In 1967, my mother — then Francie Weinman — graduated from Northwestern University with a degree from the prestigious Medill School of Journalism.
But because she is a woman, the only television news job she could get in her hometown of Chicago was as a secretary at a network affiliate. She always told me that’s just the way it was back then for women.
It generally was — until Eleanor Holmes Norton changed it.
Nearly 50 years before the US Women’s National soccer team used their World Cup victory to champion equal pay, a young civil rights lawyer who would be DC’s delegate was on the front line of the fight.
In 1970, she sued Newsweek magazine on behalf of women there who were not allowed to be reporters — but often did reporting work with neither credit nor adequate pay.
That is what drew me to Norton for this Badass Women of Washington series — where I learned so much more about her work not just for women’s rights but civil rights. All before she became Washington, DC’s delegate in Congress some three decades ago.
Growing up in segregated DC
To tell me her story, Norton invited me to the iconic Ben’s Chilli Bowl on DC’s U Street, which was one of the only neighborhoods that a black girl like her growing up in the city — still segregated then — could go to a restaurant or see a movie
“When I was a child, you couldn’t try on clothes in department stores,” Norton recalled. “Segregation meant segregation.”
But her highly educated parents taught her perspective.
“We discussed segregation at the dinner table. I grew up understanding that something must be wrong with white people that they didn’t want to go to schools with people like my parents and me,” she said with a wry smile.
“We didn’t yearn to somehow be with white people. We yearned not to be segregated,” she said flatly.
She attended DC’s Dunbar High School, known nationwide in the black community for its high quality education, since so many university-level black teachers who couldn’t get higher education jobs taught there. She was in the last segregated class, and remembers vividly the day the Supreme Court made that so.
“May 17, 1954. I am sitting in Dunbar High School and the kind of buzzer that comes on where the principal signals as he often did that there was an announcement coming,” she recalled. “He announced that the Supreme Court of the United States had just found the schools where we are sitting, like Dunbar High School, to be unconstitutional.”
Civil rights activist
Things were changing. The civil rights movement was gaining steam as she was coming of age. She wanted to contribute and decided that studying the law was the best way to do that.
“There were very few lawyers,” Norton said. “I wanted to make sure as a lawyer, that I could help break down segregation and discrimination.”
In 1960, law school was unusual for any woman, let alone a black woman at Yale University.
“There weren’t many African Americans going to law school, period, much less Ivy League law school and when I was at Yale, I don’t know what there were fewer of: women or African Americans, but there were tiny numbers, each. Women, white or black, maybe two or three in the class,” Norton said.
But again, the confidence instilled in her by her parents took hold.
“I was ready for it,” she remembered. “I didn’t grow up with white people. I was never intimidated by them, and I felt I had a good education and I didn’t think I would be there if I didn’t belong there.”
She was active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — a powerful civil rights advocacy group — and her legal skills were put to use even before she got her degree.
She went south in the summer of 1963 to the center of the civil rights fight: Mississippi.
“If you were, I figured, alive and had a heart beating, you ought to be where the action was,” Norton told me.
Her first day in Mississippi was June 12, 1963, a date now in the history books, because it was the day civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated.
She surprised me by revealing that she was with Evers that whole day.
He was the one who took her around Jackson, Mississippi, giving her the lay of the land — trying to convince her to stay there to help with legal work.
“He took me to the bus station. He went home, and was shot in the back,” Norton recalled. “I must say, this close-up encounter with racist terrorism has never left me.”
That same summer, she helped organize the most famous protest in history, the March on Washington — recruiting people from all over the country to come and participate.
“The importance of that march cannot be overstated,” Norton emphasized. “At the time, it was by far the largest march that had ever been held in the nation’s capital.”
Defending the ultimate segregationist
The born-and-bred Washingtonian married a New Yorker, Edward Norton, and moved to his hometown where she worked as a lawyer for the ACLU. There, she represented the unlikeliest of clients: Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who famously vowed to fight for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
In fact, Norton says she will never forget when the request came in to help Wallace deliver his segregationist message at New York’s Shea Stadium.
“The New York Civil Liberties Union came upstairs to where I was at the ACLU and said, ‘Eleanor, would you like to go into Queens Supreme Court, that’s lower trial court, on Monday to represent George Wallace, for being denied the right to use Shea Stadium, because he’s being denied because of his views?'”
