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NORTON, Mary Teresa

NORTON, Mary Teresa
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
1875–1959

Biography

For a quarter century in the House, America knew Mary T. Norton as “Battling Mary,” a reformer who fought for the labor and working-class interests of her urban New Jersey district. Norton came up through one of the country’s most notorious Democratic political machines and emerged from Jersey City as the first woman to represent an eastern state on Capitol Hill. From the very start—years before she became a powerbroker in the House as chair of four committees—Norton set the tone for her congressional tenure during her first speech on the floor when she declared the working class “the backbone of the Nation.”1 During her five terms as chair of the Committee on Labor, Norton prioritized policies to improve working conditions across the country.

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 private teacher. 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. As part of the healing process after her one-week-old son, Robert Jr., died in 1910, Norton began working at the Queen’s Daughters Day Nursery and, within three years, became its secretary. By 1916 she was elected nursery president. In her capacity as a fundraiser for the nursery, Norton made contacts throughout the New Jersey political world. Her husband, who died in 1934, supported her professional and political careers to the end.2

After World War I, in search of municipal support for the nursery, Norton met Jersey City’s mayor and powerful political boss, Frank “I Am the Law” Hague.3 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, the outright intimidation of his opponents. Following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, Hague looked to bring new women voters into the Democratic Party and into 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 said.4 When Norton, who had not been involved in the suffrage movement, protested that she didn’t know politics, Hague replied undiplomatically, “Neither does any suffragist.”5 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 chair, serving in that capacity until 1931. She became the first woman to head a state party when she was elevated to chair in 1932. She served until 1935 and was again named chair from 1940 to 1944.

In 1924, with Hague’s endorsement, Norton ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and won election to the U.S. House of Representatives that November, capturing a northern New Jersey seat being vacated by retiring Representative Charles Francis Xavier O’Brien. Norton defeated 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 re-elections appealing to her large Democratic constituency, which grew larger following reapportionment in 1932.6

Throughout her House career, Norton chaired four committees: Labor; District of Columbia; Memorials; and House Administration. But in 1925 she wasted no time before influencing policy. In her first month in Congress, for instance, Norton ignored the unwritten rule that first-term lawmakers were to be seen and not heard, and introduced an unsuccessful amendment to an income tax bill on the House Floor that would have increased tax exemptions for single and married individuals.7 “We can give relief to our foreign debtors; why can not we extend similar relief to the people at home, the taxpayers of the greatest Nation in the world?” she said amid applause.8

From her seat on the World War Veterans Legislation Committee—where she served from 1925 to 1935 alongside Massachusetts Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers—Norton advocated for a veterans’ hospital in New Jersey during her first term. While some states had as many as four veterans hospitals, New Jersey, she said on the House Floor, was one of 13 states (out of 48) that did not have a single one.9 Disabled veterans from New Jersey were being cared for at facilities across the country and Norton wanted them home. As one newspaper put it, “homesickness isn’t the most effective tonic in the world.”10 Norton promoted New Jersey as a prime location for a hospital given that the state sat “between the two great metropolises of the East [New York and Philadelphia].” In the 70th Congress (1927–1929), only a year later, she succeeded in winning funding for a New Jersey hospital.11

Occasionally during her career, Norton had to fend off allegations that Mayor Hague influenced her vote in Congress; but it was more that Norton and Hague shared a desire to promote the interests of the district’s mostly working-class and Roman Catholic constituency. And in the House, Norton became a leading advocate for legislation to improve the lives of working-class families. She favored mechanisms to mediate disputes in the coal industry between labor and management, she sought to raise survivor benefits for mothers whose sons were killed in World War I, and she opposed the protectionist Smoot–Hawley Tariff in the late 1920s. She also supported the National Labor Relations Act which provided labor unions with legal standing and allowed them to bargain with employers and organize strikes.12

As one of very few women in Congress, Norton battled the old guard House patriarchy throughout her career. But Norton was also part of a generation of women lawmakers who sought to minimize gender differences with their male colleagues. What she sought was an even playing field for men and women. Once, when a colleague deferred to her as a “lady,” Norton replied, “I am no lady, I’m a Member of Congress, and I’ll proceed on that basis.”13

