Crusader of the cables: Fannie Mae Barnes

This Fannie Mae needs no bailout: Barnes working the tracks
Photo courtesy of Lunafest

Whoever said a cable car couldn't be operated on woman power alone clearly had never met the steam engine on this grandmother. Fannie Mae Barnes of Oakland, California was the first woman ever to operate a cable car grip – not because it was a higher paying position, or an easier gig, but because she was told that women didn't have the strength to do the job right.

Barnes started pumping iron, passed the 25-day grip operator training program notorious for its 80 percent drop out rate, and became a source of civic pride. She even drove the Olympic torch up the Hyde Street hill en route to the 2002 Winter Olympics. A documentary about her achievement, “Getting a Grip,” will be shown tonight at Lunafest, a traveling film festival that screens movies made by and about women to benefit the Breast Cancer Fund. We caught up with Barnes for a phone interview about knocking down one of the city's diehard gender divisions of labor.


San Francisco Bay Guardian: What made you want to be a cable car operator?

Fannie Mae Barnes: It wasn't about being a conductor, it was the grip up front, which is totally different from the conductor. In '98 I went up front and became the first female ever to be certified as a grip. 


SFBG: What's the difference?

FMB: The difference is this: on the cable car it takes two people to operate, you have the person in the rear that does the back break at any given time it's needed and collect the fares. Up front you have the gripman that controls the cable car. There's a huge device that weighs about 375 pounds and it's called the grip and it grips the cable that's underneath the ground that's moving at nine and a half miles per cable speed. It's a ITAL job. It's very different from conducting.


SFBG: So you're lifting a 375 pound weight to operate the cable car?

FMB: As far as pulling back, yeah. The cable car itself weighs eight tons, empty. It's a miniature train. A lot of guys will try to muscle the grip, but it's really more a finesse thing – you have to leverage it with your body weight. 


SFBG: How did you become the first woman to operate the grip?

FMB: Well they had said that they always need gripmen because it's a difficult job. They had mentioned that it was a job that woman could not do because we lacked the upper body strength. So I said hey, come on now, you know, there's absolutely nothing a woman can't do. I mean if you can take care of a family, I mean, come on. This was in '97 that this article came out. So in '97 I decided I had to step up to the plate and be that woman, so I did it. I worked out extensively for six months to a year. I couldn't let the year 2000 come into existence without a woman up front. So I did it, February 14th, 1997.


SFBG: What were you doing before you started working at the cable cars?

FMB: I was driving buses. I drove buses for 11 years. Some of my friends who had drove buses had left and were over in the cable cars division, so that's what I did. And once I started working there I loved it. It's a totally different scene, you know, you have a lot of tourists and they just want to ride and have fun.


SFBG: What kind of reaction did you get from the other cable car grips?

FMB: Well a lot of the guys were betting money against me that I would not make it. But then I had positive input too from some guys, so I went with the positive side. I knew that I was going to make it because I was training hard for it and it was something that I felt that I could do, and anytime you really apply yourself and it's something that you want to do, you can do it.


SFBG: What gave you that conviction to know you could be that first woman? Is that something your family taught you?

FMB: Yeah, more or less. My mom always taught me growing up that whatever you want to do hon, you can do it, you just have to set your mind to it and go for it. 


SFBG: So what are you doing with your golden years of retirement?

FMB: I work with an organization, Ghana Women and Children of North America. We've only been existence for a year, we do non-profit work with organizations in Africa. We put electricity in a primary and secondary school, we bought them two computers, a printer, and we opened up the Internet for them. 



Featuring films Getting a Grip, Top Spin, and Tightly Knit

Thur/30 6 p.m., $20

Herbst Theater

401 Van Ness, SF

(415) 392-4400