The "Man" has been erased from the double glass doors that lead to the office of the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. It now simply announces "Chair."
It's a small but beginning sign of determination for Eleanor Holmes Norton, who a few days ago took over the government agency many say can't be managed.
"I try not to make what I am called a big matter, but people kept calling me and asking, 'How do you want to be addressed?' Well I decided if a title counts so much in Washington, I want to be 'Chair,'" she says, shaking from her laughter's heartiness but also from her dismay. "Chairwoman is sexist, chairman is too sexist and chair-person is a title men refuse to use. Now I have all these visions that people are thinking of a Chinese Revolution or a Russian purge. I've decided not to take offense at whatever I'm called."
In a way her first gesture underscores the purpose of the EEOC, created on July 1, 1965, to exterminate racial discrimination in employment, and which in recent years has added sexism to its concerns. Her other accomplishment so far has been to hold a staff meeting. "I was told there had never been one before," she says, ready to discuss the reputation of the beleaguered EEOC, a joke to some critics with its backlog of cases reaching into six figures and a merry-go-round of personnel, six chairmen and 10 executive directors in the first 11 years.
So arrives the seventh: a tall, straw-thin woman, blessed with a glowing, freckled complexion that is a fine canvas for striking brown eyes and an expressive, boldly outlined mouth. In contrast to the frailty of Norton's looks is the sharp tumble of her words and the hammering actions of her hands.
On paper, Norton's career sounds slightly eccentric. It makes sense for a women descended from a brash run away slave to be defending Muhammad Ali, Julian Bond and Adam Clayton Powell.
But a member of the last segregated class of Washington's Dunbar High School, a '60s revolutionary who once said anger against inequality motivated her, representing George Wallace and the National States Right Party? Arguing before the Warren Court and winning a unanimous decision for the group, which she calls a "splinter, fascist, racist party"? No.
"I worked as a First Amendment specialist. I found myself representing people who dare to say outrageous things, and, those people can be on the left side or the right side of the spectrum," says Norton, who last night was honored by the local chapter of the ACLU. "But black people got a real charge out of my defending Wallace, the fact that he had to come to a black woman for help."
Norton enjoyed the case, remembers Aryeh Neier, the executive director of the ACLU. "Wallace had been denied a permit to speak at Shea Stadium by the city of New York. And I went around the office to see who was available, the case had to be argued the next day. And Eleanor was very willing. The next day in court Wallace's campaign manager gulped at the sight of this black woman but Eleanor never stumbled."
Her legal experiences span the lifetime of the EEOC. However, its reputation plummeted.When hers ascended.Representatives of all the constituencies that have embraced Norton as a herione attended a lively reception sponsored by the local chapter of the ACLU last night on Capitol Hill.
Even those whose professional mandates aren't directly affected by Norton's appointment felt a need to show their support. Mel McCaw, director of the Afro-American Institute, said "One associates her name with such success. And now with black leaders - people like Charlie Diggs - under attack some of our influence might be lost. So it's very important to support those who have it."
Among the 400 guests was one person who held the job - Army Secretary Clifford Alexander, who quit the EEOC when Richard Nixon threatened to fire him - and one who wanted the job, Ronald Brown, deputy director of the National Urban League.
Still good friends, Brown called Norton a "tough sister." Other well-wishers included Reps. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.). Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) and Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), Barbara Watson of the State Department, EEOC commissioner Colston Lewis, Arthur Fletcher, former assistant secretary of Labor, City Councilman Marion Barry, Lynette Taylor of the Delta Cigma Theta Sorority, and John Risner, D.C. Corporation Counsel.
At the microphone Norton introduced her husband, and then her mother, Vela Holmes, a retired teacher. Referring to the lavish compliments about her accomplishments, Norton said."Despite the sense that I may be some kind of Amazon, I am a mere mortal. But I will control the backlog.
Her last appointment, seven years as the head of New York City's Commission on Human Rights, was actually a microcosm of the EEOC. "The EEOC has been called unmanageable, so has New York. Many of the worst problems at the EEOC are susceptible to leadership, direction and good management. What the EEOC needs is hard-headed and no-nonsense direction," she says.
Accomplishments for Norton, 40, have come in a very systematic way. Her husband, Edward Norton, who is the deputy general counsel for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, says she's motivated by her instinct to be involved and her objective concern about rights. "She's not looking for issues to ride through life with. She cares passionately about things and she's not looking for any self-aggrandizement but naturally her involvement attracts people to issues. But she never does things because of political expediency," says her husband.They have two children, Katherine, 7, and John, 5.
After Dunbar, She attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she picketed local barber shops and restaurants closed to blacks, and then went to Yale University Law School, where she roomed with Barbara Babcock, now an assistant attorney general.
Norton was a brilliant student, says Wiley Branton, a Washington attorney who once served as a moot court judge at Yale. "She stood out, it was that simple, and she talked at length about using the law as an instrument for social change," says Branton.
They weren't empty words. Barely a week after she passed the bar, she became one of the three attorneys who wrote the brief for the Misissippi Freedom Democratic Party, the black unit that challenged the regular party's leadership in 1964. Though their action was defeated, many of the party's later reforms were a direct result. After a year as a clerk for Judge A. Leon Higgenbotham in Philadelphia, she joined the ACLU. In 1970 she joined the administration of John V. Lindsay as the highest-ranking black woman.
In New York her aggressiveness brought her national attention, especially her representation of the women employees of Newsweek magazine and her mediating role in the Rosedale section of Queens, where a black family moving into a white ethnic neighborhood was bombed twice. In 1974, Time magazine named her one of the "200 Faces for the Future."
Looking back her less-publicized work at the the New York Commission has become a blueprint for her EEOC job. "Service delivery has to become a priority at the EEOC. Once the agency developed a body of civil rights guidelines, it didn't shift rapidly enough to delivery techniques," she says. "In New York we developed a case processing system that now doesn't have a backlog. Now 60 per cent of the cases are resolved in three month's time and almost half the people get some kind of remedies. That kind of success indicates that the EEOC will not be a nighmare."