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NORRELL, Catherine Dorris

NORRELL, Catherine Dorris
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives


Having worked alongside her husband, William Frank Norrell, as his legislative assistant for three decades, Catherine D. Norrell succeeded him as an Arkansas Representative in a special election after his death. Her experience as a congressional wife and aide helped to prepare her for new legislative responsibilities. But Norrell was confronted by an almost insuperable barrier to her re-election, as reapportionment carved up her southeastern Arkansas district between two powerful incumbents.

Catherine Dorris was born on March 30, 1901, in Camden, Arkansas. Her father, William Franklin Dorris, was an itinerant Baptist preacher, and he moved his wife, Rose Whitehead Dorris, and their family from congregation to congregation in Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Catherine attended Ouachita Baptist College in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, and the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, training as an accomplished pianist and organist. Before her 1922 marriage to William Norrell, a World War I veteran and Monticello, Arkansas, lawyer, Catherine Dorris was a music teacher and director at the music department of Arkansas A & M College. The Norrells raised one daughter, Julia Jean, nicknamed Judy. After eight years in the Arkansas state senate, William Norrell was elected to the U.S. House in November 1938—the first of 12 consecutive terms representing a southeastern Arkansas district. He would eventually become the sixth-ranking Democrat on the powerful Appropriations Committee and chairman of its Legislative Appropriations Subcommittee.1 During her husband’s tenure in Little Rock and in the U.S. House, Catherine Norrell worked as his unpaid assistant, learning the details of the legislative process. She also served as president of the Congressional Wives Club and was a close friend of Hattie Wyatt Caraway, the Arkansas Senator and first woman elected to the U.S. Senate.

Reapportionment after the 1960 Census cost Arkansas two of its six House seats. William Norrell’s district was carved into two parts, the first being lumped into a northeastern district represented by Wilbur Daigh Mills, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. The bulk of the Norrell’s old district, including his home county, was placed into the district represented by Democrat Oren Harris, a formidable, 20-year incumbent who chaired the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Norrell, who claimed Harris was behind the redistricting effort, vowed to fight him in the 1962 Democratic primary for a seat in a new district which spanned the southern half of the state.2 He never got that chance. On February 15, 1961, William Norrell died a few days after being discovered unconscious in his office; he had suffered a stroke. Arkansas Democratic leaders soon approached Catherine Norrell to fill the vacancy in a special election. Like many widows running for their husbands’ seats, Norrell campaigned on the promise of continuing her husband’s policies. Her daughter Judy, on leave from George Washington University Law School, managed the campaign. Norrell’s slogan was direct: “Keep Your Congressional Power Up! Elect Mrs. W. F. Norrell … the Only Candidate Prepared to Step In.”3 She faced four Democratic men in the campaign, including the top contender, John Harris Jones, a young attorney from Pine Bluff. Jones attacked Norrell for attempting to claim two congressional salaries, one as a widow receiving survivor’s compensation and one as a Member were she to be elected. But his efforts to undercut wide sympathy for Norrell were to no avail. In the special election held on April 18, 1961, Norrell prevailed with 43 percent of the vote to 25 percent for Jones and 23 percent for M. C. Lewis.4

Catherine Norrell took the oath of office on April 25, 1961, and received an assignment on the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. Despite her experience as a congressional wife, her new duties seemed daunting. She admitted to President John F. Kennedy during a conversation, “Having the responsibility squarely on your shoulders is not quite the same as watching someone else do it.”5 Also clouding the issue was the decision Norrell would soon have to face about challenging Oren Harris in the 1962 primary, a decision that hinged on her ability to raise sufficient finances.

Once in office, Catherine Norrell concentrated her legislative efforts on the promotion of economic prosperity in her district. She was especially interested in protecting the area’s clay, textile, and lumber industries through tariffs and other government controls. In August 1961, Norrell supported a bill that eased Internal Revenue Service efforts to collect retroactive taxes from businesses in the clay brick and tile industry.6 A month later, Norrell joined with Representative Cleveland Monroe Bailey of West Virginia in insisting that the Kennedy administration was not adequately protecting American industry under the framework of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. Norrell complained particularly that the wood product industry in her district suffered from a reduction in U.S. tariff rates that foreign countries had failed to reciprocate.7

Norrell used her new prominence to acknowledge the contributions women had made to American political life. In May 1961, she sponsored a joint resolution calling for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, a measure long stuck in the House Judiciary Committee.8 In August 1961, to commemorate the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the right to vote, Norrell told colleagues that the Arkansas state constitutional convention in 1868 considered a measure to grant the vote to “all citizens, 21 years of age.” Arkansas also had been home to Catherine Campbell Cunningham, editor of the Woman’s Chronicle, a weekly newspaper that agitated for women’s suffrage. “Woman’s place in public life has evolved slowly,” Norrell observed. The Nineteenth Amendment, which followed various state suffrage initiatives, “was the result of a lengthy crusade in which thousands of persons endeavored to convince the public that the franchise should not be restricted to men.”9

