For a quarter century in the House, colleagues knew Mary T. Norton as “Battling Mary,” a reformer who fought for the labor and the working–class interests of her urban New Jersey district. An apprentice with one of the most notorious Democratic political machines in America, Norton emerged from Jersey City as the first woman to represent an eastern state and eventually chaired four House committees. Norton’s career was defined by her devotion to blue–collar concerns.
Mary Teresa Hopkins was born on March 7, 1875, in Jersey City, New Jersey. She was the second surviving child of Thomas Hopkins, a road construction contractor, and Maria Shea, a governess.1 Mary kept house after her mother died and graduated from Jersey City High School. She moved to New York City in 1896 and attended Packard Business College. She later worked as a secretary and stenographer until she married Robert Francis Norton in April 1909. To cope with the death of her one–week–old son, Robert, Jr., in 1910, she began working at the Queen’s Daughters Day Nursery and, within three years, became its secretary. By 1916, she was elected nursery president. It was in her capacity as a fundraiser for the nursery that she made a large number of political contacts. Robert Norton, who died in 1934, supported her career to the end.
After World War I, in search of municipal support for the nursery, she met Jersey City’s mayor and powerful political boss, Frank “I Am the Law” Hague. Mayor Hague took office in 1917 and controlled Hudson County politics for three decades with a mixture of patronage, programs for his labor constituency, and, at times, direct intimidation of his opponents. Eager to bring newly enfranchised women into the Democratic Party (and under his political machine), the mayor pressed Norton to enter politics as his protégé. “It’s your duty to organize the women of Jersey City,” Hague commanded.2 When Norton, who had not been involved in the suffrage movement, protested that she didn’t know politics, Hague snapped back, “Neither does any suffragist.”3 In 1920, with Hague’s backing, Norton was the first woman named to the New Jersey Democratic Committee and, in 1921, was elected its vice chairman, serving in that capacity until 1931. She became the first woman to head any state party when she was elevated to chairman in 1932 (she served until 1935 and was again named chairman from 1940 to 1944).
On November 5, 1924, with Hague’s key endorsement, Norton won election to a Jersey City U.S. House seat—recently vacated by the retiring Representative Charles O’Brien. As the first woman to represent an eastern state, she beat Republican Douglas Story by more than 18,000 votes (62 percent of the total vote). Re–elected in 1926 by a landslide 83 percent of the vote, she dominated her subsequent 11 elections appealing to a heavily Democratic constituency, increased by reapportionment in 1932.4
During her first term, Norton received an assignment on the World War Veterans Legislation Committee. She would later serve on and eventually chair four committees: Labor, District of Columbia, Memorials, and House Administration. As a freshman she also encountered head–on the House patriarchy. Once, when a colleague deferred to her as a “lady,” Norton retorted, “I am no lady, I’m a Member of Congress, and I’ll proceed on that basis.”5
Although she befriended Hague for life, Norton maintained that the mayor had not sought to influence her vote in Congress. She shared fundamentally, however, in Hague’s desire to promote the interests of the district’s mostly working–class and Roman Catholic constituency. In keeping with the views of the American Federation of Labor, Norton opposed the Equal Rights Amendment which, she feared, would erode legislative protections for women in industry. While rejecting such a constitutional amendment, however, Norton embraced a role as a leading advocate for legislation to improve the lives of working–class families and women. She favored labor interests, introducing legislation to exempt the first $5,000 of a family’s income from taxation, creating mechanisms to mediate labor–management disputes in the coal mining industry, raising survivor benefits for women whose sons were killed in World War I, and opposing the Smoot– Hawley Tariff in the late 1920s. Norton also was the first legislator to introduce bills to investigate and, later, to repeal Prohibition as codified in the 18th Amendment. It was eventually repealed in 1933. In 1929 she opposed the Gillett Bill, which would have eased restrictions on the dissemination of birth control information. A staunch Catholic, Norton argued that birth control literature would not be required if “men and women would practice self–control.”6
