Norton, Mary T. (1875–1959)
Norton, Mary T. (1875–1959)
First Democratic woman elected to Congress without being preceded by her husband, who served in the 69th–81st Congresses (March 4, 1925–January 3, 1951). Name variations: Mary T. Hopkins Norton. Born Mary Teresa Hopkins on March 7, 1875, in Jersey City, New Jersey; died on August 2, 1959, in Greenwich, Connecticut; attended Packard Business College in New York City; married Robert Francis Norton, in 1909 (died 1934); children: one (died in infancy in 1910).
Following the death of her only child, opened a day nursery in association with a local church (1910); became first woman to serve on the Democratic State Committee (1921–44); served on Board of Freeholders (1923); won election to the House of Representatives from New Jersey's 12th District, and became first woman elected from the East (1924); chaired the District of Columbia Committee (1932–37); served as chair of the House Labor Committee (1932–47); credited with the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938); was the first woman to head the Democratic Party in New Jersey (1932); became a member of the Democratic National Committee (1944); retired from Congress (1951).
Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1875, Mary T. Norton was unable to attend college because her father did not believe in educating women. She had, however, graduated from the local high school, and she attended a business college in New York City where she learned skills which enabled her to support herself until her marriage to Robert Francis Norton in 1909. After the death of her only child the following year, Norton opened a children's nursery in association with a local Catholic church. Some years later, while searching for coal for the nursery during the privations of World War I, she met and gained the help of Jersey City's powerful mayor and political boss, Frank Hague. After the passage of the 19th Amendment three years later, Hague, wanting the votes of the newly enfranchised women, announced to Norton that she was to head the Democratic women of the city. He also persuaded her to preside over a large meeting of women he had organized, the featured speaker at which was Carrie Chapman Catt .
Norton quickly organized a Democratic women's committee in every county of the state. Soon after, Hague urged her to run as a freeholder (the equivalent of a county commissioner), an office she won in 1923. In 1924, she ran for Congress, at Hague's suggestion and with his encouragement. (And with his prodding; when initially she protested that she knew nothing of Congress, he replied, "Neither do most congressmen.") When she won the election, she became the first woman Democrat elected to Congress without having been preceded by her husband. (Jeannette Rankin , the first woman member of Congress, had been elected as a Republican in 1916.) Norton was also the first woman elected to Congress from the East. From the start of her term in 1925, she learned quickly and served her constituents well, despite the fact that she was given bottom-of-the-basement assignments. One of these was to the Labor Committee, which in the booming 1920s seemed of little importance. Another was to the District of Columbia Committee, which she chaired from 1932 to 1937, turning the assignment from a hindrance into an opportunity and championing equality for district voters; she brought such enthusiasm to the job that she became known as the "first woman mayor of Washington."
In 1932, as the Depression gripped the country, seniority rules brought Norton to the chair of the House Labor Committee. This made her only the second woman to chair a congressional committee (the first was Mae Ella Nolan ). She opposed an Equal Rights Amendment for the same reason that a good number of liberal and political women such as Eleanor Roosevelt did, which was fear that it would negate years' worth of hard-fought protective legislation. As chair of the Labor Committee until 1937, Norton worked with Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and was instrumental in engineering legislation that changed both the American economy and the nation's treatment of workers; much of it still shapes the country today. She is credited with the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies, which among other things regulated a maximum working week for many employees and set the first permanent, national minimum wage. Norton worked to obtain equal pay for women laborers, and played a part in passing the Social Security Act, a piece of
legislation that radically changed America. These new laws helped to prevent strikes and other labor disruptions during World War II (some historians have credited the Allied win to better production of weapons and other necessary equipment), and also resulted in accepted roles for labor unions and in the modernization of management practices.
Norton resigned from the Labor Committee in 1947, when Republicans gained control of the House. During the 77th Congress, she served as chair of the Committee on Memorials, and during the 81st Congress, which was her last term, on the Committee on House Administration.
A member of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee from 1921 to 1944, Norton also played an active role in Democratic Party politics in her home state during her years in Congress. In 1932, she became the first woman to head the Democratic Party in New Jersey, a position she held until 1935 and one that also made her the first woman to be a state chair of any national political party. She served again as head of the New Jersey Democratic Party from 1940 to 1944, when she became a member of the Democratic National Committee. Norton chaired the Platform and Credentials committees at the party's 1948 national convention, and headed the Administration Committee in 1949.
In 1951, at age 75, she retired from an increasingly Republican-dominated Congress. She next worked through 1952 as chair of the Woman's Advisory Committee of the Defense Manpower Administration in the U.S. Department of Labor. In the last years of her life she wrote her autobiography, which remains unpublished. Mary T. Norton died in Greenwich, Connecticut, on August 2, 1959.
Office of the Historian. Women in Congress, 1917–1990. Commission on the Bicentenary of the U. S. House of Representatives, 1991.
Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.
Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.
Mary T. Norton's papers are held at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont