Mary Teresa Hopkins Norton (1875-1959)
The first congresswoman from the East and the first Democratic congresswoman not preceded by her husband, Mary T. Norton was elected from New Jersey’s Jersey City district in 1924.
She lacked a college education because her father objected to educated women. Mary Hopkins did go to secretarial school, however, and supported herself in New York until marrying Robert Frances Norton in 1909. She was a 34-year-old bride, and their only child died in infancy. Her husband chose to stay so far from politics that when he died after she had been in Congress for almost a decade, many were surprised to discover that she had a husband; they thought "Mrs. Norton" already was a widow.
Her career began with a coal shortage during World War I. She went to Jersey City's Democratic politico Frank Hague for fuel for a child nursery run by her Catholic church, and he was so impressed with her that soon after New Jersey women were enfranchised in 1920, he urged her to run for the board of freeholders (the state’s equivalent of county commissioner). "You’ll like it," Hague promised her. "You can run the poor farm and the orphans' home." He encouraged her to run for Congress at the next election, and when she said that she did not "know anything about Congress" he replied, "Neither do most congressman."
With the support of Jersey City Democrats, Mary T. Norton – as she always signed her name – began her congressional career in 1925. Republicans controlled the House, and they assigned her the Labor Committee; in the politically reactionary twenties, this was not considered an important committee. The stock market crashed a few years later, however, and as the Great Depression worsened and especially after the 1932 election of Franklin Roosevelt, it became very important. Social Security, minimum wage and maximum-hours laws, and other vital changes were established when Mary Norton served on the House Labor Committee. She worked with Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins to truly reshape the American economy.
At the same time, Norton rose to chair the District of Columbia Committee from 1932 to 1937. This was another bottom-of-the-basement assignment given to congressional outsiders, but instead of spending her energies to get off the committee, Norton championed equality for D.C. with such vigor that she became known as the "first woman mayor of Washington."
She gave up that committee when she assumed the chair of the House Labor Committee in 1937. When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Chairman Norton thus was in an extremely important position. Experts agree that World War II was a battle of production, and that the key to victory was attracting enough competent workers to build more planes, ships, and weapons than the enemy did. Norton's position was key to producing that result. Again working with Perkins and President Franklin Roosevelt, she played a strong role in creating a labor force that brought women and minorities to vital jobs in defense plants.
Norton supported the first affirmative action that the wartime Labor Department instituted, but like Eleanor Roosevelt and many other feminists of this era, she opposed the Equal Rights Amendment because it would nullify state laws that protected women in industry. Instead, Norton worked for an equal pay law and, especially during and immediately after the war, for government-funded child nurseries. This and the labor reforms of the 1930s not only prevented strikes during the war, but also and especially brought labor and management together in mutually respected roles.
After serving a quarter-century, she announced her retirement in the election of 1950, when she was seventy-five. Representative Norton received many honors, but found no publisher for the autobiography she wrote in retirement. She died in Greenwich, Connecticut on August 2, 1959, when she was 84.
Mary T. Norton merits more recognition than she gets from today's working women: because of her leadership in Congress (and Frances Perkins in the executive branch) today’s workers are assured decent pay, health and safety protections, retirement benefits, and economic opportunity.
Image credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Collection, LC-DIG-npcc-26447.