Norton, Eleanor Holmes 1937–

views updated May 23 2018

Eleanor Holmes Norton 1937

Politician, activist

At a Glance

Fighting Injustice in New York

Back to Washington

A Political Setback

Action in Congress

Termed Spectacular Representative

Statehood Key Issue


Political allies and opponents alike agree that Eleanor Holmes NortonWashington, D.C.s delegate to Congress and ardent supporter of statehood for the Districtis an extraordinarily accomplished and intelligent woman, skilled at political dealmaking. Relatively powerless as politicians gothe D.C. delegate has only limited voting powers in Congressshe nonetheless has made her presence known on a number of national issues since taking office in 1990. But her abilities in transforming a once-symbolic political seat into a meaningful pulpit for her causes should come as no surprise. Throughout her professional career, Norton has successfully taken on tough assignments with one clear goal emerging throughout her work: a steadfast insistence that government and society respect human rights.

A fourth generation Washingtonian, Norton was born on June 13, 1937. Her father was a government worker in the Districts bureaucracy and her mother taught school. She has said that an event she experienced while growing up in Washington helped shape her beliefs about human justice. In 1949, when she was 12 years old, Norton watched a protest outside of Hechts department store. Activist Mary Church Terrell was picketing the store because blacks were not allowed to use Hechts bathrooms, though they were allowed to buy clothes there. Norton held on to that memory of protest when she left Washington in 1955 to attend Antioch College in Ohio, from which she received her undergraduate degree. She then attended Yale University, where in 1963 she received a masters degree in American Studies and in 1964 she earned her law degree.

Following an assignment in Philadelphia as clerk to federal court judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., Norton was appointed the assistant legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). During the turbulent civil rights movement of the 1960s, she also worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In 1968 she won the first case she argued before the U.S. Supreme Court; in that proceeding, Nortonan unswerving advocate of free speechargued on behalf of a white supremacist group that had been barred from holding a rally in Maryland. Also, as an ACLU lawyer, she once sued the mayor of New York City, John Lindsay, on behalf of the segregationist politician George Wallace, who was initially prevented from making a speech at Shea Stadium during his 1968

At a Glance

Born June 13, 1937, in Washington, DC; daughter of Coleman (a civil servant) and Vela (Lynch) Holmes (a schoolteacher); married Edward Norton, 1965 (divorced, 1993); children: Katherine, John. Education : Antioch College, B.A., 1960; Yale University, M.A., 1963, LL.B., 1964. Politics : Democrat.

Law clerk, Federal District Court, 1964-65; assistant legal director, ACLU, 1965-70, executive assistant to mayor of New York City, 1971-74; chairperson, NYC Commission on Human Rights, 1970-77, and Commission on Human Rights, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 1977-81; senior fellow, Urban Institute, 1981-82; professor of law, Georgetown University, 1982; DC Delegate to United States Congress, 1990. Coauthor of Sex Discrimination andthe Lan, Causes and Remedies, 1975; contributor to numerous professional journals.

Selected awards: Honorary degrees from more than 50 colleges and universities; Young Woman of the Year Award, Junior Chamber of Commerce, 1965; Louise Waterman Wise Award, American Jewish Congress, 1971, among others.

Addresses: Office 1415 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515.

presidential campaign. Somewhat ironically, in April of 1970, Lindsay awarded Norton her first political post city commissioner of human rights.

Fighting Injustice in New York

At the time of her appointment, Norton was quoted in McCalls magazine as saying, As commissioner, I will attempt to see that no man is judged by the irrational criteria of race, religion, or national origin. And I assure you I use the word man in the generic sense, for I mean to see that the principle of nondiscrimination becomes a reality for women as well.

She then began a remarkable string of achievements, tenaciously battling prejudice and injustice. Combating housing discrimination, intervening to reverse a state ruling that denied a polio victim a teaching certificate, and suing a real estate broker who would not rent to blacks were just a few of the actions Norton took in New York City. In doing so, she made enemies. Conservatives fretted about her activism, while some members of the black community criticized her for placing too much emphasis on womens issues at the expense of combating racial prejudice. She was quoted in McCalls as saying, Its a shame that this criticism exists because black people and women are going to have to get together if were going to create some change in this country. I dont for a moment believe that women have suffered the same kind of injustices that blacks havewomen have never been enslaved. But still, many of the psychological and economic problems are the same. This country would go bankrupt in a day if the Supreme Court suddenly ordered the powers-that-be to pay back wages to children of slaves and to the women whove worked all their lives for half wages or no pay.

