. And how was her move to the front of the cable car received?

FANNIE: It was, uh, the people that loved it, and a lot of the operators did, too. Although a lot of ‘em was betting money that I wouldn’t make it. Of course, I knew I would, okay? But the public? Oh, they loved it. When I would come downtown on the cable car, oh, they’d go… Everybody wanted to ride my cable car. Impossible. A line of people waiting, you know. But it was received very well by the people. They was excited to see a female up front on the cable car.

MELISSA: I love it! And then, how long did you do it?

FANNIE: For about two-and-a-half years.

MELISSA: And then what was next? Did you retire immediately, or did you go to a different part of Muni?

FANNIE: I, I, I stayed on cable cars for a minute, but I did retire.

MELISSA: So, what were some of the most memorable moments for Barnes?

FANNIE: The most memory moment on the cable car for me is when the people board the cable car, right? They have their children with them and everything, and they forget about the kids (laughs). It’s all about them then on the cable car. It’s amazing. 

MELISSA: You know, you said people were mostly supportive, aside from those making bets that you wouldn’t make it. Did you encounter any kind of resistance, whether from the public or other coworkers or anything like that? 

FANNIE: No, not really. Not from the public at all. When I made it, everybody was excited.

MELISSA: Barnes may have been the first woman cable car grip, but she wasn’t the last. Willa Johnson is the second, and we’re chatting with her at the cable car barn. She tells us that even though Barnes broke the glass ceiling, becoming a grip was still a challenge when she did it in 2010.

WILLA JOHNSON: Just the mere fact that, uh, everybody was like, “You know, there’s been one woman, and nobody can really do this. This is really not a woman’s job.” And they had things to say that wasn’t really pleasant, and I wanted to try it, and I, I kinda knew I could do it.

MELISSA: Let’s talk a little more about that; that you knew you could do it. How did you know you could do it? Was it sort of an intestinal fortitude, or did you think, “You say I can’t, so I’m going to.”

WILLA: Yeah, that was a big thing: you say I can’t, so I’m going to. It was a big thing. But I was always a strong young woman. So, I used to wrestle, hand wrestle with my brother’s friends and stuff like that and would beat them. So, I always knew I was really strong. So, doing this particular job. I just didn’t think it was a lot. Not saying it wasn’t a lot to it, but I can concentrate. I could do this. And then I can really do it because you say I can’t.

MELISSA: Like Barnes, Johnson was a Muni operator who became a cable car conductor and then a grip. Does coming to work every day feel weighty or historic to Johnson, even though she wasn’t the first woman to move to the front of the car as a grip?

WILLA: For me, it’s important that I’m doing it, and that I’m still doing it. There was a 12-year gap in between Fannie becoming the first and me becoming the second. So, I’ve been doing this for a good while, and I don’t take it for granted that it, it takes a while for, I guess, for some of the men that really felt like “this is not a woman’s job” to warm up to you and say, “You know what” … and they have done it to me … “You know, I really doubted you, but you, you really doing a good job.” Even, um, my trainer that’s gone. You know, he comes back here sometimes, he apologized. “You know I’m really sorry. You’re a great gripman, and I apologize.” I don’t know what to say. It’s, it’s exciting, but it’s just, it’s a job now. It’s just, it’s a career.

MELISSA: It’s a career Johnson’s family has been very supportive of. Even if they might prefer she think about retiring so she can babysit her grandchildren.

WILLA-7: My baby son walks around with a big old…(laughs)…cable car on his neck that says “The Second Lady.” I said, “But you’re not the second lady…(laughs), you know.”

MELISSA: Johnson says, even today, people sometimes assume she’s a man if it’s cold, and she’s bundled up. However, when the weather is nice and she’s wearing make-up and has had her nails done, there is no mistaking that she is a woman…doing what some riders still might think of as a man’s job.

WILLA-3: I mean, I have people that, that live here still will come up and say, “I’ve never seen a woman drive a cable car,” and I’ll be like, “Well, where have you been? (laughs) I’ve been here.” But people still do it, and sometime, I get on the car. People are sitting there, and, and they’re whispering to each other. And I already know what’s going on. It’s like, “She’s fitting to drive the car (laughs).” You know, and they really, they really like, go, “Oh, I know she’s not fitting to drive the car.” So, but people still do that, and it’s funny because I already know what they’re whispering about, and, and I call ‘em on it. I say, “Well, well, what’s the matter?” It’s funny most of the time. You know, I’m, I’m okay with it.

MELISSA: And operating a cable car never gets old for Johnson, even though she was born and raised in San Francisco.

WILLA-4: I think maybe one time my mom brung me on a cable car, and I was very young, four or five years old. Besides that, I had never rode a cable car. I, I get excited going over the Hyde Street hill now, “Ooh, ooh…(laughs)…you know, look at that view!” And I go over it all the time. So, at some point, it’s supposed to be not exciting ‘cause you see it every day, but it’s, it’s nice. Sometime it’s pretty, the sun is shining. Sometime the fog covers up everything; you can’t see anything, so. When you can see everything, and it’s bright, you just feel like, “Hey! Look at this.”

MELISSA: Johnson also has plenty of love for the entire Muni system, not just the cable cars.

WILLA: I’ve been riding buses in the city the majority of my life. Um, I went to school, Washington High School, Ben Franklin…38 Geary was my ride then. The 24 was my ride. 37 Corbett. I went to Diamond Heights Elementary School. So, these are, you know, buses I know. As a matter of fact, we have the best bus system. I don’t care what anyone say. Uh, even when we’re late, you get within a block or two of every destination in San Francisco on a bus or a streetcar or a cable car or the light rail, any of that. You know, even when we have a, a bus that break down, there’s another one coming. We have the best bus system. :42

MELISSA: Two other women became grips after Johnson, for a total of four, and she hints that there soon could be a fifth.

WILLA: She’s not in training now, but she’s coming.

MELISSA: Okay (laughs).

WILLA: She’s coming, and there’s gonna be a little twist to it yet.


WILLA: She’s coming.

MELISSA: I’m gonna be looking out for that. Back to Fannie Mae Barnes, breaking a glass ceiling is never easy in any industry or situation….and Barnes tells us her mother inspired her to succeed in whatever job she chose to do.

FANNIE: We grew up in Georgia. Westpoint, Georgia, very small town in the South. I saw my mom get on trucks to go pick cotton, okay? So, my mother instilled in me: education, strength, and you can do it, if that’s what you wanna do. I just want a lot of the young people out here in the world to realize that they can make things happen if they put in the work. It’s all about putting in the work and being determined. Never count yourself out.

MELISSA: Thank you for joining us on TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION. We’re a production of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and you can find the latest episodes at SFMTA.com-slash-Podcast, as well as Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen. I’m Melissa Culross. Be well and travel well.