Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is a living legend with more than 50 honorary degrees and a list of accomplishments the size of her beloved District of Columbia. One of the ways that Norton remains updated through her book club.
“I think the book that I enjoy is ‘On the Basis of Sex,’ about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg,” Norton said. “But, as far as having a favorite movie, television show or song, I don’t have time.” That’s because she’s busy fighting for the rights of her fellow Washingtonians.
It’s a battle she’s fought for nearly 30 years as the District’s representative in the House of Representatives.
“Certainly nothing can be more important than making the District a state and I don’t suppose that any member of Congress can do anything that’s more important,” said Norton, 81. “We are going to get a vote on statehood this time and I expect it to be successful in Congress. We’ll just have to see what happens in the Senate.”
Norton arrived in Congress in 1991.
Already a national figure known for her work during the civil rights movement, Norton arrived with a determination that others could easily see.
Her hard work helped to break barriers for Washington as she successfully fought for a bill that provided up to $10,000 annually for high school students in D.C. to attend any public U.S. college or university.
That bill also provided up to $2,500 per year for D.C. students to attend many private colleges and universities.
She also gained a unique $5,000 D.C. homebuyer tax credit for residents and helped stabilize the city’s population with various incentives during times of economic crisis.
Most of that was accomplished while Democrats sat in the minority.
“What really excites me is that for most of my time, I’ve been in the minority and now I’m subcommittee chair of the biggest subcommittee,” Norton said. “Being in the majority means I get to vote on the House Floor in the Committee of the Whole. This is very important for the District on its way to statehood,” she said.
The history of D.C. and her upbringing has kept Norton active and fighting, she said.
“I’m [was] born and raised in this segregated city without any Home Rule rights and no equal rights when the city was segregated,” Norton said. “I’m a third generation Washingtonian and I’m the great, great granddaughter of a runaway slave, so motivation is built into my DNA.”
As a child, Black History Month was known as Negro History Week, but the importance of the observance is hard to lose when you are a child of the District, she said.
“Washington had slavery and it wasn’t liberated until just before the Civil War. So, the Black part of things is that it’s a major part of the life of my country,” Norton said.
“Women’s History Month is likewise because I had parents who encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be. I’m fortunate enough to be at the birth of the Women’s Rights Movement. It means that [she and her two sisters] have been a part of the most important movements of the 20th century,” she said.
Each movement arrived when she was a young woman so she feels that happenstance being a part of both movements of freedom, Norton said.
Along with the many battles still ahead, Norton has also tackled the issue of federal agencies and how they spend their combined more than $5 billion advertising budget.
She said she’s gathered co-sponsors for a bill that will require all agencies in the government to produce their spending reports and detail what they have spent and will spend with Black-owned newspapers and media companies.
“I introduced it the last session, but it’s a new session and [Democrats] are in the majority so there’s a difference,” Norton said, adding that she remains amazed at how Black newspapers – particularly in a major city like Washington – have been able to thrive.
“You just wouldn’t know what’s really going on if you didn’t have the Black Press of America,” Norton said.
“That’s why I asked for a Government Accountability Office report to detail what federal agencies spend with the Black Press. My legislation will make the government lead by example in advertising with the Black Press and make them more conscious of their obligations.
“That’s why I push it the way I am pushing it now,” she said.
For Norton, it all syncs with a motto she adopted from the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” Norton said, quoting that famous document.
“What I love is the saying, ‘self-evident.’ Take a moment and think about that saying. I do,” she said.