Mary Norton Blazed a Trail for Women

Posted April 21, 2004 at 4:19pm

During his time with the Committee on the District of Columbia, Nelson Rimensnyder wrote a history of the panel, including a chapter on former Rep. Mary Norton (D-N.J.), the first woman to chair a House committee. The complete history, including the chapter excerpted here, has never been published.

Recently, the portrait of Rep. Mary Norton was happily plucked from oblivion and unveiled anew by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House Minority Leader, with other women Members of Congress in attendance (see picture, Roll Call, March 22, p. 20). The portrait had hung for nearly 60 years in the hearing room (1310 Longworth House Office Building) of the Committee on the District of Columbia. That committee, established in 1808, was abolished in 1995.

The portrait was commissioned by a group of District of Columbia civic leaders in 1937, when Norton’s chairmanship (1931-1937) of the committee ended and she was elected chair of the Labor Committee (1937-1949). Norton would also chair the House Administration Committee (1949-1951) during her final term in Congress. Her House tenure spanned 26 years (1925-1951).

Shortly after the late Rep. Charles Diggs Jr. of Michigan became chair of the Committee on the District of Columbia in 1973, he asked me to research the career of Chairman Norton during her service on the committee and in the House. That effort resulted in a request by Diggs to write a history of the Committee on the District of Columbia, which was completed in 1973, but never printed by the House.

The chapter of the committee history covering the tenure of Rep. Mary T. Norton follows:

Mary T. Norton

Mary Teresa Norton of Jersey City, N.J., was elected in 1924 to the 69th Congress. She would be re-elected to the 12 succeeding Congresses. Soon after the announcement of her retirement in 1950 after 26 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Norton said: “My only regret is that no woman has filed to succeed me.”

Norton was the first woman elected as a Democrat to serve in Congress. She would become the first woman to be elected to a seat on the Committee on the District of Columbia, and at becoming the chairman of that committee in 1931 Norton achieved the distinction of being the first woman to chair a House legislative committee.

Norton would subsequently chair the Labor Committee and in her final term, the House Administration Committee and the Joint Committees on Printing and the Library. Her colleagues formally addressed her as “Madam Chairman.” Norton became a leader in the House and succeeded where many others had failed in getting major New Deal labor legislation passed.

Her Life and Career Before Congress

Congresswoman Norton was born Mary Teresa Hopkins in Jersey City, N.J., on March 7, 1875. She attended local public schools and graduated from Packard Business College in New York City in 1896, subsequently working as a stenographer and secretary. She was married in 1909 to Robert Francis Norton, a businessman. He died in 1934.

After the death of her infant son, Robert Francis, Norton became active in the day nursery movement and was president of the Day Nursery Association of Jersey City from 1916 to 1927. This civic work brought her to the attention of Jersey City Mayor and Judson County Democratic Party chief, Frank Hague.

Hague encouraged Norton to enter politics and launched her political career by arranging to have her appointed in 1920 to represent Hudson County on the State Democratic Committee. She was elected in her own right to the committee in 1921 and served as vice-chairman from 1921 to 1931 and chairman from 1931 to 1935. Norton was also elected a Hudson County Freeholder in 1922 and was a delegate at large to the Democratic National Convention of 1924 and the six succeeding conventions.

Norton was elected in November 1924 to the 69th Congress and sworn and seated on March 4, 1925. Later in that Congress, Norton would become the first woman elected to a seat on the District of Columbia Committee. By the 72nd Congress (1931-1933), when the Democrats won control of the House, Norton had acquired the necessary seniority to be elected chairman of the Committee on the District of Columbia. Her election as chairman on Dec. 15, 1931, made Norton the first woman to chair a legislative committee in the House.