Norrell also supported the Kennedy administration’s Cold War policies. She cast her first vote in Congress on behalf of a foreign aid bill to Latin American countries, despite feeling that it went “almost against my own conscience.” Norrell believed her husband would have voted for the measure, too, though she vowed: “I expect in the future my vote will be more conservative than liberal.”10 She sponsored legislation prohibiting interstate and foreign commerce in goods imported into the United States from Cuba. In July 1962, she marked “Captive Nations Week,” recalling her piano idol, the Polish musician-statesman Jan Paderewski, whose remains were interred at Arlington National Cemetery until, as he had wished, Poland was freed from Soviet occupation.11

Even as she was elected in April 1961, Norrell faced the impending reapportionment. Political, familial, and, most importantly, financial considerations convinced her not to challenge Harris. Her decision was influenced, ironically, by her campaign manager, daughter Judy, who was concerned about the stress the hotly contested campaign would have on her mother. Judy Norrell explained that she did not want “to lose two parents to the political scene of things.… I was of the opinion she should not run—which I think she always regretted.”12 Privately, Catherine Norrell told friends that she could not afford to challenge Harris. Upon her retirement, Catherine Norrell told her House colleagues, “This has been the most challenging and interesting experience of my life. Never having expected to serve in elective office of any kind, I feel a deep sense of gratitude to the people of the Sixth Congressional District.”13

Shortly after Norrell left Congress, President Kennedy named her as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, a post she held from 1963 to 1965. When President Lyndon B. Johnson won election to a full term, he appointed Norrell the director of the State Department’s reception center in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she served from 1965 to 1969. Upon her arrival at the post, reporters cornered Norrell to remind her that her husband had voted against Hawaii’s statehood in the 1950s. “But that was my husband and not me,” she replied. “I’m delighted to be here.”14 Norrell stayed in Hawaii for most of her retirement, employed as a church musician, before returning to her hometown of Monticello, Arkansas. She died in Warren, Arkansas, on August 26, 1981.15


1“Rep. Norrell Dead; Served 22 Years,” 17 February 1961, Washington Post: B8; “Rep. W.F. Norrell of Arkansas Dead,” 16 February 1961, New York Times: 31.

2“Rep. Norrell Dead; Served 22 Years”; Congressional Record, House, 87th Cong., 2nd sess. (13 October 1962): 23547.

3Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 286.

4Michael J. Dubin, United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1998): 629; Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 287.

5Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 288.

6Congressional Record, House, 87th Cong., 1st sess. (21 August 1961): 16532.

7Congressional Record, House, 87th Cong., 1st sess. (14 September 1961): 19569.

8Congressional Record, House, 87th Cong., 1st sess. (9 May 1961): 7686.

9Congressional Record, House, 87th Cong., 1st sess. (28 August 1961): 17272–17273.

10“Lobbying Ladies Bend 320 Ears,” 28 April 1961, Washington Post: C1.

11Congressional Record, House, 87th Cong., 2nd sess. (16 July 1962): 13713–13714.

12Phyllis D. Brandon, “Julia J. Norrell: Judy Norrell’s Art Collection Documents the Good and Bad Days of the South; She Can Also Reflect on the Good and Bad of Arkansas Politics,” 18 February 2001, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock): D1.

13Congressional Record, House, 87th Cong., 2nd sess. (13 October 1962): 23547.

14Brandon, “Julia J. Norrell.”

15“Catherine Norrell, 80, Was Official of State Department, Legislator,” 29 August 1981, Washington Post: B6.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of Arkansas Libraries
Special Collections,

Fayetteville, AR
Papers: 1932-1981, 39 boxes. The collection contains some personal materials, including correspondence between Catherine Norrell and her husband, William Frank, as well as with their daughter. The bulk of the collection relates to the professional lives of the Catherine and William Frank Norrell. The collection contains a wide range of materials, including letters, funeral memorials, scrapbooks, maps, and photographs. In addition to materials relating to her career in Congress, the collection includes speeches made by Mrs. Norrell and materials relating to her activities as president of the Congressional Club. There are also materials dating from Catherine Norrell's tenure with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, consisting of files accumulated during her trip to Europe and the Middle East in 1963. There are also materials relating to flood control in Arkansas. A finding aid is available in the repository and online.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Catherine D. Norrell" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Post Office and Civil Service
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