While in New York, Norton also taught a class at New York University Law School, hosted a television program called Open Circuit, and conducted a radio program.

Back to Washington

After her impressive performance in New York, Norton was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as chairperson of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a post she held for four years. Following her government service, she focused on teaching law and became a tenured professor at Georgetown University. She also served on a panel created by President Gerald Ford to look into Americas welfare system. Throughout her various career positions, she has been sought out by commentators soliciting opinions on various issues, from the war in Kuwait to the role of affirmative action in America. On affirmative action, she said in an interview with Essence in 1990: Affirmative action is the most important antidiscrimination technique ever instituted in the United States. It is the one tool that has had a demonstrable effect on discrimination. Affirmative action, by all statistical measures, has been the central ingredient to the creation of the Black middle class.

During his 1988 bid for the presidency, Jesse Jackson named Norton his representative at the convention during debate over the Democratic partys platform. The party outsider, Jackson was thought to have chosen Norton partly because she was so well respected among Democrats; soon Ebony was calling her a national Democratic Party power broker. When Walter Fauntroy, the man who had represented the District in Congress for 20 years, announced he would be stepping down in 1990 to run (unsuccessfully) for mayor, Norton shifted her focus from the wide-ranging arena of national politics to the bread and butter concerns of Washington.

A Political Setback

Norton was quoted in Ebony as saying that Fauntroys decision was a watershed moment in the history of the district, adding that it was time for Washington to seize the opportunity and declare a new start, to strike up a redefined relationship with Congress and the White House and form its top elected officials into a coordinated team. But first she had to win the seat, a goal that seemed easily within reach until just before the Democratic primary in the fall of 1990.

In the days preceding the September primary, Norton was hit with a stunning setback. According to the Washington Post, reporters had received an anonymous leak that Norton and her husband had failed to pay District income taxes between 1982 and 1989. At a hastily called news conference, Norton tearfully explained that her husband, Edward, not she, was responsible for the family finances. The Nortons eventually paid $88,000 in back taxes and penalties.

But many voters were skeptical of the explanation, and what had been expected to be a lopsided victory turned into a closer race, the Washington Post reported. Norton won the primary with 40 percent of the vote, compared to 33 percent for the second place finisher. In November, she gathered 62 percent of the vote against Republican candidate Harry Singleton.

While her political career survived the tax scandal, her marriage did not. The couple legally separated just days after the 1990 election; the Washington Post quoted her friends as saying the Nortons split resulted directly from the tax controversy. The two were divorced in 1993. The Nortons have two children including a daughter, Katherine, who has Downs syndrome. Norton was quoted in Ebony as saying of her daughter, Katherine is an extraordinary human being and its a pleasure to bring out the best in her.

Action in Congress

Once in Congress Norton quickly began to distinguish herself from previous District representatives. Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy noted admiringly that Norton had traveled out of the District only twice in the 18 months following her 1990 election. By Februaiy [1992], according to a tally compiled by her staff, she had attended 500 community meetings. She averages two congressional hearings a day, Milloy wrote. Commentators described her activities as parochial, but in the best sense of the word.

While weighing in on various national and international topics, Nortons first term in Congress was marked primarily by a focus on local issues. The Christian Science Monitor pointed out that she was able to convince Congress to appropriate $100 million to the District to help Washington quickly avert a budget crisis. That was part of $300 million in new federal money she won for the District. She took on the federal bureaucracy in neighborhood disputes, delivering a level of constituent service that was absent under her predecessor, according to an article in the Washington Post.

Other issues addressed in her first term included pressuring the National Park Servicewhich administers a wide swath of territory in the federal cityto install lights in crime-ridden areas; advocacy of an international trade center in the District; support for a referendum that would make manufacturers of assault weapons liable for crimes committed with their products; and opposition to the death penalty.

