The Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton Green at Georgetown University Law Center is a point of pride for the women in attendance for its groundbreaking Tuesday.
Surrounded by her children, grandchildren, colleagues and friends among the 150 supporters beneath a white reception tent on the law center’s green, Norton, 81, basked in the honor and recounted the civil rights and feminist battles fought during her time in and out of office.
“I think it’s an extraordinary recognition of what she’s done for the law and for the city,” Bowser said after the groundbreaking. “The role she’s played in civil rights and women’s rights and D.C. rights is critical.”
Norton, who won election in 1990, has also been a Georgetown Law professor since 1982, eventually earning tenure which she considers “harder to get… than being elected to Congress.”
You couldn’t help but get the sense that for many of the women there, particularly African-American women, Norton’s honor is a shared victory, the result of a long-fought battle for recognition in academia and public service.
“We appreciate everything she’s done for the city, for the country, but her being recognized for this now, as a black woman… who’s not afraid to shine the light on injustice and will take the arrows that come…” said Shelly Brasier, a longtime friend and member of Norton’s book club. “We need more women like Eleanor Holmes Norton.”
Norton’s Georgetown Law colleague and fellow book club member Emma Coleman Jordan 15 years ago organized a group of black women law professors. Among the members was Lani Guinier, the first black woman to earn a tenured professorship at Harvard Law School. Jordan relayed Guinier’s story of feeling estranged as a student at Yale Law School, gazing at the walls and seeing portraits of nothing but white men, her professor addressing the students in her class as “gentlemen” on their first day.
“I’m so glad Eleanor has been honored in this way so that we know and we can see pictures of her career and contributions,” said Jordan, who also worked as counsel for Professor Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. “It’s a powerful expression of regard for her career and her talents.”
Norton, a fourth generation Washingtonian and the great-granddaughter of a runaway slave, embodies the District of Columbia, Georgetown President John DeGioia said. During her long career as a civil rights and women’s rights advocate, she’s argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, was the first woman to lead the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and helped women journalists sue Newsweek for denying them the same jobs as men (depicted in the Amazon Video series “Good Girls Revolt”).
That career began early as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) when she took part in Mississippi’s Freedom Summer of 1964, a transformational and violent episode in the civil rights struggle. In a 2014 interview with Stephen Colbert, Norton recalled that local NAACP chapter president Medgar Evers greeted her at the train station on her first day in the Mississippi Delta. Evers would be gunned down in his yard in front of his wife and children later that night. But that didn’t deter Norton. Should would return to continue her work in Mississippi the following summer, as well.
Norton admitted that while she’s used to honoring people all the time from a podium on the House floor, she found herself “stuck” when trying to prepare remarks for her own dedication ceremony.
“In Congress, I spend a fair amount of my time honoring, recognizing, saluting, and loving my constituents, institutions, and organizations of every kind,” said Norton. “I write about them in the congressional record, in letters of congratulations, of sympathy, and even empathy. I have no trouble writing these remarks or statements.”
She ended her speech by simply saying “Thank you.”
While Norton and Bowser celebrated some of the changes that have occurred during Norton’s tenure as delegate — namely economic development — they also lamented the one piece of unfinished business evading her: D.C. statehood.
Her statehood bill, HR 51, has more than 200 cosponsors in the House. But missing among them is House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland. (Maryland and Virginia officials have reservations about DC statehood over concerns of a potential commuter tax.) Hoyer, who couldn’t make the ceremony but did send out a congratulatory tweet, didn’t escape a playful verbal jab from Bowser.
“I was happy to see that tweet from Steny Hoyer,” she said during her remarks. “Because we have some work to do on him.”