While our physical offices are closed until further notice in accordance with Austin's COVID-19 "stay home-work safe" order, the Handbook of Texas will remain available at no-cost for you, your fellow history enthusiasts, and all Texas students currently mandated to study from home. If you have the capacity to help us maintain our online Texas history resources during these uncertain times, please consider making a 100% tax-deductible contribution today. Thank you for your support of TSHA and Texas history. Donate Today »


Emily Rebecca Bowles
Dorothy Gillis Gurley Cauthorn (1924–2007).
Photo of Dorothy Gillis Gurley taken for her term in the Fifty-third Legislature. Image courtesy of the Legislative Reference Library of Texas and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

GURLEY, DOROTHY GILLIS (1924–2007). Dorothy Gillis Gurley (later Dorothy Gillis Cauthorn), first woman elected to the Texas House of Representatives from District 87, was born in Del Rio, Texas, on March 14, 1924, to Roger Gillis, a county judge and rancher, and Willie (Schiller) Gillis. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in June 1944. On October 17, 1944, at the Gillis’s home, she married Charles Robert “Bob” Gurley, then a lieutenant in the U. S. Army Air Forces stationed at Bergstrom Field (later Bergstrom Air Force Base) near Austin. He had previously completed a tour of duty in the Pacific during World War II. She briefly attended law school, where she ran for student government office, before her husband was transferred out of Texas. On December 9, 1946, she gave birth to a daughter, Susan, in Del Rio.

In 1950 twenty-six-year-old Gurley ran for the District 87 seat in the Texas House of Representatives. She was one of at least five women, all members of the Democratic party, who ran for state legislative seats that year. Her interest in serving in government stemmed from her experience in law school and from her family’s history in public office. Her grandfather, Walter Gillis, served as state district judge, while her father served as a county judge and her brother, also named Walter Gillis, served as a county commissioner in Val Verde County. With the help of her parents, husband, and four-year-old daughter, she campaigned door-to-door in five counties and defeated two men in the Democratic primary to win the general election. She joined Neveille Colson and Virginia Duff as the only women in the Fifty-second legislature. Two years later she won her second term without opposition, and was one of five women, joined by newcomers Anita Lee Blair and Maud Isaacks, in the Fifty-third legislature. She was the only female legislator in that session who was married or had a child.

As with other woman legislators, Dorothy’s appearance and gender were often-included details in media coverage of her political activities. She was described in the Palacios Beacon as “a campus beauty and an outstanding student at the University of Texas.” While the legislature was in session, the family lived in Austin. During her second term, Dorothy was chairman of the Water Conservation and Reclamation Committee as well as a member of four other committees. As the committee chair, she handled approximately sixty bills in one session and authored a bill that quadrupled the size of ponds that landowners could build on their land without a water board permit.

Although Gurley contemplated running for a third term, she ultimately decided not to run again because her daughter had started school, and she preferred to stay at home on the family’s ranch. She remained politically active, however, by serving on the state Democratic executive committee and in the fall of 1958 was appointed by Texas House Speaker Jim Lindsey to serve on the Credentials Subcommittee of the state Democratic executive committee. On May 5, 1959, she gave birth to her second child, Robert Gillis Gurley. In 1963 she led Val Verde County ranchers, disgruntled over a sharp increase in grassland tax valuations, to organize to increase their representation on the county’s equalization board. In a contentious fight, Gurley became the chair of the Val Verde County Democratic Executive Committee in February 1972 and remained in that position until she resigned in December 1983.

Dorothy’s husband died on August 11, 1970. On June 22, 1984, she married Virgil Cauthorn, a rancher in the area. In 1975 when her daughter, Susan Gurley McBee, won election to the Texas House of Representatives for District 70, Dorothy and Susan became the first and, as of 2020, the only mother and daughter to have both served in the Texas legislature. While Susan was away for legislative business, her son, James Robert McBee, often lived with Dorothy. Virgil Cauthorn died on May 3, 2000. Dorothy Gillis Gurley Cauthorn died on January 3, 2007, in Del Rio. Her funeral service was held at St. James Episcopal Church, where she had been an active member throughout her life. She was buried at Westlawn Cemetery in Del Rio, as were both of her husbands.


Austin Statesman, March 17, 1954. Corsicana Daily Sun, June 11, 1953. Del Rio News Herald, October 18, 1944; October 7, 1956; January 17, 1963; February 8, 1972; January 2, 1977; June 5, 1986; December 3, 2007. Denton Record Chronicle, June 14, 1953. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 19, 1950; August 21, 1958. Nancy Baker Jones and Ruthe Winegarten, Capitol Women: Texas Female Legislators, 1923–1999 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010). Legislative Reference Library of Texas: Dorothy Gillis Gurley (https://lrl.texas.gov/legeLeaders/members/memberDisplay.cfm?memberID=1215&searchparams=chamber=~city=~countyID=0~RcountyID=~district=~first=~gender=~last=gurley~leaderNote=~leg=~party=~roleDesc=~Committee=), accessed April 20, 2010. Palacios Beacon, January 24, 1951.

Image Use Disclaimer

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Emily Rebecca Bowles , "GURLEY, DOROTHY GILLIS ," accessed July 12, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fgu39.

Uploaded on May 9, 2020. Modified on May 11, 2020. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
visit the mytsha forums to participate

View these posts and more when you register your free MyTSHA account.

Call for Papers: Texas Center for Working-Class Studies Events, Symposia, and Workshops
Hi all! You may be interested in this call for papers I received from the Texas Center for Working-Class Studies at Collin College...

Katy Jennings' Ride Scholarly Research Request
I'm doing research on Catherine Jennings Lockwood, specifically the incident known as "Katy Jennings' Ride." Her father was Gordon C. Jennings, the oldest man to die at the Alamo...

Texas Constitution of 1836 Co-Author- Elisha Pease? Ask a Historian
The TSHA profile of Elisha Marshall Pease states that he wrote part of the Texas Constitution although he was only a 24 year-old assistant secretary (not elected). I cannot find any other mention of this authorship work by Pease in other credible research about the credited Constution authors...