Termed Spectacular Representative

In an October 1992 editorial in the Washington Post entitled A Second Term for Mrs. Norton, the paper opined, She has been a spectacular representative of District interests in Congress. A spectacular Democrat, the paper could have added. Throughout her first term, Norton was a frequent critic of then-President George Bush, becoming the first elected leader to urge Bush to do something positive in the wake of the rioting that erupted in Los Angeles after the Rodney King/police brutality verdict.

At the 1992 Democratic convention, Norton made a pitch for D.C. statehood, which President Bush opposed. The Washington Post quoted her as telling the convention, Give us a president who is not afraid to support at home the democracy he demands abroad. Give us full-service democracy, not lip-service paternalism. Nortons strong words derived from the fact that she holds the statehood issue at the top of her political agenda. I am proud to be an American, proud to represent 600,000 Americans, and proud to be in the only party pledged to make the District of Columbia the 51st state, she told the convention, according to the Post article. Norton was reelected in 1992 without opposition.

Before tackling the statehood issue, Congress gave Norton wider powers than any other District representative had ever had. Delegates such as herself, and those representing four U.S. territories, are constitutionally barred from becoming full members of the House. They can vote in committee, speak on the House floor, introduce legislation, and even head a committee through seniority. Until January of 1993, though, they were unable to vote on the House floor. But Norton devised a legal strategyshe is a Constitutional scholar, after all that allowed Congress to grant her a House vote. Norton noted that the full House meets in what parliamentarians call a committee of the whole. Since delegates can vote in committee, she reasoned that the committee of the wholewhich is how Congress gathers to debate and vote on substantive issuesis in fact yet another committee of Congress. Delegates are still barred from final congressional votes, but by the time legislation reaches that stage most legislation has already been reshaped and the issues decided.

Statehood Key Issue

Norton was quoted in the Washington Post as saying her new voting privileges were a sign of respect for the District. Controversy aside, Norton was pleased with the historic developments she initiated, telling the Washington Post, As far as Im concerned its added immeasurably to my ability to get things done in the House. This shows that the House has done everything for the District it can, short of granting statehood. And that means something.

As for statehood, Norton and other District politicians have always complained that Congress micromanages the citys affairs. Appropriations committees in Congress can overrule sections of the citys budget and Congress has a significant influence in how the city operates. Washingtons mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly, has accused Congress of adopting a plantation mentality in its dealings with the predominantly African American city. Norton, in an interview with Emerge, said, In the 1960s the Civil Rights Movement telegraphed to the world that the United States was living a lie. We are in a comparable situation today because the stance we have taken internationally in terms of urging democratic principles is directly contrary to the way we treat people in our own capital.

In 1992 Nortons statehood bill died in committee when it became apparent that President Bush would veto the measure no matter what Congress did. Her bill would create the state of New Columbia with the federal government controlling only the White House, Capitol, and Supreme Court, as well as federal monuments and some other governmental buildings. Republicans oppose the measure since statehood would almost certainly guarantee that the heavily-Democratic District of Columbia would send two new Democrats to the Senate.

But Norton has vowed not to give up on the issue, and she regularly lobbies her colleagues in Congress whenever she can. To her, the statehood issue, which would guarantee Washingtonians a full voice in their future, is similar to the other issues of fair play that have motivated her from her earliest days watching civil rights protests outside the neighborhood department store. You cant whip folks into line on statehood like you can on a budget vote, she told the Washington Post Magazine. People have to believe in your cause.And its clear that if anyone can turn around an opinion with a forceful, well-reasoned argument, that person is Eleanor Holmes Norton.


Christian Science Monitor, March 31, 1992, p. 14.

Ebony, January 1991, p. 105.

Emerge, March 1993, p. 32.

Essence, May 1990, p. 66.

McCalls, October 1971, p. 51.

Washington Post, March 5, 1991, p. B1; January 12, 1992, p. B1; May 3, 1992, p. B1; July 15, 1992, p. A23; October 28, 1992, p. 24; December 8, 1992, p. C1; August 2, 1993, p. D1.

Washington Post Magazine, July 4, 1993, p. 21.

John LoDico

Norton, Eleanor Holmes

views updated May 11 2018


Eleanor Holmes Norton is a politician, lawyer, educator, and civil rights activist. As the District of Columbia's delegate to the U.S. Congress, she expanded the district's power over its own affairs.