Along those lines, Norton opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, which she feared would erode state protections for women in industry. Although she rejected the amendment, Norton introduced a bill in her last term in the House that declared “that it is the . . . policy of the United States that in law and its administration no distinctions on the basis of sex shall be made, except such as are reasonably justified by differences in physical structure or by maternal function.”14 The bill sought to establish a “Commission on the Legal Status of Women” to investigate the “economic, civil, social, and political status of women” in the states and territories and make recommendations to end discrimination based on sex.15

Norton also was the first legislator to introduce bills to investigate whether to end Prohibition, as codified in the Eighteenth Amendment, which was finally repealed in 1933. And 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.”16

When Democrats won control of the House in 1931, Norton became chair of the Committee on the District of Columbia, which had jurisdiction over the national capital. 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.”17 She was dubbed the “Mayor of Washington” during her tenure as chair from 1931 to 1937. It was an immense job. At the time, the federal government ran the affairs of the District of Columbia, which meant all bills and petitions related to city management (an average of 250 per week) came across Norton’s desk. As chair, Norton worked to provide the District with more control over its own affairs. And while she was unable to provide Washington with full self-government, she won federal funds to build a hospital for tuberculosis patients and improve housing for the city’s residents. She also secured the first old-age pension bill for District residents, legalized liquor sales in the city, and sanctioned the sport of boxing.18

When Labor Committee Chairman William Patrick Connery Jr. of Massachusetts died in June 1937, Norton, as the second-ranking Democrat, was next in line to take over the committee. Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead of Alabama, however, cautioned Norton it would take time to catch up on the legislative activities of the Labor Committee and advised her to stay on the District of Columbia Committee. Ultimately, Norton decided she could better serve her working-class constituents more directly as chair of the Labor Committee.19

When Norton took the gavel in 1937, the package of reforms championed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) called the New Deal had entered something of a new phase. From 1933 to 1935, the New Deal had focused on economic recovery, but the second wave of legislative programs sought to alleviate poverty and provide a social safety net that included Social Security benefits and unemployment insurance. In May 1937, FDR asked Congress to pass a law that would ban child labor, create a minimum wage, and restrict maximum work hours.20

Norton’s committee had direct jurisdiction over much of FDR’s legislative agenda, and after debate in the committee Democrats approved a version of the labor package. But the powerful Rules Committee, led by conservative Democrats who largely opposed the New Deal and fought federal restrictions on their states’ industries, trapped the bill and refused to send it to the floor for a vote. In response, Norton turned to a little-used parliamentary procedure known as a discharge petition which enabled her to force the bill out of the Rules Committee by obtaining the signatures of 218 of her colleagues (half the total House membership, plus one).21 A little over two weeks later, Norton’s discharge petition succeeded. When the bill finally came up for a vote on the floor, however, it failed to pass the House.22

When Norton reported another version of the bill— which would eventually be called the Fair Labor Standards Act—out of her committee in April 1938, the Rules Committee again refused to bring the measure to the floor. Norton circulated another discharge petition. This time, it took less than three hours for 218 Members to sign the petition. With an approaching election and with support from President Roosevelt, the House passed the bill strengthening worker protections in May, 314 to 97.23 The Fair Labor Standards Act provided for a 40-hour work week, outlawed child labor, and set a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour. “I’m prouder of getting that bill through the House than anything else I’ve done in my life,” Norton recalled.24 President Roosevelt signed it on June 26, 1938. The two-year battle was the crowning legislative achievement of Norton’s career.

In 1940 Norton teamed up with Majority Leader John W. McCormack of Massachusetts to protect the Fair Labor Standards Act from attempts to reduce the benefits to working-class Americans, including the $12.60 weekly minimum wage—a sum equivalent to only $234 a week in 2020. Calling the meager amount “a pittance for any family to live on,” Norton pushed the House to protect American workers. “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,” she said.25

During World War II, Norton used her position on the Labor Committee to fight for equal pay for women laborers. She worked to create 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. She also sought funding to build nurseries to provide childcare near factories that employed women. On the House Floor, Norton drew from her experience during World War I and stressed the importance of funded childcare facilities. “Every day hundreds and thousands of women are going into the factories and are doing all kinds of work; giving all that they have to give to the war effort. Their minds naturally are divided unless they know that their children are being cared for properly.”26 Her amendment was included in the 1943 work relief appropriations bill.27