“‘I’d love it,’ I said. What better way to make the case that women and African Americans are entitled to equal rights than to represent someone on the other side whose rights are being denied?”
She admits there were some mixed feelings in the black community about her decision to represent a man who worked so hard to deny rights to African Americans, but she says most people got it.
“I will never forget being introduced by saying, ‘This is the sister who represented George Wallace. Even George Wallace needed Eleanor Katherine Holmes,'” referring to her maiden name.
A pioneer for women in the workplace
Norton soon turned her attention and skills as a civil rights attorney to helping women in the workplace — specifically the newsroom.
At Newsweek magazine in 1970, only men were allowed to be reporters. Women were researchers and secretaries, but were often doing as much if not more reporting than the men, without getting credit or proper pay.
Although several women wanted to sue, it was unprecedented, and they were nervous about losing their jobs.
“When they came to see me, they knew they wanted a lawyer, but they weren’t quite sure. Would they be jeopardized? What would happen to their jobs?”
“I had to have consciousness raising sessions first,” she remembered.
She finally convinced them to file a class action lawsuit.
“Who I was representing were women who were Phi Beta Kappas, first in their class. These were the creme de la creme, and yet they all came in at the same — below reporter level.”
Norton helped pioneer what was then a unique legal strategy: to use civil rights laws on the books intended to protect African Americans, and argue it should also apply to women.
“Women did not immediately see that this statute was at least as valuable to them, if we’re talking employment opportunity, as it was for African Americans,” Norton said.
They won, and ended up changing not just Newsweek magazine on behalf of women, but news organizations far beyond it.
“This suit, I am told by women in journalism, had implications all up and down the line for women in journalism period, whether on television. The other newspapers, by the way, were quickly, newspapers, other magazines, were quickly sued,” Norton said.
She is right. I told her, in fact, that she is the reason women like me can do what I do in journalism.
Godmother of #MeToo
In 1977, then-President Jimmy Carter appointed Norton to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the first woman to hold that job.
The EEOC had a huge backlog of unresolved cases when she took over, which she is credited to helping fix.
But her most lasting legacy there is making sure to write government guidelines for sexual harassment in the workplace.
“Before the EEOC guidelines, sexual harassment was not considered sex discrimination. When we did this, we were in uncharted territories. Was it discrimination against a woman to harass her? We said of course, it’s because of sex. We had to put it in guidelines and they had to go all the way to the Supreme Court,” Norton said.
“Those guidelines are very important today. They have stood the test of time,” she added.
In fact those guidelines are still used to help women in the workplace today. I joked that she is a godmother of the #MeToo movement.
“I hope they understand that,” she laughed, quickly adding “No, the movement, it seems, deserves credit on its own, because it is using the guidelines.”
Passing on what she learned — precedent Norton helped set in the law — is a big part of who she is. For more than 30 years she taught at Georgetown Law School, which recently dedicated its green in her honor.
Since 1991, Norton has been DC’s delegate on Capitol Hill. She is a delegate because she can’t actually vote in Congress. For 15 terms, she has fought to change that — to make Washington, DC, a state so that District residents are fully represented in Congress. It is an uphill battle, to say the least. Republicans have long opposed approving what would surely be an additional Democratic seat in Congress, which says she fully understands.
“It would be a Democratic seat. If you put it straight to the American people, it’s interesting to know that most people think that the people who live in the nation’s capital already have the same rights that they have,” Norton said.
This fight for DC is a natural one for the now-82-year-old Norton, given her life’s work.
“Representing the District of Columbia, if I think about it, began when I was a child growing up in segregated Washington, fighting for equality in the city where I live, fighting for equality in the South, for people who look like me, fighting for equality as a woman at the EEOC, and now representing the city, which has the least equality in our country. Somehow it fits a pattern,” she said.
Back on DC’s U Street, I looked at a mural outside Ben’s Chili Bowl with African American leaders from DC and beyond. She is the centerpiece — wrapped in the DC flag.
“That’s the part I love,” she said smiling broadly.
After all, she is the great-granddaughter of a slave, who escaped a Virginia plantation and found work building DC.
Can you imagine, I mused to her, if you had a time machine and could tell your great-grandfather, a runaway slave, that his great-granddaughter represents DC in government?
Norton, looking wistful, replied simply, “I wish.”