Congresswoman Mary T. Norton was one of Jersey City's most influential political figures, perhaps except for Mayor Frank Hague. Service and loyalty to her party, mentor, and constituents marked Norton's long political career. It ran parallel to Hague's control of Jersey City and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's national leadership through the Depression and World War II. Known as a "New Dealer," Norton gained prominence as a legislator who championed the cause of poor working women, especially in her Hudson County congressional district.
Norton was born in Jersey City in 1875, the eldest daughter of Irish immigrants Thomas Hopkins, a construction worker, and Maria (Shea) Hopkins, a homemaker. She attended a local parochial school, but she did not complete her elementary education in consideration of her family's financial situation, a fact not revealed during her lifetime. She pursued an informal education at home with the assistance of her brother James. The family resources were reserved for James to be educated for the priesthood--not an uncommon sacrifice for daughters in Roman Catholic families of the times. James Hopkins did not become a priest but the principal of Dickinson High School (then the High School of Jersey City) and later the Superintendent of Schools in Jersey City.
Norton's mother died when she was seventeen. When her father remarried, Norton and her two sisters, Anne and Loretta, moved to an apartment in New York City, attended Packard Business College for secretarial training (1896), and worked in clerical positions to support themselves.
In 1909, Norton married Robert Francis Norton, a widower with two children (raised by his mother) who managed a cooperage firm in Jersey City. Their only son, Robert, died in infancy the following year. To adjust to the fact that she would be childless, she turned to public service and volunteer work. In 1912, she helped launch the "Queen's Daughter's Day Nursery," a nonsectarian day-care center at St. Joseph's R.C. Church basement. From her years in the workforce, she knew the concerns of working women for their children and worked on their behalf at the nursery for fifteen years, three as secretary and twelve as president. During World War I years, she also organized a Red Cross workroom for women in the parish hall basement.
Norton's social activism at St. Joseph's ran parallel to the national suffrage movement in which she was not involved. She was not opposed to suffrage for women, but, at the time, politics was not in her sphere of interest. Mayor Hague would soon help her dispel that notion.
In 1920, after the suffrage amendment was passed, Hague was determined to recruit women to the Democratic Party. Hague had met Norton years earlier when she requested funds for the daycare center--and he was impressed. If she could translate that drive from her social work to the political organization of women in the Democratic Party, his future in Jersey City, Hudson County, and New Jersey would be assured. Norton was overwhelmed by the offer but humbly recommended that a woman identified with the suffrage movement might better serve in the role. Norton eventually accepted the challenge and organized women to participate actively in the Democratic Party.
Progressing in her political career, with Hague's support, Norton became the first woman member of the Democratic State Committee. In 1923, she was elected the first Democratic woman freeholder (now commissioner) in New Jersey on the Hudson County Board of Freeholders (now Commissioners). Norton obtained the Board's approval of a county-funded maternity hospital in Jersey City, a project of great interest to "Boss" Hague. Her interest in the hospital was that the infant mortality rate in Hudson County in 1923 was 212 per 1000 births (Norton Ms). Hague counseled her for a gradualist approach to win over the Board. Hague's strategy and his behind-the-scenes support gave Norton a successful passage of her proposal. With its approval, the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital, named after Hague's mother, was begun. Hague then asked Norton to become the first woman member of the Democratic State Committee, on which she served until 1944.
A Woman in the House
In 1924, with Hague's encouragement, Norton became a candidate for the House of Representatives from New Jersey's Twelfth Congressional District (Bayonne and Jersey City). The elections that year were slated to be a Republican sweep nationally, but Norton believed that the women she had met throughout the community would come out to support hers. She won the election by a plurality of 17,000 votes over her opponent, an astonishing victory for the time, even in a Democratic stronghold. She was the first woman Democratic elected to Congress from an eastern state and represented her district from 1925 to 1951 or thirteen successive terms. When elected in 1924, Norton lived at 90 Reservoir Avenue in Jersey City.
During her tenure, Norton served her constituents well. She was the chair of three Congressional Committees, Veterans Affairs, the District of Columbia, and Labor. She obtained funds for the first veterans' hospital in New Jersey, championed home rule for the District of Columbia, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established minimum wage rates for workers in interstate commerce. In 1932, Norton led the Democrats in Congress for the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment for Prohibition and called the "Noble Experiment" a mistake.