During World War II, however, Norton also saw her power challenged. The War Labor Board and the War Manpower Commission, which largely determined labor policy as a purview of the executive branch, repeatedly circumvented Norton’s influence as Labor Committee chair. Even in the House, other committees, especially those that dealt with the armed services, often undercut the influence of the Labor Committee. The Naval Affairs Committee, in particular, authored legislation that in peacetime would have fallen under Norton’s jurisdiction. Looking to the postwar future, Norton also feared that the employment gains women made during America’s mobilization would quickly disappear after the conflict.28 She expected part of these setbacks to occur because a woman headed the Labor Committee.29 “Those who really know our social system, know that women have never had very much opportunity,” she said. She predicted that after the war, women would be forced to leave the workforce and go back into the home to make way for returning GIs seeking employment.30

In 1947, when Republicans regained control of the House, Fred Allen Hartley Jr. of New Jersey became the new chair of the Labor Committee. Norton resigned from the committee in protest. Hartley “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, after Democrats wrested back control of the majority in 1949, Norton served as chairperson of the House Administration Committee, which handled much of the day-to-day business of running the institution. The House Administration Committee also had jurisdiction over election issues, and in 1949, she introduced a bill to outlaw the use of poll taxes, which had disenfranchised poor, mostly African-American voters in the South since the late nineteenth century.31 But once again, the Rules Committee, led by conservative southern Democrats, refused to bring her bill to the House Floor. Earlier in the session, however, the House adopted a rule that restricted the committee’s hold on bills to 21 days, after which Members could bring bills to the floor for consideration that had already been approved by the authorizing committee.32 And after 21 days, Norton brought her poll tax bill to the floor and led debate. “It is impossible for me to understand how, in this country of ours, which is supposed to provide equal rights to its citizenry,” she said, “we can eliminate a great body of our citizens from having a say in their own government.”33 The House passed the bill, but it ultimately failed to become law.

In 1950 Norton, at age 75 and having served for 26 years, declined to run for re-election. She worked briefly as a consultant to the Women’s Advisory Committee on Defense Manpower at the Department of Labor in 1951 and 1952, continuing the work she had done in the House: advocating for childcare, supporting working women, and eliminating discriminatory practices in the workplace.34 At the end of her career, she wanted more women to enter politics and believed they could make a difference if they worked together. “It takes a lot of courage, common sense, faith in oneself and what I call ‘stick-to-itiveness,’ plus a great deal of hard work,” she said, reflecting on the qualities it takes to be a female politician, “and, of course, ability.”35 After Congress, Norton moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, to live near her sister. She died there on August 2, 1959.

Footnotes

1Congressional Record, House, 69th Cong., 1st sess. (15 December 1925): 880.

2It is unclear how many siblings Norton had. There were as many as seven children, though at least three died in infancy. See Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 55; Marcy Kaptur, Women of Congress: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1996): 34; Carmela A. Karnoutsos, “Mary Teresa Norton,” in “Jersey City Past and Present,” accessed 4 February 2020, https://njcu.libguides.com/ jerseycitypastandpresent/marynorton

3For more on Hague and the origins of his nickname, derived from a speech he gave in November 1937, see “Frank Hague Is Dead Here at 79; Long Boss of Jersey Democrats,” 2 January 1946, New York Times: 1.

4“Norton, Mary T.,” Current Biography, 1944 (New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1944): 500–503.

5Helen C. Camp, “Norton, Mary Teresa Hopkins,” American National Biography 16 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 529–530.

6“Edge Facing Hard Battle in New Jersey Primary Tuesday,” 21 September 1924, Washington Post: 6; Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

7Congressional Record, House, 69th Cong., 1st sess. (15 December 1925): 880.

8Congressional Record, House, 69th Cong., 1st sess. (15 December 1925): 880.

9Congressional Record, House, 69th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 March 1927): 5396.

10Frank Buckley, “The Capital’s First Woman ‘Mayor,’” 7 February 1932, Washington Post: SM5.

11Congressional Record, House, 69th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 March 1927): 5397; PL 70-480, 45 Stat. 715 (1928).

12David L. Porter, Mary Norton of New Jersey: Congressional Trailblazer (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013): 57.

13Current Biography, 1944: 500.

