A Champion for the Working Class

Mary (Hopkins) Norton was born in New Jersey in 1875. After her mother died, she became the housekeeper for her family. She attended business college and worked as a secretary. The death of her week-old son changed her life in a positive way although it would take time for her to realize what an impact it had.

Mary began working at a nursey to overcome her grief. In a short period of time she became president of the nursery and its chief fundraiser. It was through her fundraising that she got to know the political establishment of New Jersey.

With the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the political boss in New Jersey encouraged Mary to enter politics, largely to curry favor with women voters. Eventually Mary ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, winning with 62% of the vote. She continued to serve in the House for 11 consecutive terms.

Mary let the male representatives know that she would be a force that they had to deal with. She did the unthinkable by introducing a bill in her first term. As her time in office gave her seniority she would become chief of four committees: Labor, District of Columbia, Memorials and Administration. She was known as Battling Mary for her grit and determination.

Mary was a forceful advocate for working families and veterans. Some of her notable achievements included:

  • Funding for the first veteran’s hospital in New Jersey
  • Survivor benefits for mothers who lost sons in World War I
  • Support for the National Labor Relations Act giving labor unions legal status
  • Fought against the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, one of the major contributors to the Great Depression
  • Fought against Prohibition and advocated the repeal of the 18th Amendment
  • Fought for the elimination of the poll tax

Mary was no feminist and opposed the Equal Rights Amendment but advocated for efforts to end discrimination against women. She also fought those who sought to promote gender differences.

The crowning achievement of Mary’s was the passage of the Far Labor and Standards Act (FLSA). Mary’s committee developed a package of labor practice reforms including such things as an eight-hour workday, payment of overtime, restrictions on child labor, minimum wage, and maximum work hours. The legislative proposals from her committee were rejected by the Rules Committee, made up of conservative Democrats. Mary took an unprecedented step of bypassing the Rules Committee to bring the legislation to a full house vote. It failed. Undaunted, Mary tried again, and this time the legislation passed by a wide margin. The year was 1938.

At age 75, Mary chose to retire from Congress. She passed away in 1959, at the age of 84.

Few people know of Mary Norton today, but everyone is impacted by her work in Congress. What does that say about our society when persons with great achievements in their life fade into obscurity while grandstanders who never achieve anything of purpose make the headlines?

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“I am no lady, I’m a member of Congress, and I’ll proceed on that basis.” – Mary Norton in response to a colleague who referred to her as a lady.


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