For a quarter-century, D.C. residents have known Eleanor Holmes Norton as the no-vote delegate to Congress who can’t manage to turn the District into the 51st state.
But recently, the world has gotten a glimpse of the consciousness-raising civil rights attorney she embodied in the 1970s when she represented female Newsweek researchers in their quest for equal rights at work.
Per tradition, the women toiled behind the scenes, with no chance for advancement, only to hand their work over to male reporters who reaped the bylines and the glory.
In the 10-episode Amazon series “Good Girls Revolt” — as in real life — Norton (D) revealed the trouble with that arrangement. It was not merely unfair; it was illegal.
She filed the first class-action gender-discrimination case and sparked a wave of similar lawsuits at media companies across the country.
Wherever Norton goes these days, people can’t stop bringing up the show and her former life as a fiery, feminist attorney with something to prove.
Just don’t ask her for a selfie.
“When people say, ‘Oh, my God — is that Eleanor Holmes Norton?’ ” she wailed, “I say, ‘No, it’s just Eleanor,’ ” she said, switching to a calmer tone.
She is flattered by her small-screen self, played by Joy Bryant — “Boy, I should have been that pretty” — but the formidable 79-year-old cautioned against hero worship. People who are easily star-struck can be easily duped, she said.
As she sees it, President-elect Donald Trump would never have won the election were it not for his star turn as an overblown authoritarian on “The Apprentice.”
“I associate overadmiration of figures that one sees in the media with too little ability to think for yourself and be critical of people,” she said.
Norton reflected on the show, her life and the state of politics this past week in her office on Capitol Hill, where she has represented the District since 1991 as its nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives.
Her office is filled with black-and-white photographs of her native Washington.
The images include her grandfather, Richard Holmes, the son of a runaway slave from Virginia and one of the city’s first African American firefighters. There’s Norton with her two younger sisters. And a sign proclaiming the District the “Last Colony.”
The recent attention from the Amazon series has sent Norton back in time.
In the show, $2 would buy six packs of cigarettes, and it’s taken as a compliment when a hotshot male reporter tells a female researcher, “You’re pretty cute when you get a scoop.”
“Strange,” Norton said. “Strange, strange, strange, strange, carrying me this far back in my life. But I always like to think there was life before Congress.”
The series — she has seen most but not all of the episodes — portrays her as a pregnant attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who sports Pucci print dresses and an Afro.
After an initial encounter with Norton, one dumbfounded female character says to another, “She’s terrifying.”
Asked how her conversations with the Newsweek “Dollies,” as they were known, really went down, Norton laughed and said she knew instantly that the case was a slam dunk.
The women were not so sure. She had to convince the group, Phi Beta Kappas and Rhodes scholars among them, to overcome their fear of losing their jobs or being blacklisted and to sue their bosses for gender discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Slowly, she was able “to sow together that courage, woman to woman, until it stuck,” she said. That’s where the first season ended.
In truth, Norton said she flummoxed the male magazine executives — and Katharine Graham, then the publisher of The Washington Post, which owned Newsweek — at their first meeting and gained the upper hand.
“The Newsweek men — this is a liberal publication — seeing me of child, behaved toward me as I think they would not have a male adversary,” said Norton, who was five months pregnant with her daughter at the time. “They rushed to get me a seat. And the chair sets me up higher than they, looking down.” She giggled recalling the story.
The real negotiations led to a settlement within weeks and another successful legal challenge a few years later that resulted in requirements that the magazine promote women.
The fictional turning point comes late in the series, when the actress who plays her leans in toward two defendants and says: “I didn’t take this case just to change your lives for the better. I took this case to make some damn noise and change the world.”
Norton traces the seeds of her determination back to childhood. The oldest of three girls, she was expected to take charge.
Sent to the Safeway alone for the first time at 7 years old, she admonished the butcher to replace a puny pork chop with a bigger one. Her grandmother bragged to friends about the little girl’s gumption, and Norton’s confidence soared. Still, she had a way to go.
She graduated from Dunbar High School, founded in 1870 as the country’s first public high school for black students. When Norton attended in the 1950s, it was a premier school in the African American community with alumni that included historians, artists, civil rights activists, doctors and scientists.
Upon graduation from Antioch College in Ohio, Norton applied for a full ride to New York University School of Law, but she was turned down because the scholarship was reserved for men. It never occurred to her to make a fuss.
“I just said, ‘Oh, shucks. I wouldn’t have wasted my time,’ ” she said.
At Yale University, she earned a master’s degree in American studies and a law degree as one of two black law students. The other was Marian Wright Edelman, who went on to found the Children’s Defense Fund.
A summer spent registering voters in Mississippi with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee ignited Norton’s instinct to fight — even if that meant helping people whose ideas were abhorrent to her.
“Lest you think I always represented the good girls,” Norton said.
At the ACLU in the late 1960s, she represented white supremacists denied the right to hold a rally in Maryland and the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace after New York City Mayor John Lindsay blocked him from giving a speech.
“I relished the opportunity to show that the First Amendment is vital by representing someone I disagreed with,” she said.
After that, Lindsay named her head of New York City’s Commission on Human Rights, President Jimmy Carter appointed her the first woman to lead the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and she became a law professor at Georgetown University.
Despite the gains in civil rights and women’s rights in those years, Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential election in November was a blow to Norton and other women pushing for pay equity. To them, Trump’s win was the ultimate affront.
“The misogyny that was in that campaign was so overwhelming that the notion that there would be Americans who would vote for him just seemed far-fetched,” she said.
The new administration, coupled with a GOP-controlled House and Senate, ushers in what she called the most perilous time for the District since she took office. Without a Democrat in the White House, there’s no backstop to congressional action against the city, she said.
But Norton is hopeful, noting that she found an unlikely ally in then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s. He allowed the District to get out from under billions in pension debt, and he endorsed university tuition and first-time homebuyer grants still in place today.
“I just formed a relationship with him,” she said. “I don’t pretend that I’ll form a relationship with Donald Trump, but I’ve got to find members I can work with here to save my people from being thrown over.”
(Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)