14H.R. 2840, 81st Cong. (1949).

15H.R. 2840, 81st Cong. (1949).

16Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 54.

17Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 54.

18Current Biography, 1944: 501; Camp, “Norton, Mary Teresa Hopkins”: 529–530.

19Porter, Mary Norton of New Jersey: 71.

20“Bill is Introduced,” 25 May 1937, New York Times: 1.

21For further reading on the New Deal and the Fair Labor Standards Act, see Michael E. Parrish, Anxious Decades (New York: Norton, 1992): 382–383.

22Porter, Mary Norton of New Jersey: 80, 83.

23Porter, Mary Norton of New Jersey: 90, 91, 93.

24Kaptur, Women of Congress: 46

25Current Biography, 1944: 501.

26Congressional Record, House, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 June 1942): 5107.

27H.J. Res. 324, 77th Cong. (1942).

28Amy Porter, “Ladies of Congress,” Collier’s 112 (28 August 1943): 22.

29Current Biography, 1944: 502. See also John Whiteclay Chambers II, “Norton, Mary Teresa Hopkins,” Dictionary of American Biography, supplement 6 (New York: Scribner’s, 1981): 480.

30Current Biography, 1944: 502

31H.R. 3199, 81st Cong. (1949).

32Porter, Mary Norton of New Jersey: 163.

33Congressional Record, House, 81st Cong., 1st sess. (25 July 1949): 10098.

34Porter, Mary Norton of New Jersey: 178.

35Porter, Mary Norton of New Jersey: 178.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

Rutgers University
Alexander Library Department of Special Collections and Archives

New Brunswick, NJ
Papers: 1920-1960, 10 volumes and 10 boxes.. Correspondence, including letters from Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman. Also includes congressional political subjects file, speeches and writings, biographical data, photographs, and scrapbooks. The unpublished memoirs of Mary T. Norton and correspondence concerning possible publication are included. A finding aid is available in the repository.
Papers: In the Thelma Parkinson Sharp Papers, 1874-1976, approximately 0.8 cubic foot. Subjects covered include Mary Teresa Norton. A finding aid is available in the repository.
Papers: In the Women's Project of New Jersey Records, 1984-1990, approximately 11 cubic feet. Subjects covered include Mary Teresa Norton.

Historical Society of Wisconsin
Archives Division

Madison, WI
Papers: In the Ludwell Denny Papers, 1917-1969, 3.2 cubic feet and 2 reels of microfilm. Subjects covered include Mary Teresa Norton. An inventory is available in the repository.

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Schlesinger Library

Cambridge, MA
Papers: In the Molly Dewson Papers, 1861-1962, 1.25 linear feet. Subjects covered include Mary Teresa Norton. The papers are also available on microfilm. A finding aid is available in the repository and on microfilm.
Papers: In the Emma Guffey Miller Papers, 1900-1972, 1 linear foot. Subjects covered include Mary Teresa Norton. The papers are also available on microfilm. A finding aid is available in the repository and on microfilm.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

Hyde Park, NY
Papers: In the Lorena Hickok Papers, 1913-1962, 8 linear feet. Subjects covered include Mary Teresa Norton. A folder list is available in the repository.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

Kaptur, Marcy. Women of Congress: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey. Washington: Congressional Quarterly, 1996.

"Mary Teresa Norton" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Mitchell, Gary. "Women Standing for Women: The Early Political Career of Mary T. Norton." New Jersey History 96 (Spring-Summer 1978): 27-42.

Rees, Maureen. "Mary Norton: A Grand Girl." Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries 47 (December 1985): 59-75.

Tomlinson, Barbara J. "Making Their Way: A Study of New Jersey Congresswomen, 1924-1994." Ph.D. diss., Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey - New Brunswick, 1996.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - District of Columbia - Chair
  • House Committee - Education
  • House Committee - Enrolled Bills
  • House Committee - House Administration - Chair
  • House Committee - Labor - Chair
  • House Committee - Memorials - Chair
  • House Committee - World War Veterans' Legislation
  • Joint Committee - Joint Committee on Disposition of Executive Papers
  • Joint Committee - Joint Committee on Printing
  • Joint Committee - Joint Committee on the Library
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Blog Post

August 12, 2014

A Committee Chair Huddle