As the Depression progressed, Norton sought New Deal funds to alleviate the unemployment crises in her district, a significant issue for Hague. On March 23, 1936, he wrote to Norton about additional funding for the enlargement of the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital: "I want you to take this matter to Harry Hopkins [Director of the Works Progress Administration] yourself and stay with it until you put it over." He adds: "I know of your interest in this hospital; you are the one who introduced the resolution in the Board of Freeholders that created it. It would be a nice thing if you were to finish the job by obtaining approval for this project. The other is for a Nurses' Home, to house the nurses for the Maternity Hospital and the Hudson County Tuberculosis Hospital [Pollak], which is now nearing completion" (Norton Ms.).
Hague's requests to Norton for more money for the Medical Center from Congress continued until after 1939 but brought no results over concerns about the "impending war" in Europe. Norton's pursuit of a loan contract for low-rent housing in Jersey City in 1939, however, met with Roosevelt's approval, and the city received an award of a $3,090,000 loan from the Federal Works Agency.
As Hague predicted, Norton was a good role model for women in politics. She advocated the full participation of women as voters, party members, political candidates, and at all levels of government. For Norton, women's political activism was not an issue of women's rights but women's rightful place in American democracy. True to her Roman Catholic background and constituency, she nonetheless voted against the proposed Gillette Bill for federal funding to disseminate birth control information.
During World War II, she sought federal funds for daycare centers for working women under the Lanham Act. She never forgot her volunteer work in Jersey City and the problems she witnessed of working women with children. She identified the issues of maternity leave, child care, "latchkey" children, displaced homemakers, and equal pay for equal work among her legislative concerns. Consistent with this position, Norton opposed Alice Paul's proposal for an Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution, claiming it would result in the loss of protective work laws for women.
In recognition of her work, Mary Norton received many honors. On August 24, 1942, Mayor Hague proclaimed August 26, 1942, as "Mary Norton Day," celebrated at Roosevelt Stadium, before a baseball game, with thousands in attendance. She received a gold watch from Mayor Hague. He complimented Mary Norton "For her loyalty to the President [Roosevelt] and to the people" (Norton Papers). At the time, she was the only Democratic representative from New Jersey and the dean of the New Jersey Congressional delegation.
It has long been debated whether Norton's work in Congress was independent of Hague or she was there to do his bidding. Throughout her career, Norton denied interference from Hague and the supposition that she was in daily contact with him. She claimed that, as a new member of Congress, she once asked Hague how to vote on an issue. He responded, "You're on the spot. If I didn't think you had brains, I wouldn't have sent you." (Norton Ms.) To the end of her career, Norton was loyal to Hague, whom she called her "political foster father," and to the Democratic Party. In many instances, Norton's legislative agenda for her constituents transcended those of Hague, and her legislative successes benefited Hague's constituents.
In 1951, Norton retired from the House of Representatives at age seventy-five. It closely marked the end of the Hague regime in Hudson County. Norton sold her residence at 90 Reservoir Avenue in 1926. Upon her retirement, she moved from 2400 Hudson (now Kennedy) Boulevard to Greenwich, Connecticut, where she died at age eighty-four on August 2, 1959.
In 1996, Hudson County Community College at Pathside (now intended for the Pompidou Centre at Journal Square) dedicated one of its conference rooms to Mary Norton. To celebrate Women's History Month in March 2004, an official portrait of Norton was hung in the office of House of Representative Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The Mary Norton Manor, a 45-unit workforce housing project at 23-25 Duncan Avenue, is named for the long-time congresswoman from Jersey City.
Choen, Robert. "Jersey's ' Fighting Mary' Reclaims Place of Honor." Star-Ledger 19 March 2004.
Karnoutsos, Carmela A., "Mary T. Norton." Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women by Women's Project of New Jersey Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1990.
"Mary Norton, 84, Legislator, Dead." New York Times 3 August 1959.
Norton, Mary T. Papers. New Jersey Collection, Alexander Library, Rutgers, the State University.