When D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton comes to mind for District residents, most think about her long tenure in the U.S. Congress.
However, some don’t know that before Norton won the 1990 general election to serve as the District’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representative, she had a substantial legal career that included being on the faculty of one of the nation’s most prestigious law schools.
Norton’s legal achievements, coupled with her congressional service, earned her a rare distinction on April 23: a dedicated outside space at the Georgetown University Law Center in her name.
The Norton installation stands as one of the few such honors at a predominantly White law school for a Black scholar.
“Eleanor Holmes Norton has been an extraordinary lawyer, teacher and advocate,” Georgetown President John J. DeGioia told a crowd of 100 in the area where the Norton installation will be built. “She has demonstrated what it means to live a life of service.”
Norton joined the faculty of the law center in 1982, teaching courses on such subjects as labor law, employment law and negotiation for lawyers. She taught classes part-time at the law school since becoming a member of the Congress, but retired last year.
Norton, a District native, graduated from Yale Law School in 1964, after receiving a master’s in American history from Yale University in 1963 and a bachelor’s degree from Antioch College in 1960. She worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement in the 1960s and was hired as the assistant legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1965.
Norton turned heads while at the ACLU when she argued and won before the Supreme Court the First Amendment rights case of the National States Rights Party, a White supremacist group. She also established herself as one of the country’s foremost feminists with her successful lawsuit against Newsweek magazine over its policy of not hiring female reporters before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The Newsweek victory was bought to the TV screen recently in the Amazon series “Good Girls Revolt,” with actress Joy Bryant portraying Norton.
In 1970, then-New York City Mayor John Lindsay appointed Norton as head of the New York City Human Rights Commission, where she used that platform to discuss sexual discrimination in the workplace and other areas. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed her as the first woman to lead the EEOC, where she wrote guidelines in employment that addressed sexual harassment and tried to significantly decrease a backlog of cases that had been around for years.
In November 1984, while teaching at Georgetown, Norton, TransAfrica’s Randall Robinson, scholar Mary Frances Berry and then-D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy demonstrated against apartheid at the South African embassy and received international attention.
Historians have credited this move as launching the successful movement for universities and university systems, pension funds, cities and states to divest funds from companies that do business with South Africa.
These actions, historians say, led to the release of political prisoner Nelson Mandela and his election as the first Black president of South Africa in 1994.
Meanwhile, Norton gained tenure at Georgetown, uncommon at the time for a scholar of color at a predominantly White law school. She also served on Fortune 500 boards of directors.
Norton expressed delight of being honored and confessed to being positively “stuck.”
“Stuck because [Georgetown] has already not only awarded me an honorary degree but given me the honor of delivering the commencement address just last year,” she said. “Stuck because Georgetown has already recognized me when I was awarded tenure, a prize without equal. As I often told my students, it was harder to get tenure than it was to get elected to Congress.”
Norton expressed her gratitude for the “deep thoughtfulness” that went into the design of the installation, adding that she is “grateful that my association with the law school and the law will not be forgotten.”