This week’s hero is fighting oppression with tenacity just as she has her entire career. Eleanor Holmes Norton is the Delegate to the House of Representatives from the District of Columbia, one of the most frustrating jobs in politics. Because DC is not a state, it is not constitutionally entitled to representation in Congress. As with Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands, it has a Delegate who can sit on committees and speak on the House Floor but not vote. Given that DC is also under the direct supervision of Congress, Norton’s job is doubly frustrating as she regularly watches bills that directly affect her constituents receive votes in which she cannot participate. It’s a situation that has been even harder to swallow this year.
A nasty anti-choice bill, HR3803, would ban all abortions in the District at 20 weeks with no exceptions for rape, incest, or health of the mother. Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ of course) has blocked Norton from testifying in the Judiciary Committee hearings on the bill. Despite the fact that the very people who would suffer from this misguided proposal specifically selected Norton to speak for them, Franks won’t allow it, probably because he knows how powerful and articulate Norton is, especially when opposed on her principles. Need I point out the lunacy that a man is making decisions about women’s health and not allowing a woman to have a voice?
Norton is co-founder of African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom and an outspoken defender of women’s rights. Rising into her career under the tutelage of pioneers like Medgar Evers and participating in the formative years of second wave feminism, she understands how to speak truth to power in a way that the petty dogma spewers deeply fear. And she’s not happy about being left out of the conversation.
Some are debating whether House Republicans have been engaging in a “war on women” in our country. What is not debatable is the fixation of the Republican majority on depriving the women of the District of the reproductive rights that all other Americans enjoy. This bill, however, is another abuse of power and denial of democratic rights. The committee, acting at the insistence of special interest organizations, is using District women to abet a national campaign to defy Roe v. Wade, the law of the land. Instead of introducing a nationwide post-20-week abortion ban, the campaign has taken the bill to conservative states and to Congress, but only for District women. […] H.R. 3803 is unprincipled twice over. As to the District, it is the first bill ever introduced in Congress that would deny constitutional rights to the citizens of only one jurisdiction in our country. It is also the first bill ever introduced in Congress that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Its application to District women is a cover for its underlying purpose: to undermine Roe v. Wade in other jurisdictions in the United States.
This is a woman who fought Newsweek’s “men-only” reporting policy in 1970 and won. She led the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Carter and crafted landmark regulations clearly defining sexual harassment as a form of discrimination. To test her own mettle as a free speech advocate, one of her first cases was defending an aggressively racist group, right up to the Supreme Court. She won, and reflects on the reasons for taking the case admirably:
I defended the First Amendment, and you seldom get to defend the First Amendment by defending people you like … You don’t know whether the First Amendment is alive and well until it is tested by people with despicable ideas. And I loved the idea of looking a racist in the face—remember this was a time when racism was much more alive and well than it is today—and saying, “I am your lawyer, sir, what are you going to do about that?”
If Rep. Franks thinks blocking this powerful woman from a committee is going to silence her, he has another thing coming.