When Democrats won control of the U.S. House in 1931, Norton, as ranking Democrat of the Committee on the District of Columbia, became its chairwoman. When a male member exclaimed, “This is the first time in my life I have been controlled by a woman,” Norton replied, “It’s the first time I’ve had the privilege of presiding over a body of men, and I rather like the prospect.”7 She was dubbed the “Mayor of Washington” during her tenure as chair from 1931 to 1937. It was an immense job. Since the federal government then administered the District of Columbia, all bills and petitions related to city management (an average of 250 per week) came across Norton’s desk. She was acclaimed, however, for her support for a bill to provide the District of Columbia with self–government. Though she failed in that endeavor, Norton won Public Works Administration funds to build a hospital for tuberculosis patients, improved housing, secured the first old–age pension bill for District residents, and legalized liquor sales and boxing.8
In 1937, when Labor Committee Chairman William P. Connery, Jr., died, Norton resigned her chairmanship of the District Committee to succeed him as head of the powerful Labor Committee. She had been the second–ranking Democrat on the panel since 1929. When the Democrats gained the majority in 1931, Norton exercised increased influence over the evolution and passage of major legislation. By the time she became chair in June 1937, the so–called Second New Deal was in full swing. While much of the legislation passed during the first phase of the New Deal (1933–1935) focused on economic recovery, the second wave of programs sought to alleviate poverty and provide a social safety net that included Social Security benefits and unemployment insurance.
Norton’s crowning legislative achievement came with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which she personally shepherded through committee and onto the House Floor for a vote. The only significant New Deal reform to pass in President Franklin Roosevelt’s second term, the act provided for a 40–hour work week, outlawed child labor, and set a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour. To get the controversial bill out of the Rules Committee, which determined what legislation was to be debated on the floor and which was controlled by “anti–New Deal” conservative Democrats, Norton resorted to a little–used parliamentary procedure known as the discharge petition.9 She got 218 of her colleagues (half the total House membership, plus one) to sign the petition to bring the bill to a vote. The measure failed to pass, but Norton again circulated a discharge petition and managed to get a revised measure to the floor, which passed. “I’m prouder of getting that bill through the House than anything else I’ve done in my life,” Norton recalled.10 In 1940, she teamed up with Majority Leader John McCormack of Massachusetts to fight off revisions to the act and scolded her colleagues for trying to reduce the benefits to working–class Americans, among which was a $12.60 weekly minimum wage. Norton declared, it “is a pittance for any family to live on … I think that when Members get their monthly checks for $833 they cannot look at the check and face their conscience if they refuse to vote for American workers who are getting only $12.60 a week.”11
During World War II, Norton used her position on the Labor Committee to fight for equal pay for women laborers. She pushed for the creation of a permanent Fair Employment Practice Committee to prevent racial and gender discrimination in hiring and to secure pensions for elective and executive offices by extending the federal employee’s retirement system. But she found much of her experience as Labor Committee chair in wartime frustrating because of encroachments on the panel’s oversight and the bleak prospects of women’s place in the postwar workforce. Critics charged that her committee was “ineffectual” because the War Labor Board and the War Manpower Commission largely determined labor policies.12 Even House committees, in particular Naval Affairs, wrote legislation that fell properly under Labor’s jurisdiction. She blamed part of these intrusions on the fact that the Labor Committee was headed by a woman.13 “Those who really know our social system, know that women have never had very much opportunity,” she said. She forecast that after the war, women would be pressed to vacate jobs and back into the home to make way for demobilized GIs seeking employment.14
In 1947, when Republicans regained control of the House and Norton lost her chairmanship to New Jersey’s Fred H. Hartley, she resigned her Labor Committee seat in protest. “He has attended only 10 meetings of this committee in 10 years,” Norton declared. “I refuse to serve under him.” During her final term in Congress, when the Democrats wrested back majority control, she chaired the House Administration Committee.
At age 75, after serving 12 terms, Norton declined to run for re–election in 1950. She served briefly as a consultant to the Women’s Advisory Committee on Defense Manpower at the Department of Labor in 1951 and 1952. She left Washington to settle in Greenwich, Connecticut, to live near one of her sisters. Norton died there on August 2, 1959.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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