Norton, the eldest of three daughters, was born to Coleman Holmes and Vela Holmes on June 13, 1937, in Washington, D.C. Her father was a government employee in the District of Columbia, and her mother was a schoolteacher. Norton grew up in the segregated Washington, D.C., of the 1940s and 1950s and was a member of the last segregated class at Dunbar High School. Norton attended Antioch College, where she participated in many civil rights protests, and she graduated from Yale Law School.

In 1965, Norton became an attorney with the american civil liberties union (ACLU), seeking to defend the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly. The clients she represented were not always those she had imagined. Among them were former Alabama governor george wallace, an avowed segregationist, who had been denied a permit to speak at New York City's Shea Stadium, and a group of white supremacists who had been barred from holding a rally. The white supremacists' suit eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Norton argued it and won (Carroll v. President of Princess Anne, 393 U.S. 175, 89 S. Ct. 347, 21 L. Ed. 2d 325 [1968]).

In 1970, Norton became head of the New York City Commission on Human Rights. In 1977, President jimmy carter appointed her to run the federal equal employment opportunity commission (EEOC), which was facing a backlog of nearly 100,000 unsettled affirmative action and discrimination complaints. At the EEOC, Norton initiated a system known as "rapid charge processing", which provided for informal settlement procedures. By late 1980, the backlog had dropped to 32,000 complaints. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) criticized the agency's emphasis on settling individual complaints rather than attacking broad patterns of discrimination. But Norton argued that only by wiping out the backlog could the EEOC get to these broader issues. By the time she left the agency, it was taking on more sweeping investigations, antidiscrimination guidelines for employers were in place, and the Carter administration was enforcing workplace laws such as the equal pay act of 1963 (29 U.S.C.A. 206) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (29 U.S.C.A. 621).

Following Carter's defeat in 1980, Norton moved on to the Urban Institute. In 1982, she joined the law faculty at Georgetown University Law Center, where she wrote widely on civil rights and education issues. In 1990, Norton was elected the nonvoting D.C. delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives. During her first term, she helped the district government to obtain $300 million in new federal aid and a guarantee of steady increases in future aid. She secured seats on three House committees that greatly affect the district's economy, and she was the only freshman legislator to be invited on a congressional fact-finding mission to the Middle East following the Persian Gulf War.

Norton also sought to increase the power of the D.C. delegate position. The district's delegate to Congress is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution from becoming a full member of the House of Representatives, and had been allowed to vote only in legislative committees. Norton argued that because she could vote in other committees, she should also be allowed to vote in the committee of the whole, where most of the business of the full House is conducted. In February 1993, the House granted Norton and the representatives of four U.S. territories—Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa—a limited vote in the committee of the whole. The voting limitations included a provision that any time the delegates provided a margin of victory for legislation, a second vote would be held, from which the delegates would be excluded. Despite these restrictions, House Republicans filed suit in federal district court, asking that the delegates' right to vote be taken away. In March 1993, U.S. district judge Harold Greene rejected the challenge (Michel v. Anderson, 817 F. Supp. 126 [D.D.C.]). The Republicans then appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which upheld the lower court (14 F. 3d 623 [D.C. Cir. 1994]). Norton and the four territorial representatives retained their

voting privileges until January 1995, when a new House took them away.

Norton's efforts on behalf of the District of Columbia extended outside the House of Representatives. Traditionally, the senior senator from each state, if a member of the president's party, recommends to the president candidates for federal judgeships and U.S. attorney positions. Because the district has no senators, the president alone has made these appointments for it.

In 1993, Norton convinced President bill clinton to give her the advisory powers reserved for senators and to allow her to nominate candidates for a U.S. attorney position and five federal judgeships, becoming the first district congressional delegate to do so. Norton established the Federal Judicial Nominating Commission, composed of members from the district, to forward recommendations to her. All five of the judges Norton ultimately recommended to the president had been active in D.C. legal circles, and four of them lived in the district.

Norton also continued her predecessors' efforts to obtain statehood for the district. After a three-year effort to bring the issue to the House floor, the measure failed by a vote of 277–153. But Norton said that she would continue her efforts and that she would put new emphasis on gaining support for legislation that would expand the district's limited home rule. Norton also worked for increased federal contributions to the city's pension system, for an end to congressional review of the city's budget, and for the right of D.C. residents to choose local judges.

