Gloria Griffin ran for Congress in 1976 and lost, but it may have been a blessing.

She became Minnesota's most respected champion for women's rights for the next two decades, helping many move into top jobs and organizing disparate groups into the powerful Minnesota Women's Consortium, which she led for 15 years.

Griffin died in Wayzata on Dec. 12. She was 86.

"She left behind a fantastic legacy," said Lorraine Hart, director of finance and administration at the consortium. "She lived and breathed improving the lives of women in every way, whether it was education, pay equity, health care, child care or anything else."

Griffin was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and moved to California, where she attended high school, UCLA and Art Center College of Design, then in Los Angeles. She started a career in New York City and worked as art director for Good Housekeeping and Harper's Bazaar magazines.

That pathway took a turn when her husband accepted a job in Minneapolis, and she and their four children followed him to settle near Lake Minnetonka in 1967.

The women's movement was stirring, and Griffin met others who were advocating for girls and women to be given more opportunities in every aspect of life, from sports and education to better jobs and equal pay. She also became interested in leading some of those changes, said Jack Griffin, her spouse of more than 60 years. "She couldn't get over how open it was to get into politics in Minnesota," he said. "She felt she could poke her nose into politics, and she did."

In 1976, she ran for Congress as a DFLer, losing to incumbent Republican Tom Hagedorn. The race became a training ground for other women interested in politics. Her campaign manager was Marlene Johnson, who became the state's first female lieutenant governor.

Impressed by Griffin's leadership abilities, Gov. Rudy Perpich appointed her to chair his newly created Open Appointments Commission.

That commission provided an important bridge between politics and women's issues, said Grace Harkness, who worked with Griffin for many years. "It's quite astonishing looking back how much of women's contributions in every field were ignored or pushed aside or not recognized," Harkness said. "Gloria was a huge force in changing that."

Griffin and other women leaders founded the Minnesota Women's Consortium in 1980. It grew to include more than 160 organizations, and provided a unifying force for those with the common goals of improving the lives of girls and women. "Her opinion was well respected," said Harkness. "She was a strong and visionary leader but she didn't go around irritating people."

Griffin spearheaded a drive to purchase and renovate an old building three blocks from the Capitol in 1988, and renamed it the Minnesota Women's Building. It has been an incubator for many nonprofits in social services, and a resource center devoted to equality and justice for women and children. Griffin retired in 1995.

"For the entire time she was here at the consortium, she was the eyes and ears of the women's community in Minnesota," said Hart.

Jack Griffin said that his wife had many interests in addition to women's issues, and was a devoted mother, talented artist and avid traveler. Survivors include a daughter, Gail, of Frederick, Md., and three sons, McVeigh of Indianapolis, Christopher of Bloomfield, Iowa, and Jonathan of Singapore; eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Memorial services are being planned for spring.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388