Tenure as Chairman

As chairman of the Committee on the District of Columbia, Norton never introduced or sponsored a bill directly extending some form of elected government to the residents of the District. In addition, no hearings on such proposals were held before the committee during her tenure as chairman. Chairman Norton favored a joint House-Senate study of the matter of home rule for the District. On March 17, 1932, Chairman Norton introduced H. J. Res. 338 (72nd Congress) to create such a joint committee. The resolution was referred to the Rules Committee, where no further action was reported.

Norton apparently thought that Congress should first pass resolutions to amend the Constitution to extend the ballot to District of Columbia residents in presidential and Congressional elections, before undertaking the consideration of home rule. Norton throughout her Congressional career introduced, sponsored and spoke in support of constitutional amendment resolutions to give residents of the District of Columbia the right to vote for presidential electors and to elect voting members of the House and Senate. These resolutions, however, were not referred to the Committee on the District of Columbia, but to the Judiciary Committee.

During her seven-year tenure as chairman, and subsequently, Norton served on the Board of Directors of the Columbia Hospital for Women in the District of Columbia. Chairman Norton worked in the committee and the House for more equitable divorce and inheritance laws and for progressive child and labor laws for women for the District of Columbia. She opposed, however, any expenditure of federal or District of Columbia funds for birth control assistance in any form. Norton was named “Outstanding Catholic Woman of the Year” in May 1947.

Chairman Norton also worked within the committee for progressive juvenile justice laws and more stringent laws to enforce illegal gambling activities in the nation’s capital. She successfully managed legislation to legalize boxing in the District of Columbia, but failed to enact legislation to legalize a government-controlled system of horse-race betting in the District to provide badly needed local revenue.

The merger of streetcar companies in the District of Columbia into one transit system had been discussed for 30 years but became a reality during Norton’s chairmanship. As early as 1935, Norton advocated the development of a mass-transit subway system for the nation’s capital.

Norton also directed that a comprehensive study of the District of Columbia public schools needed to be conducted, and then worked for increased funding for local public education.

Passage of the Alley Dwelling Act of 1934 was a major achievement of Norton’s. The act sought to clean up the alley slums of the nation’s capital and provide subsidized housing for the poor.

Norton also managed the passage of laws ending prohibition in the District of Columbia by 1935. Alcoholic beverage sales had been made illegal as early as 1917 through legislation reported by the Committee on the District of Columbia. The repeal of the national prohibition amendment to the Constitution in 1933 did not affect the prohibition laws of the District of Columbia specifically enacted by Congress. Norton was the first Member of Congress, in 1928, to advocate publicly the repeal of national prohibition.

Norton resigned from the Committee on the District of Columbia on June 24, 1937. Two days before her resignation, Norton had been elected chairman of the Labor Committee.

As chairman of the Labor Committee, Norton became an effective ally of the Roosevelt administration in getting stalled New Deal labor legislation through a doubting House. Chairman Norton, however, did not forget the District of Columbia. She continued to appear at hearings to testify in favor of amending the Constitution to give residents of the nation’s capital the vote for presidential electors and voting members of the House and Senate.

During her final years in the House, Norton chaired the House Administration Committee. Subsequent to her election to chair the committee on Jan. 18, 1949, she was elected Jan. 27, 1949, to the chair of the Joint Committee on Printing and Joint Committee on the Library.

The Final Years

Shortly before her retirement in 1951, there were rumors that Norton would be appointed a District of Columbia commissioner by President Harry Truman. On Jan. 4, 1951, Norton issued a statement declining, if offered, such an appointment, because “I think the Commissioners should be Washingtonians.”

In 1951 and 1952, Norton served as a consultant to the Women’s Advisory Committee on Defense Manpower, the Labor Department. Thereafter, she remained in Jersey City, N.J., and Greenwich, Conn., where she died on Aug. 3, 1959.

When she retired, Norton vowed to write about her years in the Congress. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that she was able to fulfill this commitment to preserve for future generations her thoughts and experiences during her many years of elected public service.

Nelson Rimensnyder served as director of research for the Committee on the District of Columbia from 1975 to 1992.