In 2003, Norton was serving her seventh term as the Congresswoman for the District of Columbia. She was a member of subcommittees on the House Committee on Government Reform and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where she has a full vote. She has served as Democratic chair of the Women's Caucus and has served in the Democratic House leadership group. She continues to fight for civil rights and human rights and to advocate strongly for full congressional voting representation for District of Columbia citizens.

"On behalf of the taxpaying citizens I represent, I deeply regret the withdrawal of the vote I won on the House floor just two years ago."
—Eleanor Norton

Norton has served on numerous boards including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Board of Governors of the D.C. Bar Association. She has received more than 50 honorary degrees.

further readings

"Eleanor Holmes Norton." House of Representatives Web-site. Available online at <> (accessed April 21, 2003).

Lester, Joan Steinau. 2003. Fire In My Soul. New York: Atria Books.


District of Columbia.

Norton, Eleanor Holmes

views updated May 29 2018

Norton, Eleanor Holmes

June 13, 1937

Born in Washington, D.C., civil rights leader Eleanor Holmes graduated from Antioch College in 1960, received an M.A. in American history from Yale University in 1963, and received a law degree from Yale in 1965. Norton was a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a participant in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In 1965 she joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she served as a civil rights lawyer for five years. In 1967 she married Edward Norton,

also a lawyer. The couple, who were separated in 1992, had two children. In 1968 Eleanor Holmes Norton gained attention for her active defense of freedom of speech when she represented segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace in his struggle to obtain permission from the city of New York for a rally at Shea Stadium. Keenly interested in fighting both race and gender discrimination, Norton published an article on black women in the well-known anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful (1970). "If women were suddenly to achieve equality with men tomorrow," she wrote, "black women would continue to carry the entire array of utterly oppressive handicaps associated with race. Yet black women cannotmust notavoid the truth about their special subservience. They are women with all that that implies."

In 1970 Norton was appointed chair of the New York City Commission on Human Rights by Mayor John Lindsay. Her achievement in detailing and correcting discriminatory practices led to a position as cohost of a weekly local television program on civil rights. In 1973 Norton helped organize the National Conference of Black Feminists, and in 1975 she cowrote Sex Discrimination and the Law: Cases and Remedies, a law textbook dealing with legal remedies to gender inequality.

In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed Norton as chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a post she held until 1981. Charged with investigating complaints of discrimination, Norton was a visible and respected force within the administration. In 1982 she accepted a post as professor of labor law at Georgetown University. Throughout the 1980s she was also a regular media commentator on civil rights and affirmative action issues.

In 1990 Norton announced her candidacy for the position of District of Columbia delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite the revelation during the campaign that she owed back taxes, she was elected to Congress, beginning the first of eight consecutive terms of service through 2005. Norton soon won praise even from her opponents for her involvement in community affairs as well as for her work in assuring Washington's fiscal viability and cutting the District's budget. She also lobbied in Congress for District statehood. In 1992, Norton won attention for her offer to escort women seeking abortion information at clinics past anti-abortion picketers, and later for her denunciation of the verdict in the Rodney King trial, which she contended was as shameful as the actual beating of King. The House vote in 1993 to give delegates limited voting privileges on the floor allowed Norton to become the first District representative to vote in Congress. In recognition of her prestige, President Bill Clinton agreed that as chair of the District of Columbia Subcommittee on Judiciary and Education, Norton would be responsible for the nomination of candidates for local U.S. attorney and federal judgeships, the first elected District of Columbia official to be privileged.

Yale Law School awarded Norton its Citation of Merit as an Outstanding Alumna of Yale Law School, and Yale Graduate School has awarded her the Yale Wilbur Cross Medal as an Outstanding Alumna of the Graduate School, the highest awards conferred by each on alumnae. Norton has also received more than 50 honorary degrees.

See also Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; Politics; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)


Hardy, Gayle S. American Women Civil Rights Activists: Biographies of 68 Leaders, 18251992. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1993.

Haywood, Richette, "Eleanor Holmes Norton Takes D.C. Seat." Ebony 46 (January 1991): 105106.

Lester, Joan Steinau. Fire in My Soul: Joan Steinau Lester in Conversation with Eleanor Holmes Norton. New York: Atria Books, 2003.

evan a. shore (1996)

greg robinson (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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