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.