Gayle L. Swann, a railroad worker and feminist crusader who sought office as a member of the Socialist Workers Party, died on Sept. 24 of a heart attack. She was 69.
Swann was perhaps best known for her 1979 campaign for mayor of Minneapolis, in which she antagonized her male opponents by focusing on equal rights for women and an end to taxpayer financing of professional sports stadiums. “It’s another example of big, private business asking the people to finance them,” Swann said of the Metrodome. “If they want a new stadium, they should pay for it themselves.”
Few people watching the televised debate in the autumn of 1979 likely had any idea that the slight woman on screen was a single mother who worked the night shift scrubbing locomotive engines. She fought her way into a job at Burlington Northern after multiple rejections and went on to become a leading figure in the railroad union.
“Gayle was just 5 foot 2 inches, but she stood 6 feet tall, I swear,” said Karen Elliott, a friend who worked with Swann at Burlington Northern. “She fought her way into that old boy’s club and never backed down — ever.”
Swann was the third of six children born into a working-class family in Mankato. Their mother worked for J.C. Penney and their father was manager for Harold’s Shoe Store.
To the dismay of her conservative Lutheran parents, Swann married at age 17 and moved to San Francisco in the late 1960s. The couple lived in a windowless building while Swann made money selling handmade flowers.
When she returned to Minnesota two years later, Swann was determined to become self-sufficient and applied for work at Burlington Northern’s freight yard in northeast Minneapolis. On her first visit to the shop, a man behind the counter urged her to go home, saying, “We don’t hire women here.” Swann took the railroad company to court and won. Working the night shift cleaning diesel engines, she had to change in the men’s locker room when it was empty because there was no separate locker room for women. “It was dirty work,” said her son, Monte Swann. “Mom would come home in the morning and have to scrub her hair, just to get that diesel smell out.”
Swann quickly moved up the ranks to a job switching locomotives and was elected chairperson of the Brotherhood of Firemen and Oilers local, where she gained a reputation for her strident defense of co-workers. In disciplinary proceedings, she prepared “like a lawyer arguing a case before the Supreme Court,” recalled David Riehle, a retired railroad engineer and a fellow socialist.
“Gayle was a pistol,” Riehle said. “She wouldn’t let the male railroad officials intimidate her, and they weren’t used to that. ”
Swann joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1976 and ran for mayor three years later. She caused a stir by pouncing on the other candidates for focusing on “curb and gutter issues” while ignoring the larger issues of the day, from women’s rights to inflation and the dangers of nuclear power. “My campaign is based on a simple truth,” said one of Swann’s campaign leaflets. “Since working people keep the country running, working people should run the country.”
Swann also played a key role in Minnesota behind efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed in 1982 after falling three states short of the 38 states needed for ratification.
“There are so many parallels to what’s going on today,” said her son. “Taxpayers paying for stadiums. Women’s rights … It’s all as relevant now as it was then.”
In keeping with Swann’s wishes, the family said there would be no funeral service.